December 8, 2019

Shul tripping — a nostalgic hippie tours the alternative scene

October 1967: The “Death of Hippie” celebration. We wheeled an empty, open coffin down San Francisco’s Haight Street and thousands of people threw symbolic items into it — beads, swatches of long hair, patchouli-scented incense, tabs of LSD.

For me, the burial of the media-created concept of “hippie” — exactly 40 years ago — signaled the end of the “Summer of Love” and the beginning of a new phase: looking for ways to recreate, without drugs, those intense, life-changing experiences I’d had.

During the next few years, I, like many others — including lots of Jews — embarked on a search. I breathed deeply at yoga ashrams, meditated at Buddhist retreats and lived in communities where I hoped to be spiritually nourished. If these places had at their core a faith that was alien to me, it didn’t matter. What mattered was whether or not they brought me closer to what I was looking for: wonder, mystery, connection.

In the latter part of the 1970s I lived in Israel — two years on a kibbutz and five in Jerusalem — still searching for the transcendental. On the occasions when it came, it was through contact with nature, or the kinds of activities popular in the 1970s: bioenergetics, psychodrama. For years I worked in Jerusalem’s Old City, always a source of wonder for me.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1981. Earning a living and raising children put my spiritual search on the back burner until 1988, when a friend urged me to go to Makom Ohr Shalom (“Place of the Light of Peace”).

On my first visit there, a congregant in his late 30s redid his bar mitzvah — his first, at age 13, had left him with bitter memories. Now, among friends, tears running down his cheeks, this bar mitzvah 2.0 was a profound spiritual experience. He was finally a man.

And I’d finally found my place. I continued attending Makom until 1993, when the founding rabbi, Ted Falcon, moved to Seattle. After that I drifted away from Makom and I’ve rarely been to any organized service since.

I’m not affiliated with any synagogue. Hardly anyone I know is. On those rare occasions when I step inside a “typical” shul, I feel as if I’ve trespassed on private property, as if I’ve walked into an alien country that doesn’t recognize my tribe: Jews who lived fully in the 1960s and have been searching for that lost Garden ever since.

For me, the itch for mystery and connection never waned. At 67, I find myself still yearning for a real-life place of stories and myths that reveal life’s hidden depths; a place intent on repairing the world and repairing ourselves; a place of music and healing, of connection to others and to something larger than ourselves. A place where I would feel my soul resonate, where I could experience a current version — a Jewish version — of that individual and communal joy I remember from 40 years ago.

I do not expect synagogue life to change on my account. But, as my experience at Makom nearly 20 years ago showed me, many congregations have evolved over the last 40 years, and there are now places of Jewish worship that have absorbed the spirit of the 1960s. Places where I might feel comfortable and welcome.

So, this past summer, I made the rounds of alternative synagogues, minyans and chavurot in Los Angeles, to see whether any spoke to me. I visited more than a dozen places that aspire to the spiritual life I associate with the 1960s: They’re egalitarian, inclusive, committed to social action and steeped in music. They seek joyful experience instead of dogma, connection to one another and the outside world rather than status, healing instead of judgment and passionate involvement rather than merely showing up and mouthing prayers.

Some of those I visited meet just once or twice a month, and most function as communities “without walls,” places with no bricks-and-mortar building of their own. In some cases, they meet in a church, either in the main chapel — where symbols of Christianity are temporarily covered — or in a smaller study or library. Some gather in homes. Often, they put little or no stress on the look of the meeting place, depending on the zeal and devotion of the participants to provide the ambience.

Some groups are “self-led,” with no rabbi or cantor. More than half have women rabbis, and all have women in positions of leadership. Many of these groups reach out to non-Jews and welcome those interested in conversion, as well as interfaith couples — people who, according to their own accounts, do not feel comfortable in a normal synagogue.

Though these new groups are sometimes disparaged by other Jews — too mystical, not religious enough, etc. — Mel Gottlieb, rabbi, teacher and a dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR), sees value in that they have “reached out to people who are not traditionally based” and given them a “sense of belonging, community, family….”

Still, the growth of these groups and their practices prompts the questions: Is there a right way or a wrong way to be Jewish? And just who gets to decide?

The Web site for IKAR (“Essence”) — a community practicing passionate, egalitarian prayer and committed social action — makes this promise: “Not your bubbe’s synagogue.” The same could be said about all the places I visited.

A bit of history. In 1968, soon after the “Death of Hippie” celebration, in the same neighborhood where we’d wheeled the coffin, The House of Love and Prayer opened its doors as a Neo-Chasidic outreach to Haight-Ashbury’s young, Jewish-born denizens.

The House of Love and Prayer was founded and led by Shlomo Carlebach, who was in his mid-40s at the time. Rabbi Zalman Schachter, a frequent visitor and fellow former Lubavitcher, was also in his 40s then. (Schachter would later add Shalomi to his last name.) The two had been Chabad’s first shlichim — emissaries — visiting college campuses together as early as 1950, and they are arguably the two most important figures in the movements we’re talking about. [SEE VIDEO BELOW]

“Someone once asked Shlomo why he called it ‘The House of Love and Prayer,'” said Debra Orenstein, the current rabbi at Makom Ohr Shalom. “Shlomo said, ‘If I’d called it Temple Israel, no one would have come.’ What I love about Zalman and Shlomo was that their outreach was in the idiom of the day…. But what were they actually doing? They were doing Shabbos. They were singing Chasidic melodies. They were showing [young Jews] that the values they held dear … could be found in their own culture.”