Capstone of my Kallah: Kabbalat Shabbat with Nava Tehila


The absolute highlight of my week: Kabbalat Shabbat with Nava Tehila.

My week at Kallah had a lot of highlights. Teaching was one of them -- getting to spend a week teaching some of my favorite classical midrashim (interpretive stories) and creating a safe container within which students could write and share their own midrash. Co-leading shacharit on Thursday morning was another -- Rabbi David and Rabbi Evan and I co-led a service around the firepit, beginning with the cowboy modah ani, which always feels extra-appropriate in Colorado!

But the capstone of my week, the absolutely most special part for me, was Friday night davenen. Friday night is supposed to be both soulful and celebratory as we welcome the Shabbat bride, the Shekhinah, the Queen, into our midst. I'd been looking forward to this Kabbalat Shabbat for months, hoping that it would give me some good "juice" to take home with me. And oh, holy wow: Kabbalat Shabbat at this year's ALEPH Kallah was everything I needed it to be and then some.


My son with an angel, on the pre-Shabbat walk.

The evening began with everyone in splendid whites, as is our custom here (following the custom of the kabbalists of Tzfat.) There was live music (Shabbat love songs) outside my dorm, and people in angel wings blessing us and pointing the way across campus to where we would daven. The kids got special white sparkly Shabbat facepaint. There is nothing like walking across a neighborhood (even an ad hoc one) calling "good Shabbes" to others who are beaming and celebrating too.

On Shabbat morning there were six different davenen options (I went to the kids' / family service, expertly led by Ellen Allard and the Kirtan Rabbi.) But on Friday night, we who were planning the Kallah chose to have only one service, and it featured the leaders of Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem. Friday night was the one time during the week when we wanted everyone to be together, for Kabbalat Shabbat and for the festive banquet-style meal that followed our prayer.

Reb Ruth, Yoel, and Dafna led davenen, as is their custom now, in the round. In the middle was an empty space (like the Holy of Holies in the Temple of old), circled by a ring of davenen leaders and musicians, circled by concentric rings of us. Because we were facing each other (rather than facing a bimah or stage), because in the middle was open space (sometimes filled with dancing daveners), I felt as though the music and the prayer were naturally arising among and between us. 

The last time Nava Tehila led davenen at Kallah was 2009, and I was there, and it was amazing. This time was even more so.


The leaders of Nava Tehila:
Dafna Rosenberg, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan, Yoel Sykes. 

With words, with customs, with kavanot (intentions), they brought the holy city of Yerushalayim into our midst and brought us into its glow. And their holy levi'im (the musicians accompanying them) included several of my nearest and dearest, which made it extra-special -- beloved faces, beloved voices, co-creating this extraordinary Shabbat for us and with us. As we davened and danced it felt like we were more than the sum of our parts. All of our voices, all of our hearts, raising sparks with joyous song.

I was surrounded by a community of some 500 ardent participants. I let it sweep me up: I danced in the aisle, I sang my heart out, I felt goosebumps in the silence after each psalm (as Reb Ruth once said, "If you've ever wondered what glory is...? It's this feeling in the room right now.") The six psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat became a pilgrimage, building awareness of transcendence, and then with "Lecha Dodi" we brought in immanence, unifying the Holy One of Blessing with the Shabbat Queen. 


Shabbat tealights, before lighting. 

I listen to Nava Tehila all the time -- especially their latest album, Libi Er / Waking Heart, the title track of which inspired the first poem in what is now Texts to the Holy. When I sing along with their music in the car, I remember every time I've been blessed to daven with them: in Jerusalem in 2008, at the Kallah in 2009, in Jerusalem in 2014... Now when I sing with their cds, or when I daven and lead davenen using their melodies, I'll remember this extraordinary night at the Kallah.

Here's Nava Tehila's Kabbalat Shabbat Playlist on YouTube. These are the melodies they used at our Kabbalat Shabbat, which they sent out in advance so that as many people as possible would know the melodies and be able to fully participate in davenning along. I expect to listen to this playlist a lot on Friday nights to come, when I am home alone and need to connect myself back to the spiritual sustenance I found in that glorious Friday night davenen at the 2016 Kallah.


The smith speaks

I had work for a while.
The women donated mirrors
and I made the basin for the place
where God's presence dwells.

Since then I've tended goats.
What else is there 
for a coppersmith to do
in this unsettled wilderness?

I missed the tasks of forging
but no one becomes free
without some sacrifice.
Still, others grumble.

They say Moshe dragged us here
to feed his ego. They bitch
if Moshe and God really cared
we would never have left Egypt.

In response God sent snakes.
Wailing spread across the camp
as limbs blackened and puffed up,
as puncture wounds putrefied.

The families of the bitten
begged Moshe to seek God's help.
As though they hadn't slandered him
to anyone who would listen.

As though their attributions
wouldn't wound him, wouldn't
bruise his human heart.
I don't know how he set that aside

but this morning he instructed me
to go to the men for their bracelets.
I crafted a curling snake
as copper-red as tongues of fire.

Moshe said "mount it on a miracle."
A flagpole was the best I could do.
When the snakebit looked upon it
their wounds disappeared.

How did the snake I myself made
channel healing from the One?
Remembering now, my hands shake.
I want to return to my goats.



