Under a massive chandelier in a posh Miami resort, nearly 60 people sit on white towels straight-backed and barefoot. It is time for yoga and kabbala--together. They close their eyes and breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Then they chant: "Shaaaaaaaaaaa... lommmmmmmmmmmm."
Welcome to Jewish Renewal, sniped at by critics for its unorthodox mix of alien spiritual influences and defended by its adherents as offering a unique connection to God. This particular Jewish Renewal program, Living Waters, calls itself a "spiritual health spa program grounded in kabbalistic teachings." For five days and almost $1,000, these men and women--mostly women-- have come to Miami to meditate, exercise, hug, heal, eat gourmet vegetarian meals, and enjoy a massage.
"We give you experiences that help you go within, to connect with yourself and with God," explains Shoni Labowitz, 52, a Jewish Renewal-ordained rabbi who, together with her rabbi-husband, Philip, started the Living Waters retreats in 1995. At their heart is the central premise of Jewish Renewal: that with a renewed emphasis on spirituality, people can have a direct experience with God. Typically, it is wrapped in a package of political activism, feminism, and environmentalism. The movement dates to the late 1960s, when intimate, hands-on Jewish groups emerged to fill the spiritual emptiness that was turning many young Jews to Eastern meditation and other traditions. In the last few years, retreats like Living Waters have blossomed, as has Jewish Renewal in general. The network of Jewish Renewal Communities lists about 40 congregations in North America, Europe, and Brazil--congregations with names like The Aquarian Minyan (in San Francisco) and the All People's Synagogue (in Tucson, Ariz.).
And while Jewish Renewal remains a small movement within Judaism, with no authoritative count of adherents, its influence is growing. About 700 people attended a Jewish Renewal study week in July 1999 in Oregon, where the titles of the 50 classes ranged from "Jewish Sacred Dance" to "Our Relationships with Our Aging Parents as a Gateway to God-Consciousness." A newly formed Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal has 35 members associated with the major branches of American Judaism; organizers expect 100-200 members within a year. Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Renewal retreat center in upstate New York, recently offered its first Shabbaton in New York City, drawing 900 people--a $200-a-head sellout.
To many Jewish traditionalists, Jewish Renewal represents a treif mix of traditions foreign to Judaism, blending Hasidism and kabbalistic mysticism with Eastern and Native American meditative practices. Several participants at the Living Waters retreat in Miami are not Jewish at all. One, a nun from Baltimore, sang "Ave Maria" at a Living Waters Shabbat service, explaining that she sees the Shekhinah, God's feminine essence, when she sings it. Participants considered that perfectly appropriate, and one Jewish guest described the moment as "one of the most moving experiences of the week."
That's because the practices of Jewish Renewal retreats and services are creeping into Reform and Conservative synagogues as well: healing services, niggunim and chants, and a rediscovery of the mikvah and other Jewish ceremonies centered around water. "We have moved from a situation, say 100 years ago, where Judaism was becoming ever more rational, where one could downplay the spiritual aspects, to a new emphasis on the spiritual and the irrational," says Sarna.
This is the focus at Living Waters. Most days begin with a "prayer walk" before breakfast. Participants walk to the sound of taped drum beats and chants on headphones and meditate on the letters of God's name. Mornings are spent at the spa, exercising or lounging around the pool or sauna. Between weight-training and the hot tub, people gather in the pool for a "check-in"--an hourly break for meditation on ideas such as compassion or strength. Each days brings a special ceremony: a mikvah in the ocean, an adult bat mitzvah, a Torah teaching, Yoga is practiced daily, blended with meditation on the ten heavenly gates of the kabbalah. As participants twist themselves into a half-moon position, the leader urges them to "bring awareness to the left hemisphere of your head. Become filled with the wisdom needed to fulfill your intention."