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."
At some moments, Living Waters recalls the stillness of an ashram; at others, the celebration of a Hasidic wedding; at still others, the tearful empathy of a support group. Hasidic melodies are interspersed with CDS by Jewish singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman and folk-rocker Jewel. Shoni Labowitz leads it all, exuding calmness and serenity as she floats through the events dressed in white.
The daughter of an Orthodox rabbi in Baltimore, Labowitz wandered into Jewish Renewal during the 1970s. At a conference with her husband, rabbi of a large Conservative synagogue near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she came across the writings of Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, a Jewish Renewal founder. For the next 12 years she studied with him in Philadelphia and became a Renewal rabbi herself. She and Philip Labowitz grew a Renewal community near Miami, holding services in their living room. Now with about 400 members, the community uses rental space.
Many participants at Living Waters were drawn there after hearing Shoni Labowitz speak or reading one of the books she has written about kabbalah and women in the Bible. Tali Ann Katz, cantor for a Reform congregation in Maryland, says she came to rejuvenate herself by taking part in activities "that address Judaism from the heart, not just from the head." But she adds that she continues to study Torah and the Psalms, working with an Orthodox teacher on the Internet. "As much as I believe in drawing from Jewish Renewal, I really believe in reaching back to the text," she says.
"People say that this is Judaism Lite, but it's not," says Rabbi Daniel Siegel, who grew up in the modern Orthodox community and is now executive director of Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Rather, he says, it's about recapturing the joyful, spiritual tradition of Judaism almost lost in the Holocaust.
Just before the Living Waters retreat ends, people step forward to tell the group what they got from it. Some sob uncontrollably as they recall the tragedies that have interrupted their lives--a daughter's death, a divorce, a father's suicide--and say the retreat has helped them find a way out of despair. Soon people are crying throughout the room. It doesn't end that way, however. After everyone speaks, the participants form a large circle. Soft music plays. Philip Labowitz leads a chant. Soon the music turns faster, bodies start to sway, and everyone is dancing. And then they dissolve into hugs and tears, with just minutes until checkout time.