8668_1317066235_3This poem arises out of this week's Torah portion, Chukat. The people rebel against Moshe and God, and in response God sends a plague of poisonous snakes. When the people ask Moshe to intercede, God tells Moshe to make a copper snake and that those who look upon it will be healed.

Reading the parsha this year, I find myself wondering about the anonymous smith who made the נְחַ֣שׁ נְחֹ֔שֶׁת / the copper snake. This year I'm also feeling a lot of empathy for Moshe, who both leads and serves a community that repeatedly speaks ill of him and of their journey. 

During the class I'm teaching on midrash (we're both reading and discussing classical midrash, and writing midrash of our own), this poem is what I've been working on during our writing time.

The opening stanza references a teaching from Rashi, that the Israelite women donated their copper mirrors in order for them to be hammered into the washbasin and laver for the mishkan, the place where God's presence dwelled within and among the people.

A teaching from Joel Segel on equalizers of heart and soul

Master-your-equalizer_On the first day of Big Sky Judaism: The Everyday Thought of Reb Zalman z"l, Joel Segel took us into an imagined conversation with Reb Zalman about rationalism:

"I hear where you're coming from. I understand the appeal of the intellectual. And: you're a musician, so you know what an equalizer is, yes? Imagine that at the bottom of the equalizer, instead of Hz and kHz are written labels that read intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual.

I'm hearing that your intellectual faders are up, and all the rest of them are down. So try an experiment. Pull up the faders in heart space. What happens in you when you pick up the heart fader? Maybe what happens is that you experience yourself feeling an internal voice chorusing 'Ribbono Shel Olam thank You thank You thank You.' Push down the intellectual fader and pull up the emotional one and see what arises in you." 

The four equalizers map, of course, to the Four Worlds about which we so often speak in Jewish Renewal: assiyah (action / physicality), yetzirah (emotions / heart), briyah (intellect / contemplation), and atzilut (essence / spirit.) Everything is always happening in all four of these realms at once, though many of us feel more comfortable in one of these worlds than the others.

At lunch after class I shared this image with a friend who knows something about recording music, and she pointed out that the name "equalizer" points the layperson in the wrong direction. The goal isn't to make all of the faders "equal." For one track one might want more treble; for another track, more bass. Just so, the internal equalizers about which Reb Joel was teaching us. Maybe when I'm hiking in the Colorado hills my physical fader is high, since I'm unusually aware of my body and my surroundings -- whereas when I'm davening, my emotional and spiritual faders might be at peak.

Different moments in the day, different days in the week, require different balances. The goal isn't to perfectly equalize our experience of the four worlds -- or at least I don't think it is. The goal is to cultivate awareness of which world(s) I'm living in, and to learn the practice of adjusting my own psycho-spiritual faders. Just as different instruments speak different languages but they're all needed in the orchestra, just so different parts of ourselves need to be allowed to speak as we inhabit the four worlds in different ways.

Four glimpses of the pre-Kallah Shabbat


Mincha in the mountains.


Unlike at last Kallah (when we were on a lake -- an easy natural mikvah), no formal mikvah experiences are scheduled for smicha week. But on Friday afternoon of my first week here, two friends and I decide to create our own. We make our way to the campus rec center, where there is a huge pool with a beach-like slope at one end, and a large and spacious hot tub, too. We opt first for the hot tub, and -- immersed in its foaming waters up to our necks -- we talk about what we need to release from our lives in general and from the week now ending in particular. And then we immerse. It's not a kosher mikvah, of course -- it's a swimming pool, with no source of living waters; for that matter, we're wearing swimsuits -- but on a spiritual level when I emerge from the waters after my final immersion I feel lighter. More radiant. More ready to welcome Shabbat.



As I make my way back to my dorm after the festive meal that followed Kabbalat Shabbat, I am drawn to the trio of guitarists sitting on one of the semicircles of big stones on the lawn outside the building. (So are a few dozen other people.) I settle happily on one of the big rocks that serves as a bench, and as they play and sing, the assembled group sings with them. They play (and we sing) the birkat hamazon (grace after meals), prayers, folk songs, new melodies, old melodies. In between singing harmony with my friends, I have conversations with current and prospective ALEPH students, with faculty, with other musmachim (alumni / ordinands). We sing and sing and sing. And sing some more. Between the singing and the Shabbat wine, by the time I stagger up to my room (well after midnight, which means it's well after my bedtime!) I am exhausted... but grateful.



On the campus where we're staying the grounds are pretty flat. But off to one side there are mountains, and I don't want to spend two weeks at the cusp of the Rockies and never actually see the mountains themselves! So on Shabbat afternoon two friends and I head to Horsetooth Mountain Park, and we walk up into the hills. It's a hot day, and we're at altitude; I huff and puff more than I would prefer. But the hills around us are extraordinarily beautiful. My spirits are lifted by the grasses and piñon pines and wildflowers, by the clouds scudding across the blue sky, by the sound of wind in the grasses. We sing bits of the Shabbat afternoon service to the special nusach (melodic system) used only at that time on that day. "Mincha" means offering or gift. In that moment, singing bits of the ashrei on a trail in the hills in the sunshine, everything feels like a gift.



