Accessibility, Authenticity and Setting the Bar

Or HaLevBy Rabbi Sara Brandes

In the age of the sovereign self, when identities are dynamic and everything is for sale, we producers of Jewish experience grapple with a fundamental question – accessibility vs. authenticity? It is the same conundrum Hillel and Shammai faced when the latter told the seeker who approached him that it was impossible to learn the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot, while the former instead tweeted, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor,” adding the open-ended enticement, “The rest is commentary. Now, go and study” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). Today, the question feels more urgent, in light of the changing global landscape and concerns over Jewish continuity. Which posture resonates most with millennials, we wonder – a welcoming Judaism which is comfortable and recognizable, even to a first-time visitor, or a rich Judaism, ancient and complicated, one worthy of further investigation?

The dual hats I wear as rabbi and Jewish professional afford me an interesting perspective on this question. During the summers, I serve as rabbi-in-residence at Camp Alonim of the American Jewish University, the living Jewish laboratory shaped by the educational philosophy of Dr. Shlomo Bardin. With the support of Justice Louis Brandeis, Bardin discovered that he could stem the tide of Jewish assimilation and transform the landscape of the Los Angeles Jewish community by following the principle, “First we touch, and then we teach.” His way was to engage the unaffiliated in their cultural heritage through the arts, especially Jewish song and dance. Only after participants were moved, would he turn to matters of text and ritual obligation. This approach thrives to this day, as families return to Alonim year after year, in love with their Jewish community, but unsure how to move beyond it, into the wider Jewish ecosystem.

The Or HaLev: Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, whose leadership I have recently assumed, takes the opposite approach. While our founder and Spiritual Director, Dr. Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches in a variety of settings, in a manner that is most open and welcoming, the primary activity of Or HaLev is the facilitation of six-day silent Jewish meditation retreats around the world. Six days in silence is not something that Shammai would scoff at – it is a high bar of entry. Most of us find the prospect totally impossible, either because of our responsibilities or our proclivities. And yet, when surveying those who do move mountains to come on retreat with us, they describe their experiences in the most extreme of terms, saying for example:

“Attending silent retreats has profoundly changed the nature of my relationship to Jewish life. Revealing how the Jewish tradition provides insight in how to manage human pain has been a priceless gift.“ Stephanie, 36

“I came expecting to learn some interesting new things and to relax, but not expecting to be transformed. And I was transformed.” Dan, 19

In getting to know the many successes of Or HaLev, I am struck by how unique this high bar has become in our modern liberal Jewish world, as we compete with the infinite opportunities available in the digital age. It seems a luxury to offer Judaism in its rich fullness, with kindness, but without apology for its complexity.

The common thread between the approaches of Brandeis-Bardin and Or HaLev is the creation of a fully immersive Jewish experience. Before the global age, before assimilation and modernity, Judaism touched all aspects of ones life. It was impossible to separate the legal, the ritual, the emotive, and the transformative, from the Jewish, and perhaps this is how Judaism is meant to be encountered. Both on retreat and when at camp, Judaism is not learned, it is breathed, woven through with laughter, tears and deep human connection.

If there is one thing that characterizes the information age, it is the number of disparate stimuli we we face in every moment. The antidote then, and the essential ingredient, may be to turn down the volume some, to limit the input so that we can absorb and enjoy. Such mindfulness is what we practice at Or HaLev on our meditation retreats. While the tool there is mindfulness, the subject is the whole of life, experienced through a Jewish lens. The pre-requisite is a stepping away from the mundane, from the normal flow of life, and into a world that is sacred. It’s a lot to ask, but our participants tell us that it’s worth it.

Rabbi Sara Brandes is Executive Director at the Or HaLev: Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation. Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Sara is past California Director at Moving Traditions and continues to serve as Rabbi-in-Residence to the Camp Alonim community in Los Angeles. She lives with her family at Kibbutz Hanaton in Israel and is author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems