So in these parts most Jews identify themselves by the initials of the congregations to which they belong: “B.B.J.” is the Orthodox shul B’nai B’rith Jacob, “A.A.” is short for Agudath Achim, the Conservative synagogue, and “T.M.I.” not only stands for “too much information” but also for “Temple Mickve Israel,” the Reform representation in Savannah.
Plenty of folks belong to all three, which means playing local Jewish geography is a deluge of acronyms: “My parents belong to the B.B.J., but we’re associate members of the A.A. because my grandparents were founding members, but I like to go to T.M.I. ’cause the services are shorter.”
Though I pay some dues, I’ve never liked the term “unaffiliated” to describe those who can’t find a spiritual home among the available choices. Thanks to Adam Solender, the big man at the JEA, there’s now an acronym for those of us who don’t need no stinkin’ labels: “J.J.”
Stands for “Just Jewish.” Dig it.
I also have Adam to thank for letting me know the outlaw Jews of Berkeley have gotten officially organized. I heard about Chochmat Halev back when I was working as a copywriter at San Francisco’s J. Weekly but I never made it to one of their famous stomp-your-feet Shabbat services.
Now that the little-meshugge Jewish meditation group-that-could is a full-fledged synagogue, it gives me great hope that “alternative Judaism” — that which aspires to inspire the soul using the ancient texts in a context that makes sense in the present moment — might have a fighting chance as a widespread movement.
In “How A ‘Jewish Rave’ Grew Up to Be A Synagogue” at Forward.com, Zeek editor Jo Ellen Green Kaiser examines how a loosey group of 40 has gained momentum and given rise to a movement that almost transcends definition, let alone affiliation:
Drawing from the Jewish meditation movement, the Renewal movement (particularly its embrace of Hasidic chant and dance), feminist liturgy, and African and Middle Eastern music, the new Jewish spirituality defines itself as an alternative to both formulaic davening and rationalist, English-based, sit-in-the-pew prayer.
Meditative Feminist African Dance Judaism? Sheesh, I thought that was something I made up after inhaling too much besamim. Now I find out that not only is it a recognized tendril of modern Judaism (it doesn’t get more validating than the Forward) but that there’s an actual synagogue I could affiliate with — if I still lived in the Bay Area.
*sigh* Sounds dreamy. Still, I know enough about Jews and opinions to figure out that it’s not easy to harness a community of unorthodox observers. Chochmat Halev is trying to find the balance of containing itself within a “traditional” congregational format while maintaining its freethinking mission, and there’s also a paradoxical problem of what was fringe moving into the mainstream, kinda like when punk music actually started selling albums. Green Kaiser rightfully asks, “What happens when an anti-establishment movement establishes itself?”
Although, really, when spinning like an ecstatic Sufi during the Amidah becomes mainstream, I will likely be far dead and gone. But could we be on our way towards (or back?) to a more authentic, connected form of worship that would bring all those “J.J’s” home?
Can the new Jewish spirituality be institutionalized? Chochmat’s example shows that a very different kind of Judaism can exist within the four walls of a synagogue … a sign that American Jews are ready to change the content of their worship, if not the institutional structure in which it takes place.
Well, at least they are in Berkeley, anyway. Here in Savannah, I’m not sure the Jews are ready to change the tune of “Adon Olam” to something that doesn’t put everyone to sleep. But Udi the Shaliach and I are plotting to get this Havdalah rave thing off the ground with a family-friendly dance party, disco lights and some Israeli acid jazz (Infected Mushroom roolz, yo!) so who knows — perhaps the new Jewish spirituality might sneak its way into the deep South.
Until then, a meditative, bumpin’-beat Good Shabbos to all!
*T-Shirt available from LonelyDinosaur.com.