After evening davenen we make our way outside for havdalah. We form a huge circle, arms around each other. Fragrant teabags are passed out for our b'samim, the spices we will bless to prevent ourselves from fainting as the second Shabbat soul departs. Havdalah candles are lit. We sing the words I love so very dearly: hineh El yeshuati, evtach v'lo efchad... (This is the God of my redemption; I trust, I am not afraid...) We sing the blessings sanctifying the One Who makes divisions between Shabbat and the week. When the candles are extinguished a few people sing to Elijah the prophet in Ladino, and then we sing Eliahu HaNavi and Miriam HaNeviah in Hebrew, and then people start dancing as the musicians keep on playing. La-yehudim haita ora -- a prayer for light and joy and honor for us in the week now beginning. We sing, and we dance, and the week begins. 


Related: Six jewels from Clergy Camp.

Ready for the 2016 ALEPH Kallah!


The 2016 ALEPH Kallah begins later today, and I can't wait.

This week-long wonderland of learning, davenen, community, and togetherness has been in the works for a long time. Behind the scenes at ALEPH we've been working hard on this for a solid year. I can't offer enough praise for Tamy Jacobs, our Kallah coordinator; or for Judith Dack, our Kallah Chair; or for the countless teachers, rabbis, artists, planners, and volunteers who have been working overtime to bring this week into being. 

And now it's finally here. I've been at Colorado State University in Fort Collins for a week already (enjoying Clergy Camp), and almost all of us who were here last week are staying for Kallah. We'll be joined by hundreds of others today; by tonight, there will be around 500 people gathered for our celebratory welcome and opening ceremony. (One of those people joining us today is my six year old, who will be attending the Kids' Kallah. I am especially excited about his arrival!)

I'm teaching a class this week, and also taking a class. With two other ALEPH Board members, my co-chair Rabbi David and my friend Rabbi Evan Krame, I'm co-leading Thursday morning davenen. Aside from those things, I don't know exactly what my week will hold. But I expect that the week will feature togetherness, and learning, and high-spirited davenen, and countless conversations, and a variety of wonders I can't yet name. 

For those who are traveling to Kallah today: travel safely -- can't wait to see you here! For those who aren't joining us, I'll do my best to post a few times over the course of the week to give you glimpses of what you're missing... and I hope you'll be able to join us in two years' time for the next ALEPH Kallah!

Register now for the ALEPH Kallah!

13112831_10154309073527590_4055702587247613969_oThe ALEPH Kallah -- July 11-17 in Fort Collins, CO -- is coming up soon. Register by 11:59pm eastern time on June 3; starting at midnight on that night, a 10% late registration fee will be added. (Also, the longer you wait, the likelier it is that the classes you want to take will fill up without you.)

The Kallah is an incredible opportunity to experience the richness of Jewish Renewal. There's learning to stimulate the mind, all kinds of davenen to uplift the heart, and -- maybe best of all -- the opportunity to immerse in a community of like-minded spiritual seekers for a week. 

Here's a full listing of classes and workshops.

Here's information on the teen and kids' Kallah. (My son will be attending the kids' Kallah this year -- I'm really excited about it.)

Here's a list of Frequently Asked Questions.

Here are some of my posts about the most recent Kallah in 2013: Five glimpses of the start of Kallah; Five more glimpses of Kallah; A delicious mikveh before Shabbat... with a few surprises; Welcome home to a place where you've never been. (If you go further back via my ALEPH Kallah tag, you'll find posts from previous Kallot in 2011 and 2009.)

Register now!

Come write midrash with me at the ALEPH Kallah!

Hey, want to spend a week writing contemporary midrash with me in beautiful Colorado this summer?

There are just a few spots left in the class I'm teaching at the ALEPH Kallah this year. For those who are interested, here's the description of what I'll be offering:


Midrash are interpretive stories (the name comes from the Hebrew לדרוש, to interpret). Midrash speak in a multiplicity of voices as they open new facets of Torah... and diving deep into Torah is one of the most perennial “Joys of Jewishing!” In this class we’ll begin by exploring classical midrash to examine how they work, then we’ll delve into contemporary midrash (in a variety of forms: poetry, music, film), then learn the midrashic process from the inside out as we write our own midrashic texts, embroidering our voices onto the ongoing tapestry of interpretation.

If writing your own midrash sounds like fun, I hope you'll join me. Enrollment in my class is limited, so sign up now!

And, of course, there are many other amazing offerings -- if my class isn't your cup of tea, check out the Kallah 2016 Class and Workshop Guide. I highly recommend clicking on the interactive pdf file and reading through the whole catalogue. 

There's no better way to experience the joy, vibrancy, and "juice" of Jewish Renewal than to come to the ALEPH Kallah. The things I love most about Kallah include the creative and varied davenen (prayer), the sense of community, and the learning. I hope you'll join us -- whether or not you're inclined to sign up for my class -- and (re)discover for yourself what about Kallah you love most.


I've posted a fair amount over the years about different experiences with the ALEPH Kallah; if you're so inclined, you can read those old posts via my ALEPH Kallah tag.

Teaching at the ALEPH Kallah


I've just registered for this summer's ALEPH Kallah in Fort Collins, Colorado! 

