Brian Rohr says Jewish Renewal is the reason he rediscovered Judaism.
That’s true for many adherents of the New Age, neo-Chasidic approach that is based on many of the values and aesthetics of the love-and-peace era in which it emerged four decades ago.
But Rohr, a massage therapist in Chicago, is 30, not in his 50s, 60s or 70s like most of the people at the Aleph Kallah, the biennial celebration of the Jewish Renewal movement that took place here in early July. He was one of several dozen young Jews in their 20s and early 30s who showed up to dance, sing and pray with their elders.
While many of their peers across the country are drawn to Jewish culture or social action work, or nothing Jewish, these young Renewalniks are seeking a deep, spiritual connection to their faith. They want to pray with intention, and want a God who is kind and loving.
They’re finding it in a community of people twice, even three times their age.
Stacey Bhaerman was 26 when she first encountered Jewish Renewal at a 2002 Rosh Hashanah service in Albuquerque.
“The service fit beautifully,” she said. “I felt it for the first time in years.”
Bhaerman is now 31, works on political campaigns and is president of her Renewal community in Princeton, N.J. She’s also its youngest member. The vitality and warmth of the congregation has cured her of “ageism,” she said.
“When I say ‘my friend’ now, it can mean someone a generation older,” she said. “I’m glad I have that.”
These young Jews don’t seem put off by the gray hair and hippie garb. If they are they smile, put up with it as they would a birthday party thrown by their grandmother and groove on a message they say is completely relevant.
“I view it as a very joyous celebration of Judaism,” said Cara Suvall, 22, who just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and is starting Harvard Law School in the fall.
Suvall grew up in what she describes as a traditional Conservative home. She and her parents “discovered” Jewish Renewal together two years ago at the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality, a program of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn.
Last summer she went to Israel on the first Renewal birthright trip in order to experience the country on “a more spiritual level” than she might otherwise get.
“We chanted and sang and beach-danced our way across Israel,” she said. “It was amazing.”
Jewish Renewal is different in Israel, says Rachel Warczberger, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on the topic at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“In Israel it’s a much younger phenomenon, people in their 20s and 30s,” she said. “It speaks to a lot of secular young people who are finding Judaism as their spiritual language. Instead of going to India, they find it in Jewish Renewal.”
Whether in North America or Israel, the young people who come to Jewish Renewal have to be actively seeking it. It’s not something they typically experience in their Jewish upbringing.
Rohr, who says he only had a bar mitzvah to please his parents, abandoned the Judaism of his Reform synagogue as a child. But he was “very spiritual,” he said, and spent years in a quest for meaning that took him from Buddhism to shamanism to Native American culture.
“I never in a million years thought of going to Judaism,” he said.
Two years ago he met Rabbi Aryah Hirschfield of the P’nai Or Renewal community in Portland, Ore.
Rohr said Hirschfield taught him “the juicy stuff that was missing when I was growing up.”
“I realized that Judaism could be a viable spiritual path for me,” he said. “That shattered my worldview.”