Ruach Ha’Aretz: Jewish Renewal at its Best

RuachRabbi Daniel Siegel, the first rabbi Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, z”l, Jewish Renewal’s founder, ordained, teaching Tanya, unpacking the Hebrew with gentle and infectious excitement. The texts fairly flowered before us.

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan teaching theodicy (and the Book of Lamentations) with the help of poster-sized post-it notes. By the end of the week the room was filled with questions both human and eternal: What is God’s role in and on this earth? When God turns away, where do we turn?

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg and Rabbi Shohama Wiener team-teaching with bubbly enthusiasm and alternating bursts of energy and reflection in a Catholic retreat center in New Mexico. A combination to be experienced. Devoutly.

The davennen. Services rendered creatively or “traditionally,” some with movement, some with what Reb Zalman called “American nusach.” One mincha I remember was completely silent; nothing but breathing deeply and listening.

I remember the play the children put on for all of us one year. It was based on the legend of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, the thirty-six righteous persons who live quietly, anonymously; generous to all whose lives they touch. Without their presence on this earth, humanity could not survive. The laughter was lively; the insights sweet. Each child twirled or jumped or stroked an imaginary beard. They all had roles to play. Each was important.

I won’t forget the richness and the joy to be found at Ruach Ha’Aretz.

Ruach Ha’Aretz, ALEPH’s mobile retreat center, is run by Rabbis Nadya and Victor Gross. During my years studying for ordinations as a rabbi and as a mashpiah ruchanit (spiritual director), I went every summer – for the classes, for the davennen, for the sheer lovely wonder of Jewish Renewal at its best.

This year I’ll be teaching at Ruach. Our retreat theme is deep ecumenism, in honor of Reb Zalman. Deep ecumenism, for Zalman, meant transcending the task of learning tolerance or respect for other traditions. It meant engaging and participating on the richest of levels. We learn about ourselves when we get inside another way of thinking about God, about prayer, about holiness itself.

I teach many classes on the history of Jewish life in Christian realms. The territory is tender, difficult to traverse. It is pockmarked by hidden mines and open wounds. And yet, there were times before Christians and Jews built boundaries that have caused so much suffering. There were times, places, and spiritual spaces when they were able to transcend them.

Imagine yourself living during the first centuries of the Common Era, when ancient Judeans asked themselves and each other: Is Jewishness a question of religious belief, ethnicity, or geographic origin? Who genuinely belongs in Christian communities? Who belongs in Jewish ones? In some Roman homes of those first centuries, the gentile inhabitants lit Sabbath lamps. In others, Jews explained the teachings of Christ, the Messiah. “God-fearers,” men and women who made donations and swore oaths to YHVH, visited synagogues in Rome, in Alexandria, and Sardis.

Where were the boundaries between Christian and Jewish practices, between what we understood as holy and sacred in one tradition and what might be revered in the other? These are questions we have asked in every century we have shared. Jews of the Middle Ages put the iron key of a local synagogue in a laboring woman’s hand to help ward off the demons; when no synagogue was nearby, they sometimes approached their Christian neighbors to borrow the one that opened the church doors. The key to either house of God appeared to be a key to protection.

During my class, students will be taking something like Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back Machine. I want us to explore other times when formative ecumenical conversations pivoted around questions of identity and boundaries. I want to see what happens when we bring Jews, Christians, pagans and philosophers to life in role-plays, in reenactments, in re-living. We will “channel” a slave of the second century C.E. whose Jewish education was overseen by the God-fearers of a local synagogue; we’ll try on the spiritual clothing of a Jewish Christian of a century earlier. We might become 16th century Jews who offered intercessory prayer in Christian cemeteries.

Wherever we land, we will ask: What really makes us Jewish or others Christian? How do we, as inhabitants of the 21st century earth, want to converse – deeply, and with understanding – with others?

Our boundaries and identities are a product of the past. But they can also be transformed by learning more deeply about our history. I know that my students and I will come out of our week together changed, surprised, better able to do the work of deep ecumenism.

Like the teachers I learned from, I hope I will give them an experience they will not forget.

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