Kallah is ALEPH's (usually) biennial week-long gathering. (Last year we held the Getting It... Together retreat instead, so it has now been three years since the last Kallah.) Reading about Jewish Renewal can be interesting and even compelling, but there's nothing like experiencing it for yourself. Kallah is an experiential deep dive into Jewish Renewal. It's an opportunity to spend a week in Jewish Renewal community, sharing learning, meals, heartfelt and innovative davenen (prayer), art and music, spiritual experience, and more.

The class and workshop guide is now online: Kallah 2016 Class and Workshop Guide. ("Class" means a four-day class -- every morning, or every afternoon; "workshop" means a one-day workshop. So you can sign up for a four-day morning class and a four-day afternoon class, or one four-day class plus four one-day workshops, or eight one-day workshops if you truly want the smorgasbord experience.) I highly recommend clicking on the interactive pdf file and reading through the whole catalogue. I'm excited about what I've signed up for, though I also wish I could clone myself so I could experience more!

I'm teaching at the Kallah this year -- or at least, I will be if enough people sign up for my class. For those who are interested, here's the description of what I'll be offering:


Midrash are interpretive stories (the name comes from the Hebrew לדרוש, to interpret). Midrash speak in a multiplicity of voices as they open new facets of Torah... and diving deep into Torah is one of the most perennial “Joys of Jewishing!” In this class we’ll begin by exploring classical midrash to examine how they work, then we’ll delve into contemporary midrash (in a variety of forms: poetry, music, film), then learn the midrashic process from the inside out as we write our own midrashic texts, embroidering our voices onto the ongoing tapestry of interpretation.

If writing your own midrash sounds like fun, I hope you'll join me. Enrollment in my class is limited, so sign up now!

I've also signed my son up for the Kids' Kallah -- a fabulous daycamp offered in conjunction with the Adventure Rabbi. I am so excited at the prospect of introducing him to my Jewish Renewal community, and introducing them to him in return. (I have fond memories of the Kallah seven years ago which I attended whie pregnant; I imagined, then, what it might be like to someday bring my kid to Kallah. And now I finally get to do so!)

Early-bird pricing is still in effect; if you register before April 14, you get 5% off. Read all about it and register now!


I've posted a fair amount over the years about different experiences with the ALEPH Kallah; if you're so inclined, you can read those old posts via my ALEPH Kallah tag.

Feels like coming home

Kallah-2016-postcard1-970Two years ago yesterday I wrote, "Anytime I enter a place where my Jewish Renewal community has gathered, it feels like coming home."

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 hevre. 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.

(Read the whole post, written at the start of the most recent ALEPH Kallah: Welcome home to a place where you've never been, 2013.)

Kallah-2016-postcard2-970I know that when I arrive in West Chester, PA, on Friday for Getting It... Together, I will feel the same way.

And it will be true again next summer when I travel to Colorado for the ALEPH Kallah. (Next summer I'm planning to bring our son with me, to the Kids' Kallah -- that will be a first, and one which I anticipate with some eagerness!)

Save the dates of July 11-17 2016 -- we're already hard at work planning next summer's Kallah, and I know it's going to be superb. And to those who are joining us this coming weekend, travel safely and I look forward to seeing you soon...



A delicious mikveh before Shabbat... with a few surprises

As Shabbat approaches, here's one final post about the ALEPH Kallah -- a mikveh story from last Friday...


Mikveh spot, Kallah 2013. Photo by Miriam Charney.

There are few things I love more in this world than a Jewish Renewal pre-Shabbat mikveh, especially when it comes after a dense and delicious week of learning and playing and praying together.

We gather at the lake and shoo away the men and boys; this is our reserved time at this beautiful beach. There are no screens to shield us here (as there usually are at Isabella Freedman), but the beach feels secluded. Anyway, our time is short -- the men will be here in 45 minutes -- so we shrug and get moving. We strip down to wherever we are comfortable: some of us in swimsuits, some clothed, most naked. (Some enter the water clothed and then become naked.) We are old, young, tall, short, curvaceous, skinny, pale, dark. Some of us bear scars, empty spaces where one or both breasts used to be. We are here to immerse before Shabbat, and to emerge ready to welcome and honor the Sabbath Queen.

I walk into the waters, soft sand beneath my feet, until I can barely stand. We are bobbing up and down gently in the dark lake. The waters are as dark as strong tea from the tannins in the pine needles which litter the lakefloor. We sing a chant as more women join us. Our mikveh leader reminds us that when we were babies, someone looked at our thighs and said "what beautiful pulkes!" A ripple of wistful recognition runs audibly around the group. Many of us remember hearing that said to our beautiful chubby babies before they began to crawl. I remember our son's sweet baby thighs and how much I wanted to just kiss kiss kiss every inch of his beautiful skin.

And then she tells us that our thighs are still beautiful, and a rueful sigh floats over the surface of the waters. How many of us are able to truly feel that? And our bellies -- how frequently we wish them away, bemoan their size, agonize over their curves. They, too, she tells us, are beautiful. Our breasts, or the places where breasts used to be: beautiful. Every inch of every one of us is beautiful. Each one of us is a reflection of God.

I wish that it weren't profoundly countercultural to tell a group of women -- ranging in age from twenties to eighties -- that each one of us is beautiful, that we are made in the image of God, that we should cherish our bodies instead of resenting or loathing their "imperfections." But it is. And it's deeply moving to hear these things sweetly said by the rabbi who is leading our ritual. Maybe in this moment, as Shabbat approaches, we can really believe her. We can wash away the decades of learned self-deprecation and emerge from the waters knowing our own beauty.

We break into groups of two and three so that each woman can be witnessed by one or two holy spirit sisters as she dunks. We begin sharing quietly with our sisters what we wish to release on our immersions, what we want to wash away (spiritually speaking) in order to greet the Shabbat Bride with a whole and joyful heart.

And then two police cars pull up, lights flashing.

Continue reading "A delicious mikveh before Shabbat... with a few surprises" »

Five more glimpses of Kallah


Lake; Fourth of July.


The Fourth of July. I choose the morning service which is described as "You've heard of downward dog? This is Upward God! Bring your inner Mahalia Jackson." It's led by two dear friends of mine, Rabbi Jan Salzman and Rabbi Mark Novak. Both have wonderful voices and shining neshamot / souls.

Reb Jan begins by humming America the Beautiful, and we pick up the humming along with her. Once we've hummed it through once or twice, Reb Mark speaks over the top, beginning "I have a dream..." He quotes Isaiah: the rough places will be made plain, the crooked, straight. He describes the prophet's dream of messianic reality, and speaks aloud his prayer that this should be the nation we build together.

And then we begin our morning service by singing "Adon Olam" to that same tune. And my heart opens right up: to God, to my hopes for this country, to this community, to the people sitting in this circle and singing with all their hearts, to purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.



One of my students comes up to me and tells me that he's been talking with his eleven-year-old son about writing psalms, and that his son totally "gets" it, and that his son wants to write psalms now too. He tells me that he and his wife have brought their sons to Kallah (or to Ruach ha-Aretz, ALEPH's summer program during even-numbered years) since they were six, and that his kids love it here.

It is such a delight to hear that my student is loving my class -- to hear that he's talking about it with his kids -- to hear that his kids are into it, too -- to hear that his young son understands immediately that he, too, can be a modern-day psalmist and can speak the words of his heart to God. To think of a little boy growing up with annual dips into this precious co-created Brigadoon where we learn and sing, play and pray, in conscious community.

That afternoon we work on psalms of "negative" emotions -- sorrow, grief, loss -- and my students really go there with me. It's a deep class and a powerful one. I am humbled by their participation and their trust. Grateful to be here with them.




I walk down to my apartment, change into my swimsuit, tie my room key around my neck, and walk across the street and down the road to the lake. The sky is blue, the trees are green, the water is steeped the color of dark tea from the tannins of countless pine needles.

I slip off my sandals and walk slowly into the water, feeling my way on the unfamiliar sandy bottom. The water is cool, the sun is bright, the voices of people talking and laughing surround me. People are gliding across the lake lazily on bright red kayaks which draw the eye. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and submerge for a moment. When I come up, the voices and the laughter are even sweeter than they were before. A kind of precognitive echo, a ripple, of the mikveh immersion to come on Friday afternoon.



On my way back to my apartment, I find a duck feather, gleaming at me in the grass. I bring the duck feather to Rabbi Kevin Hale, "the barefoot sofer," who is teaching a class on sofrut and Torah repair this week. My intention is to ask whether he needs more quills for his students. But he has a great big pile of goose and turkey feathers, and my little duck feather is not needed. To my surprise, he says instead, "would you like me to cut it for you?" And then he offers me a tiny vial of ink and a scrap of klaf -- a bit of marginal parchment from a 100-year-old Torah.

I am unaccountably moved. To my sorrow, the piece of parchment disappears sometime during my psalms class -- there was too much commotion in the room, and it must have floated away on the wind -- but I carefully carry the ink and quill to a safe place. I don't know that I will ever learn sofrut, but in even trying to use the tools of that trade, I feel closer to every beautiful handwritten letter of every Torah, everywhere.


Banners in the tent, before anyone arrived to daven and drum.


Friday morning I decide to try the drumming davenen. We're in the tent, translucent yud / heh / vav / heh banners glimmering in the sunshine. Together, Rabbi Ilan Glazer and Akiva the Believer lead us in a morning service with drums. This isn't a drum circle; it's a service, and our davenen follows the traditional mat'beah tefilah, the order of prayer. We will touch on each of the liturgical touchpoints of the different prayers, accompanied by drumming.

When I arrive, my intention is to daven but not to drum. But as the davenen gets going, and I see that there are a few unclaimed drums in the circle, on impulse I get up and grab one. When and where else am I going to try this?

It feels great. I love being part of the music we're all co-creating as we pray. And I'm not as inept as I thought I would be; maybe I've absorbed a few rhythm patterns from twenty years of life with Ethan! As we drum and pray and sing, people get up and dance through the psalms. For our silent amidah we enter into a simple eighth-note beat. First one drummer alone, then two, and then one by one we all take it up. We sustain it for ten minutes. I close my eyes. Are we playing the beat, or is the beat playing us?

After the service, my left arm is striped from my tefillin and my right hand reverberates from the drumming. Marks on my body, sealing and recalling the experience of heart, mind, and soul.

A psalm of amazement (upon studying quantum physics)


upon studying kabbalah and quantum physics


I boast I grew a baby
from component cells. Big deal:

You built the cosmos
from component atoms, and those

have moving parts which shift,
performing particle or wave.

