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Jews Looking Outside Synagogues for New Rituals and Life-cycle Events

October 11, 2005
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Sam Sontag’s parents wanted him to have a bar mitzvah, but they aren’t religious and felt it would be hypocritical to join a congregation. Shalva Sorani is active in her Berkeley, Calif., congregation, but when she faced a mastectomy her friends wanted a female rabbi to lead their all-women healing circle.

These are some of the people served by Rachel Brodie and Julie Batz, founders and co-directors of The Ritualist, a Bay Area-based nonprofit that researches and supports independent Jewish life-cycle rituals — weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs — and other events held outside the framework of a synagogue.

It’s a growing trend nationwide, Brodie says. A Jewish educator who holds a master’s degree from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Brodie says people began asking her to do their Jewish ceremonies almost a decade ago.

The phenomenon is going on especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region with particularly low affiliation rates. Just 22 percent of Bay Area Jewish households belong to synagogues, according to a recent survey. When these people want a Jewish ceremony to mark an important life-cycle event, Brodie and Batz says, they don’t know where to go.

"There’s so much going on in the Jewish community under the term ‘outreach,’ and this is an example of people who don’t belong reaching out to the synagogue community," says Batz, a business consultant and shaliach tzibur, or service leader, for a local congregation. "It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to say, ‘we’d like you to have a really deep, meaningful Jewish experience.’ "

But what this trend actually produces is up for debate, as some say it merely provides a one-time rabbi rather than strengthening the Jewish community.

In early 2004, Brodie and Batz secured a research grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. Batz says they were shocked to find more than 100 rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and other ritual facilitators working actively in the East Bay alone, conducting traditional rituals as well as creating a whole host of new ones: mikvah ceremonies for rape victims; New Age healing circles with Jewish prayers; a coming-of-age ritual for a boy who had just received his drivers’ license.

But Brodie and Batz found no organization connecting the people who want these ceremonies with the professionals ready to help them.

As the two women built up their database of facilitators, and as more Jews heard of their work and started contacting them, they found themselves providing a personal referral service. They talk to the people who call and try to connect them with appropriate clergy or lay facilitators.

Some of the callers are young and haven’t settled permanently in the area. Others haven’t found a synagogue where they feel comfortable.

Some, says Batz,"are on the margins of the Jewish community," often because they’re interracial or interfaith couples, or are gay or lesbian. They want to mark life-cycle events Jewishly, but don’t feel comfortable in traditional congregations.

Later this fall Brodie and Batz hope to launch a Web site, with money from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, "so if you’re planning a Jewish wedding, you can go to one site to find liturgy, ritual ideas, a rabbi and a Jewish caterer," Batz says.

The Web site also will help clergy and lay facilitators share ideas and rituals, creating a virtual professional network.

Not everyone is pleased with the phenomenon.

Rabbi Danny Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, is concerned that in meeting the personal needs of individuals, groups like The Ritualist are ignoring the needs of the larger Jewish community, which needs Jews to affiliate with it.

"I see it very much as an extension of the ‘rent-a-rabbi’ phenomenon, dressed in different clothing," he says. "It’s wonderful people doing this work, creating exciting new rituals, but I don’t think it helps us build community, which is the second half of the equation."

Brodie understands the ambivalence many rabbis and Jewish leaders feel about independent rituals and the people who lead them. There are charlatans out there, she admits. But this is different.

"We are most definitely not rent-a-rabbi," she insists. "These facilitators have enormous integrity, they don’t just come for the ceremony. They take the time to mentor, often much more time than a congregational rabbi.

"These are people who strongly believe people should have meaningful rituals regardless of their synagogue affiliation."

One of the facilitators Brodie refers people to is Reform Rabbi Bridget Wynne. A congregational rabbi for the past 11 years, Wynne says she tries to steer callers toward a suitable congregation, but usually they call because they’ve already decided not to be a member, she says.

Some belong to a congregation but their rabbi can’t meet a particular need, such as an interfaith wedding or a funeral where there has been a cremation.

"The message is, ‘Even if you don’t belong to a synagogue, we want to make sure you get what you need,’ " she says.

Brodie says that while she and Batz don’t try to push unaffiliated clients into joining a congregation, it often happens naturally.

But sometimes they don’t want to affiliate, and Brodie says that doesn’t mean they don’t feel a strong Jewish identity.

"If you ask our clients, they say they’re in the Jewish community," she says.

Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, agrees that there’s a need "to find new ways to open doors to people."

In August he officiated at a bat mitzvah for a family that belongs to a congregation, but their rabbi wasn’t able to accommodate their request for an afternoon, outdoor ceremony.

"To call that weakening the Jewish community confuses the building with the community,’ Artson says. "While you want to encourage people to be partners in real community whenever possible, the reality of modern life is we have multiple identities, and the notion that one shtetl fits all is not realistic."

Most often, unaffiliated Jews find themselves reaching out for ritual when a crisis occurs, or when they have a child.

When Loralei and Jerry Sontag’s son Sam was born, Loralei Sontag started "synagogue shopping" so Sam would have a Jewish education.

Raised by Communist grandparents in a heavily Jewish Chicago neighborhood, Sontag got her Jewish identity through osmosis. Her husband had even less of a Jewish upbringing.

Sam went to day school for a year but his learning disabilities proved too difficult, so Loralei Sontag started to home-school him. When it was time for him to prepare for his bar mitzvah, a friend gave her Batz’s name.

Batz worked with Sam for two years, and the bar mitzvah was held last November at the Berkeley Hillel.

Even Sontag’s father, who refused until the last minute to go up on the bimah to take part in the passing of the Torah scroll, finally relented.

"His heart was really warmed," she says. "Everyone sat and wept. I didn’t know a Jewish ritual could be like that."

Sam wants to continue learning Hebrew, and this fall he returned to his former Jewish day school — at his own insistence.

While most of the people who turn to The Ritualist are unaffiliated, Shalva Saroni is a longtime member of her Conservative congregation. She was diagnosed with cancer, and the day before her mastectomy in 2003, some of her friends called Brodie to organize a women’s healing circle.

The women walked silently into a room, did a ritual washing and meditated quietly before chanting, praying and reading verses in Hebrew and English. They created a tallit together, and each woman gave Saroni a personal talisman to take with her to the hospital.

When her cancer returned last December, the healing circle became a monthly event.

"It helps me keep my faith and my hope, realizing there are so many Jewish teachings I can learn to support myself," she says.

These stories convince Brodie that she and Batz are performing a badly needed service.

"Our work is not meant to be a threat or competition" to existing congregations, she says. "This isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s about Jews who, for a huge variety of reasons, aren’t going through a synagogue. Better that someone has a meaningful, transformative Jewish life-cycle ritual than nothing."

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