Peace, philanthropy and psychedelics: A Jewish lens on the ascendant popularity of psychoactive substances
Proponents say the use of psychedelics can provide an opportunity for people of various faith communities to connect more deeply to their spiritual traditions
Courtesy of Natalie Lyla Ginsberg
Tune in, turn on…and heal Jewish trauma using psychedelics?
Timothy Leary’s famous — and somewhat repurposed — 1966 quote contributed to what is a common cultural assumption about LSD and psychoactive drugs: that they are countercultural and dangerous. While there’s certainly risk involved, especially in unsupervised situations or reckless circumstances, some psychologists have long believed these substances — under the right circumstances and as part of a regimen of care— may revolutionize the future of mental health care and healing from trauma.
The use of substances that are entheogenic — derived from the Latin entheos, “full of the god, inspired, possessed” — can also provide an opportunity for people of various faith communities to connect more deeply to their spiritual tradition, to heal from mental illness, and to cope with Jewish trauma. Despite the fact that many may still not see the words “Jewish” and “psychedelics” as natural companions, the renewal of interest in psychoactive substances is finding an audience and a group of supporters who are funding medical trials and faith-based explorations.
“Since the 1960s, Jews have been using drugs in casual and conscious ways,” Rabbi Zac Kamenetz, founder and CEO of Shefa, an organization that offers virtual “integration” circles and other kinds of Jewish-related community for people who have had entheogenic experiences, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “They’ve been using them at concerts, in their basements, at dinner parties, Shabbat dinners… But there’s also been Jews who have been using psychedelics and other substances as a way of investigating or deepening their own Jewish sense of self, their own practice, their own desire for mystical experience,” said the former director of Jewish living and learning at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
The group of substances known as psychedelics, psychoactive drugs (or entheogens) includes psilocybin (mushrooms), Ayahuasca (a psychoactive mixture of plants), MDMA (known as Ecstasy or Molly) and mescaline (known as San Pedro), peyote and LSD. Marijuana is now legal for medical use in 38 states and recreational use in 19 states and the District of Columbia, but is also — along with MDMA, LSD and Ecstasy — considered a Schedule 1 substance, with “no medical value and high potential for abuse.” But this status discounts the fact that many psychoactive substances are medicines integral to Indigenous cultures or were developed in research labs and delivered great healing promise in early trials.
In the new Netflix documentary series “How to Change Your Mind,” journalist Michael Pollan (who wrote the book of the same name) explores the world of psychedelics, speaking with practitioners of shamanic medicine, scientists and mental health professionals. The fourth episode profiles patients whose traumas — from violent family losses to traumatic wartime experiences — were treated by taking MDMA in a controlled and supervised context, for a limited duration, within the larger context of talk therapy.
That episode features the work of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research and educational organization founded in 1986 by Rick Doblin, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Chicago. MAPS has grown from 14 people to 200 people and is having an impact abroad, including in Israel.
According to Keren Tzarfaty, co-founder of the Hakomi Institute of Israel, a trainer for MAPS in Israel and the clinical investigator in the FDA-approved clinical trial examining the impact of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy on severe PTSD patients, the trial is running in two governmental hospitals (Sheba Medical Center and Beer Yaakov-Ness Ziona Mental Health Center). They are now in the third and final phase of the MAPS study, Tzarfaty told eJP in an email.
“MAPS works, first and foremost, to develop MDMA-assisted therapy for the treatment of PTSD through the FDA process,” said Natalie Lyla Ginsberg, MAPS’ global impact officer, who founded MAPS’ policy team when she joined the organization eight years ago. However, she added, MAPS also works to end drug prohibition through decriminalization and regulation; its mission is developing “medical, legal and cultural contexts for the safe and beneficial use of psychedelics, including marijuana.
“We’re one to two years out from having legal MDMA with a therapist,” she said, noting that doesn’t mean MDMA shops will pop up when the therapy is approved, she explained — MDMA would only be available in that medical therapy context.
Highly Grounded: Jewish Psychedelic Connections
In her work with MAPS, Ginsberg noticed that the spaces exploring psychedelics attracted a lot of Jewish people; as she engaged with them, she discovered that many never explored Jewish ancestral and mystical and spiritual practices.
“For me, personally, it’s been an incredibly grounding, nourishing, deeply, deeply important process to connect to my ancestral songs and traditions that I grew up [with], singing many of these prayers, and then to be able to use them in a really intentional context for my own spiritual growth or healing, has just been really powerful,” Ginsberg said.
The 2020 discovery of cannabis residue on two altars in Tel Arad, Israel, and some scholars’ interpretations of the Torah’s mentions of “kaneh bosem” (“fragrant blossom”) to mean cannabis, helped Ginsberg connect to her work even more deeply.
“For me, it’s important that it doesn’t feel so out of nowhere and brand new,” Ginsberg said. “But at the same time, it also feels important that we, as modern Jews, can engage with these practices in ways that are supportive to us.”
In therapeutic environments, she added, some facilitators — who observe and interact with the person who is receiving the medication — may not be familiar with the history of Jewish trauma or Jewish culture; but if, for example, in an Ayahuasca ceremony, people are processing Holocaust-related or Jewish mystical visions, “having a Jewish context can be quite beautiful for people who want that,” she said.