As photons yearn for the void
my heart yearns for You

though when we meet
I disappear.

When I ascend the ladder
I understand entanglement

though when I fall back down
my human brain can't grasp

the endless ein-sof
of Your quantum fields.

for R' Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad

Ein_sofOn the second day of the class I'm teaching (on writing the psalms of one's heart), we worked with psalms of wonder and amazement. After reading a variety of psalms (classical and contemporary) and talking about them, we entered into a generative writing exercise and then wrote our own psalms of awe.

Since I'm taking an extraordinary morning class on kabbalah and quantum physics, that was what came immediately to my mind when I thought about wonder. Anyway: for those who are interested, here's the end result of that 20 minutes of psalm-writing, once again lightly revised from its original form.

Ein-sof means "without end," and is a kabbalistic term for God's most transcendent aspect.

A psalm of praise for an ice cream cone

Img_62011In my Kallah class on Writing the Psalms of Your Heart, we spent our first day on psalms of praise. We brainstormed a bit about what psalms are and how they work, read some psalms of praise (both classical and contemporary), and spent some time in class writing our own psalms and then sharing them aloud.

I decided it wasn't fair of me to ask my students to do something I wasn't also willing to do, so I worked on a psalm along with them. Just for kicks, here's the psalm I wrote, lightly revised since its original creation. Enjoy!


a psalm of praise

Praise for these soft cold curls
of maple walnut ice cream.
Praise for the scent of earliest spring

distilled into pungent sweetness.
Praise for the cold, so shocking in July,
as ice cream meets my tongue.

Praise for the cows who ate the grass
and made the milk, praise for the farmer
who sat on a low stool

in a barn that smelled of manure and hay
to squeeze the udders, or the milking machine
which impersonally coaxed the milk forth.

Praise for the giant mixer
which churned the wet slush of ingredients
with all the grace of a February snowplow.

For the trees which grew the walnuts,
for the maples whose lifeblood was donated
to this worthy cause: praise

to the One Whose abundance flowed
into creation, Who takes pleasure
in my pleasure, now and always.

Gleanings on kabbalah and quantum physics

TardisMy morning class at Kallah this year can be summed up (so far) as: I feel like I'm trying to pack the time vortex of a TARDIS into my head! The morning class I'm taking at Kallah this year is "Infinity, Nothingness, and Being: Running and Returning, An Exploration in Quantum Physics and Kabbalah, and I'm loving it. I want to share some glimpses of the class with y'all, but I find that I'm struggling to articulate the learning succinctly. This kind of learning is almost like a mystical experience -- I grasp it in a flash of joyous insight, and then when I try to describe it, it slips through my fingers! But I'll try anyway.

"I believe that every way in which we meet the universe, it all matters -- not only in the sense of making meaning, but in the sense of making things matter, e.g. making things materialize, bringing the universe into being anew in each moment."

That's Dr. Karen Barad, one of the teachers of this morning class (she's teaching with her wife Rabbi Fern Feldman.) Rabbi Fern is focusing on the Jewish texts and mystical material; Dr. Karen is focusing on the physics. Rather than drawing analogies between kabbalah and physics, they aim to offer a nondual approach. They're not arguing that quantum physics is just now discovering what kabbalists have known for centuries, or that kabbalah can or should be updated on the basis of contemporary physics. "Instead, we're going to diffractively read kabbalah and quantum physics through each other."

The idea of diffraction recurred repeatedly over the course of our first morning. Diffraction, I learned, refers to the patterns that waves make. (I'm one of the people in the class who has comfort and familiarity with the Jewish mystical texts, but only a dim memory of high school learning about the physics side of things.) First we got an overview of the classical / Newtonian understanding of particles and waves, and then the quantum stuff proceeded to complicate and problematize everything we thought we'd grasped!

Continue reading "Gleanings on kabbalah and quantum physics" »

Five glimpses of the start of Kallah


A faculty meeting. The evening before everything formally begins.

It takes about ten minutes to get everyone in the room, to arrange the chairs the way we want them, that kind of thing. In a lot of contexts, we would have spent those ten minutes kibbitzing, or possibly kvetching about our travel experiences or whatever's not going right in our day.

Not here. Rabbi Shefa Gold opens up her sruti box and begins singing a two-part Sim Shalom round. (One of her own chants, naturally.) The music builds as we all pick up the melodies. Soon we're singing it as a round. The melody ripples and swells in the bright and airy room.

By the time the meeting begins -- a good ten minutes later, but no one minds, because the singing feels like prayer -- the energy in the room has shifted and I feel I'm part of something bigger than myself.



Looking at the schedule for Tuesday morning davenen. There are several options: Yoga Shalom (the service interwoven with yoga), Davennen in the Vernacular (davening in traditional nusach -- but in English), Davennen in Nature through the Torah of Metaphor. It's hard to choose.

But what really cracks me up is the juxtaposition of Speed Davvenen ("No time to think; just say the words one after the other, as fast as you can. A popular form of meditation for centuries, Minhag Eretz Yisrael, as practiced in Tzfat...") and ShEmanic Journey ("Are there too many words in your davvenen these days? Let's try working with six. We will explore the many ways the Shma can transport us to davvenen bliss through chant, gently guided meditation, and light authentic movement.")

