Welcome home to a place where you've never been
June 30, 2013
Anytime I enter a place where my Jewish Renewal community has gathered, it feels like coming home.
Part of that is the experience of seeing old friends and beloved teachers (many of whom are now old friends, too!) And that makes sense. I spent a few years going to every ALEPH retreat I could afford while I was in the discernment process about the rabbinic ordination program. I wanted to meet teachers and students and deans and ask questions and begin to suss out whether this was the right place for me (and whether they felt I was the right kind of candidate to apply.)
And then there were the five-plus years of fulltime rabbinic school, when I saw these folks at least twice a year for intensive one- or two-week-long residencies, and for programs like DLTI, and in between those times I took classes every week via teleconference (and davened via teleconference for a while, too!) and did hevruta learning via Skype and and and and. Some of the deepest and most intense learning I've ever done, I've done with these friends. These people are an intimate part of my life in all of those ways. The reason it feels like a family reunion is that it is one.
But I've had this feeling of coming-home to Jewish Renewal since my very first retreat at the old Elat Chayyim, back when I didn't know anyone here at all. Probably since the first time I sat down at a meal with strangers, and they smiled at me and welcomed me and wanted to know my story (Jewish and otherwise) and what had drawn me to that place. Certainly since my first Jewish Renewal shacharit service the next morning, in the white yurt, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor, learning my first liturgical chants, unaccountably moved at the sight of women wearing tefillin.
Have you ever heard anyone say "Welcome home to a place where you've never been?" That was how it felt for me, the first time I gathered with my Jewish Renewal chevre. Here were people who cared about Judaism, who cared about God, who blended the passionate God-focus of Hasidism with the kind of feminism and social justice underpinnings I hold dear. I struggle to describe it; ultimately it's a feeling, an experience. I have always been quirky, spiritual, different. From the moment I first set foot in a Jewish Renewal retreat setting, I could tell that I wasn't alone. I knew that I had found my spiritual tribe.
I remember a conversation with my mother at Pearlstone a few years ago, when I was still a rabbinic student, when our son was an infant and my mother had come with me to a rabbinic student intensive to provide childcare while I was learning. Midway through that week, I remember her turning to me, and saying, with some wonderment, "I think everyone here is a spiritual seeker!" It's most true in the ordination programs, of course; no one goes through the rigors of rabbinic school (or cantorial school, or the rabbinic pastor program) without a powerful spiritual motivation. But I think it's true across the board at Jewish Renewal gatherings, or at least it tends to be.
The Kallah moves around every two years, so each time it happens, it's convenient for someone. This year, it's convenient for me. Two years ago we were in California; this year we're a scant two and a half hours from my house. In assiyah, the world of physicality, I haven't traveled very far at all. But in the worlds of emotion and spirit, I've tessered into that magical space where everyone smiles at strangers, where conversations about prayer and mysticism don't draw a raised brow from anyone, where shouting "Hello, rabbi!" causes people all over the room to turn around. Into this space where, as soon as we're all together again, it's as though we had never been apart at all.