Soulmates are hired as co-leaders at Aquarian Minyan

Husband-and-wife teams seem more common in show business than in rabbinical circles. But when Victor Gross met his future wife, Nadya, 26 years ago at the Conservative movement's Camp Ramah in Ojai, it was the beginning of a spiritual partnership.

"As soon as we met," said Victor Gross, now 51, "we recognized that we were soulmates."

After spending 10 years as spiritual leaders of Ohr Hadash, a San Fernando Valley independent congregation, the couple recently assumed that position for the East Bay-based Aquarian Minyan. Known as one of the area's first Jewish Renewal communities, Aquarian Minyan has been self-led by its members for 22 of its 24 years.

When the Grosses interviewed for the position, "it was love at first sight on both sides," said Nadya Gross, 42. "They saw us being able to take them from the point [at which] they had arrived in 24 years and to grow into the future with a shared vision."

Victor Gross characterizes the San Fernando Valley congregation's focus as "neo-Chassidism" and feels Aquarian Minyan is in a similar vein.

"There are two main objectives of both institutions," he said. "One is to grow individually in a spiritual way and the second one is to develop something that doesn't really exist that much in everyday life — and that is a community."

With a membership comprising 130 households, Aquarian Minyan embraces the philosophy of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, whom Victor calls "the grandfather of the Jewish Renewal effort." Schachter-Shalomi's teachings, he said, emphasize an openness to all traditions and religious expressions, including Buddhism and Native American culture.

In 1974, Schachter-Shalomi was a visiting professor at U.C. Santa Cruz and was teaching a class in Jewish mysticism in Berkeley. Several East Bay residents attending the class were members of the House of Love and Prayer, a now-disbanded Jewish Renewal community based in San Francisco. They told Schachter-Shalomi they wished they didn't have to travel over the Bay Bridge for services. He suggested they start a community of their own.

An Aquarian Minyan service typically takes place in a member's home, since the community has no permanent building and does not wish to obtain one. The gatherings are high-energy affairs, often incorporating chanting, drumming, tambourine music and spontaneous dancing.

Victor admits that these gatherings might resemble Grateful Dead shows rather than standard religious services. The Grosses might prepare a theme in advance, but they believe in working without a script and letting the service flow.

"Many years ago, we used to write down what I was going to say," Victor Gross said. "But we found ourselves very limited by black letters on white paper. We are much more in tune with the moment and with the people we're with when we open up and channel the moment."

The Grosses, married 24 years and the parents of four children, have worked together to develop a non-verbal communication that enhances their sermons, Victor Gross said.

"We don't stumble over each other. We sense who's going to move on to the next thing."

At Aquarian Minyan, the couple may not be alone in leading a service. If a member is moved during a quiet moment, such as following a prayer, the member is encouraged to speak up or sing.

"The core membership has done everything they can to become more and more educated and competent in this kind of Judaism in order for them to self-lead the community," Victor Gross said.

Aquarian Minyan's independent philosophy is emphasized at the top of its newsletter in the phrase, "Founded with the core belief that each of us can be a vehicle for the light. And each can be a holy teacher and a holy student in different ways and at different times and dedicated to creating new vessels for the faith of our ancestors."

The community finally decided to hire permanent part-time spiritual leaders as part of an effort to expand its adult education program and to launch a youth education program.

The Grosses are currently working toward ordination through P'nai Or, the Jewish Renewal movement's umbrella organization. Nadya Gross has a master's degree in the sociology of education from U.C. Berkeley, where her husband earned a Ph.D. in the philosophy of education. She said she and her husband spend nearly 24 hours a day together.

"We have done that as long as we've known each other," Nadya Gross said. Each of them was "looking for a partner who would be more than someone you share your family with, but someone who would share life's goals and passions."

Her husband said their growth as a couple benefits their work as spiritual leaders.

"We have a synergistic approach," he said. "The fact that we're soulmates makes it a more complete offering. It has worked well in marital counseling situations. People have come to know each of our strengths and weaknesses. My wife's strength is compassionate listening and my strength is cerebral perspective."

Nadya Gross also works assisting home births. Her method of teaching childbirth preparation has a spiritual component. Recently, while assisting a 29-hour birth, "the parents and I were chanting as we welcomed the child into the world. It was beautiful," she said. "The parents were bringing a baby into the world with spiritual consciousness."

The couple welcomes the spiritual challenge of working with Aquarian Minyan.

"We have a great deal of admiration for what they have accomplished in their unique form," said Nadya Gross. " We came from a place of honoring instead of erasing. "We see ourselves in partnership with them. We are bringing ideas and providing leadership, but always in the spirit of partnership. Our work has always been about that."