That's Jewish Renewal in a nutshell right there. Speed-daven all of the words in the siddur as fast as you can, considering it a form of ancient meditation -- or strip the whole service down to the six words of the first line of the Shema. Neither approach has to cancel out the other. Both are ways of approaching the Divine.


I have every intention of going to mincha (afternoon services), but it's a ten minute walk away in the rain, and I stop to say hi to someone I haven't seen in a long time, and then someone else, and next thing I know, I'm too late.

Instead I wind up hanging out with two friends by the bank of enormous windows at the back of the building where the shuk is. One of us starts singing the ashrei, the first prayer of mincha, and next thing I know, we are quietly singing and harmonizing and making our way through the whole short liturgy of the afternoon service.

Around us, people are still wandering, browsing beautiful tallitot and kippot and books and jewelry, chatting, hugging, catching up. And we're davening by the windows overlooking the rain and the lake. I'm reminded of seeing Orthodox men in black davening at airport gates, at the banks of windows overlooking the runway, before a night flight. We would look strange to them, I suspect: we are two men and one woman, me in a tank top, all of us barefoot ("take off your shoes," God told Moshe, "for the place where you're standing is holy ground"), laughing along with our davenen. The interplay of our voices and our spirits is tight and sweet.

Even while it's happening, I know it's something I don't want to forget.



Rabbi David Ingber has chosen to frame the opening plenary as a Hasidic-style tisch, a table gathering in which the rebbe's teaching is framed with niggunim and melodies. After a beautiful ma'ariv service led sweetly by Rabbi Jack Gabriel and a bevy of musicians, we fill the stage in the big tent with musicians of our own and we sing a Chabad niggun.

There is drumming (Akiva the Believer and Shoshanna Jedwab -- my cup runneth over!), there is guitar, there is piano, there is clarinet -- and there is a tent full of several hundred happy people singing. Soon there is spontaneous dancing. It is amazing. It feels like a tent revival. A happy, hippie, neo-Hasidic, egalitarian, feminist, queer-friendly tent revival.

Reb David introduces the notion of the plenary as tisch, and quips that it is a plen-isch -- and since we're Renewal Jews, it's a re-plen-isch. (Get it?) But against all odds, the evening really does feel replenishing. I share poetry and musings. Rabbi Riqi Kosovske shares a classical nursing prayer. Rabbi Ebn Leader sings "Memaleh kol almin, u-sovev kol almin" -- "You fill all worlds and surround all worlds, and without You there is no existence at all" -- so soulfully that I get shivers.

In between our teachings, we sing niggunim to seal the learning into our hearts. And we sing a Shaker hymn, which goes like this:

When you love-not one another in daily communion,
how can you love God whom you have never seen? (2x)

More love (2x)
The heavens are calling
the angels are singing
O Zion, more love, more love.

To close, Rabbi David Ingber tells an extraordinary story about why there is a tiny א in the first word of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus: that after Moshe built the mishkan, the tabernacle, he stood outside it and wondered, is there a place here for me? I did all this work, I made this thing, but do I belong here? And God whispered so that only he could hear: come on in, Moshe. There's room for you.

What a metaphor for us here in the big tent of Jewish Renewal. Come on in. There's room here for you.



In the small chapel space, my dear friend David leads the six-word Shema-focused davenen. We create a sonic tapestry without any plan or intention, and it fills the space, and it is beautiful.

We move through hearing: hearing with our ears, our bodies, our skin as interface with the world. We move through what it means to be Yisrael, standing, energizing our feet, entering into movement. (That's the most challenging part for me, but I try.) We embody the Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh with our bodies, conscious of immanence. We experience relationship with God. We connect with the Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh of transcendence, God beyond us, stretching our awareness beyond our bodies. And we break the final echad, One, into its component letters: forming the aleph with our bodies, rumbling a room full of chets, tasting the Spanish sound of the un-pointed daled.

We chant two different full shemas -- the "Reform summer camp" melody I use at shul (which feels and sounds entirely different to me in this space, accompanied by sruti box) and the triumphal Sulzer chant a cappella. The Sulzer shema comes near the end of the service, and it rings out like a heavenly shofar, energized by our deep explorations.

It's not quite like any other davenen I've ever done. What a gift.

Kol Echad: the voice of the One in the voices of the many

The theme of this year's ALEPH Kallah is Kol Echad. Last night, at the opening plenary session, four New England-based Jewish Renewal voices spoke on this theme and what it means to each of us. I was honored to be one of the speakers, along with Rabbi Ebn Leader, Joel Segel, Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, and Rabbi David Ingber. R' David was the "host" for the evening, and he patterned it on a Hasidic tisch, a dinnertable celebration featuring teaching interspersed with song. In between our teachings, we led the community in some of my favorite songs and niggunim. It was really sweet! Anyway: my remarks follow below.

Reflections on Kol Echad

Kol echad.

If you spell it כל אחד, it means "all is one." If you spell it קול אחד, it means "with one voice."

When I think of all of us speaking with one voice, I think of the teaching which says that when God gave over Torah at Sinai, God spoke with one voice and each person heard according to their abilities and inclinations. The revelation was singular; its reception takes as many forms as there are human souls, as many as grains of sand on the beach or stars in the sky.

In recent years I've been turning my attention to one very particular voice: the voice of my child. His voice awakens me, touches me, inflames me with love, and occasionally evokes my exasperation like no other. Becoming a mother has radically changed my sense of God, and of what it means to say -- as our liturgy so frequently does -- that God is our parent.

I look at our child, I listen to our child, and I see the two of us, his parents, reflected in countless ways. But I also see difference. He is his own being, wholly. (And holy.) He is full of surprises. He has his own desires and yearnings, his own inclinations, his own likes and dislikes. Is this how God feels when She listens to each of us?

We cry out with our many voices, and each of our voices reaches God.

A poem from Waiting to Unfold:


Was God overwhelmed
when Her milk first came in

roused by our thin cries
for compassion?

She'd birthed creation
from amoebas to galaxies

but did She expect to see
Her own changeability

mirrored behind our eyes?
Nothing could have prepared Her

for the shift from singularity
to multiplicity.

And the blank-faced angels
offered their constant praise

without understanding Her joy
or the depth of Her fear.

There is a Talmudic saying that "more than the calf wants to suckle, the cow yearns to give milk." I learned this in rabbinic school as a metaphor for how God relates to the world. God, my teachers taught, is bursting with blessing. Our prayers prime the pump and cause that blessing to flow. Once I became a nursing mother, I had a whole new understanding of what it might feel like to be God, prickling with the urgent need called forth by our hungry wailing.

Continue reading "Kol Echad: the voice of the One in the voices of the many" »

Welcome home to a place where you've never been

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.

NameHave 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.


It's almost time for Kallah!

The ALEPH Kallah is almost here! I can't wait.

First and foremost, I'm thrilled to be teaching a class. My materials are prepared and I'm looking forward to meeting the students who are new to me and re-meeting the folks who I already know.

I'm also delighted to be honored with the opportunity to be part of the opening plenary session on Monday night. Four people will share our thoughts on the theme of Kol Echad, "One Voice." (I'll share my remarks here after the fact, so if you're not going to be at the Kallah, stay tuned.)

Most of all, I'm eager to immerse myself in the temporal mikveh of a week with my Jewish Renewal community: friends, conversations, davenen, song, and joy. For those who are joining us in New Hampshire next week, travel safely! And if you're not registered for the Kallah but are still considering coming, you can still register; as this Kol ALEPH post notes:

With over 500 souls registered, this is on track to be the biggest Kallah since Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2007. Over 600 are expected in Rindge, New Hampshire for our lakeside retreat in the shadow of Mt. Monadnock. There is still time to register - right up until July 1st for the full conference, or July 5th for the Shabbaton! But why wait? “Lech lecha”- get yourself right now to the Kallah website and get registered, and get ready to enjoy one of the best weeks of your life. What are you waiting for?


Looking even more forward to the 2013 ALEPH Kallah!

13cover_000 To my amazement, my class at this summer's ALEPH Kallah -- "Writing the Psalms of Your Heart" -- has filled up entirely. I set an enrollment cap at 20 people, never imagining for a moment that 20 would actually register for my class -- and they did. Holy wow! I'm humbled and delighted, and getting more excited about this teaching opportunity by the minute. This is going to be a ton of fun.

Anyway, if you were thinking about taking my class and haven't already registered, I'm afraid that window of opportunity has closed! But there are many other fabulous afternoon classes on the program, including one on the Jewish roots of Christianity (taught by R' David Zaslow), one on Eco-Judaism and sustainability (taught by R' Elisheva Brenner), and one called "A Tzaddik in Suburbia" taught by R' Ebn Leader which I would've signed up to take if I weren't teaching during the same slot.

And, of course, there's a full round of morning classes -- and there will be fabulous food, conversations, davening, singing, meditation, yoga, hikes: everything one might yearn for.

You can download a Kallah 2013 brochure, and can register for the gathering, at the Kallah webpage. Hope to see y'all there!

Getting excited about the ALEPH Kallah

I just received my brochure for the ALEPH Kallah, and it's gorgeous -- I'm getting really excited about this amazing week of learning, davenen, and community. The brochure is also available for download as a pdf:


You can download the brochure at the Kallah website.

The class I'm teaching meets in the afternoon, and here's the description of that class:

Writing the Psalms of Our Hearts

The psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, one of our communal tools for connecting with God. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We'll awaken our spirits and hearts by praying select psalms together, warm up our intellectual muscles with writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we each write our own psalms. After sharing our psalms aloud and sharing our responses to each others' work, we'll close by davening together once more. At week's end, we'll each take home a compilation of our collected psalms.

I'm trying to decide which of the morning classes I want to sign up for. R' Elliot Ginsburg's Sovev U'memalei: The Divine Within Us, Between Us, and Beyond All Our Namings? (I loved learning with Reb Elliot in rabbinic school, and I've missed his Hasidut classes.) Karen Barad and R' Fern Feldman's Infinity, Nothingness, and Being: Running and Returning, an Exploration in Quantum Physics and Kabbalah? R' Jeff Roth's Jewish Meditation Practices for an Awakened Heart? R' David Zaslow's Roots and Branches: the Jewish Roots of Christianity? So many good choices! (And there are many other morning offerings as well -- these are just the ones I personally find most tempting.)

I hope you'll join us in New Hampshire for an amazing week of learning, playing, praying, singing, connecting, and having your heart opened to the divine within and around us.