“We have in our traditions talented, religious, spiritual geniuses, that have experienced expanded states of consciousness through no drug use: mystics, tzadikim, holy people who have traveled to far-off worlds, worlds inside and worlds beyond, into abstract concepts, pictures of the cosmos. We see all of these different permutations of the divine name, or all these like very wild and vivid maps of how all of the sephirot work together,” said Kamenetz, referring to kabbalistic attributes. “And those are expanded states of consciousness. And so when someone eats a couple of [psychoactive] mushrooms, and encounters God knows what, I have found that people are looking for something inside their own tradition, to help support their own integration, to make meaning, to ground those experiences in a way that feels like it’s an ongoing part of their life, and not just something that happened in the past.”
The Jewish Psychedelic Summit
In 2021, Ginsberg and Kamenetz teamed up with journalist Madison Margolin, founder of Double Blind: A Psychedelic Magazine about Science, Culture & Consciousness, to found the Jewish Psychedelic Summit, a virtual gathering of 1,500 participants who tuned in for conversations about why ending the war on drugs is a Jewish and psychedelic imperative, why so many Jews are drawn to India and whether or not Jewish mysticism can be a psychedelic framework and more.
“We all knew that there was this hidden community amongst us that lots of Jews have done psychedelics, but there was this, for obvious reasons, like a stigma around celebrating that publicly,” Kamenetz said, adding that while people might have talked about it privately, they never said, “we are Jewish, we are psychedelic and we want to celebrate that…we knew that that was so important and meaningful to so many different kinds of Jews, that it felt like there was a need to have a coming-out party.”
Margolin does deep reporting on the intersection between psychedelics and Judaism; her most recent Double Blind article focuses on an emergent movement of religious and/or Hasidic Jews who are questioning the strictures of their communities and exploring the use of psychedelics. “In a way, current drug experimentation among young Hasidic Jews could be interpreted as an attempt to regain the spirituality that was lost over years of just trying to control and survive the trauma,” Margolin writes in that piece.
Jews are interested in reclaiming lost lineages and traditions, Kamenetz added. “Specifically in the psychedelic space, there’s something around the lineage of indigenous plant workers, plant medicine, wisdom holders, they talk about their lineage so often, and that’s how you have some sort of authority to speak about it in the present, or to be giving people medicine in the present. We have lost these lineages of students and teachers, who were speaking and teaching and training young people and older people about achieving these ecstatic states…So I think people are desirous of starting to reaffirm those lineages for themselves and see themselves as being part of those traditions that have been lost or forgotten.”
The work of psychedelics research and drug reform could not have happened without philanthropy, Ginsberg said. “This work literally would not have happened without philanthropists, because it historically has not been supported by the government, and at times has even been opposed by the government,” she said, adding that although they do work within government systems (including the FDA) to do the research, philanthropy is “a huge part of MAPS, we’ve raised over $130 million, philanthropically over 36 years.”
Jewish funders have been a big part of that picture, too, Ginsberg said, including board members David Bronner, the top executive at Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, and entrepreneur Joe Green, who both serve on the MAPS board, and Tao Capital Partners managing director Joby Pritzker, now board member emeritus. MAPS’ health-equity initiative, providing access to treatment and training opportunities to bring MDMA-assisted therapy to communities that need it, is funded by Pritzker’s Libra Foundation, Dr. Bronner’s, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative (PSFC), co-founded by Joe Green. Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies provided support for the initiative, as well, designating some of the funding for training scholarships. And the Steve and Alex Cohen Foundation, one of the largest private funders of psychedelic research in the country, has given more than $18.9 million to psychedelic projects, including MAPS.
Kamenetz has received a pledge of support for Shefa from Dr. Bronner’s Family Foundation and funding from the Riverstyx Foundation, in addition to other Jewish backers.
Another Jewish Psychedelic Summit is in the works but has not yet been publicly announced. The plan is for the conference to be biennial, so the next one would be in May 2023.
The popularity of the summit and the recent selection of Shefa for the 13th cohort of the UpStart Venture Accelerator mark some increased visibility for the venture.
Kamenetz said he still gets calls from rabbinical students who credit their psychedelic activity for their career path, or who are getting psychedelics treatment for depression, and want to Jewishly ritualize it by incorporating or writing new liturgy, visiting the mikvah etc. “People are desirous to Judaify this, and it feels like a little bit of spiritual affirmative action,” he said.
With psychedelic medicine already addressing mental health issues, other practical applications for the substances may emerge. Ginsberg, working with Leor Roseman, a then-doctoral researcher with Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris at the Centre for Psychedelic Research (CPR) at Imperial College London, and Antwan Saca, a peace and nonviolence activist and interfaith group facilitator who was formerly director of programs at Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, interviewed 13 Palestinians and 18 Jewish Israelis who drink Ayahuasca together; some participants had partaken more than 10 times each and some more than 100 times. That effort, documented in a paper she co-authored, “Can Psychedelics Play a Role in Making Peace and Healing Cycles of Trauma? Early Reflections on Interviews with Palestinians and Israelis Drinking Ayahuasca Together,” was funded by American-Israeli Moshe Tov-Kreps, a supporter of MAPS and the founder of Maqamat Music Center in Tzfat.
“Though many reported connecting beyond identity,” the authors state in the paper, “many were also guided by the intergenerational beauty, wisdom, music, language, and spirit of the ‘other’ side, prompting powerful visions of historical trauma, often experienced through an opposing lens. For example, one Palestinian man reported having a journey as an Israeli soldier, seeing through the lens of a rifle, and feeling a deep compassion for this 18-year-old. A Jewish woman recalls: ‘[At] almost every retreat, there is a moment in which [a small group of Palestinians] are comfortable enough to sing in Arabic. This is always an amazing moment…suddenly you hear your most hated language, by far, maybe the only language in the world that you really didn’t like, and suddenly it sends you to light and love.’”