Reinventing ritual

Sam Sontag’s parents wanted him to have a bar mitzvah, but the Berkeley family isn’t religious and felt it would be hypocritical to join a congregation.

Tamir Scheinok’s fiancee Mimi Choi was considering converting to Judaism, but the Oakland resident hadn’t committed yet, so the family rabbi wouldn’t marry them.

Shalva Sorani of Oakland was active at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, but when she faced a double mastectomy and follow-up treatment, her friends wanted a woman, rather than the synagogue’s male rabbi, to lead their all-women healing circle.

Those 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 lifecycle rituals — weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs and other rites, traditional or not, 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 Jewish Theological Seminary, Brodie says that people began asking her to do their Jewish ceremonies almost a decade ago.

“At first I was uncomfortable with it,” she admits, “but I spoke to colleagues all over the country and they were being asked to do the same thing. Then it hit me: Something is going on here.”

It’s especially prevalent in the 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 those people want a Jewish ceremony to mark an important lifecycle event, Brodie and Batz agree, 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, shaliach tzibbur (service leader) for the Coastside Jewish Community in Half Moon Bay. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to say, ‘We’d like you to have a really deep, meaningful Jewish experience.'”

In 2004, the two women secured a research grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. They were shocked, Batz says, 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; healing circles with Jewish prayers; a coming-of-age ritual for a teen who just got his drivers license.

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

There is one East Coast-based Web site — — that provides a virtual bulletin board where Jews who have developed rituals can post information for others, but it doesn’t connect facilitators and clients.

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 people who phone 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 an interracial or interfaith couple, or are gay or lesbian. They want to mark lifecycle events Jewishly, but don’t feel comfortable in traditional congregations.

Brodie and Batz are improving their Web site — — with money from The 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,” says Batz.

And they recently hired a project manager for additional support.

Their Web site, meanwhile, aims to help clergy and lay facilitators share ideas and rituals, creating a virtual professional network.

But 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.

“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, who is also dean of the Tauber Jewish studies program at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El. 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.”

Some belong to a congregation but their rabbi can’t meet a particular need.

“Most often it’s a Conservative rabbi who won’t do their interfaith wedding, or a rabbi who won’t do a funeral where there’s been a cremation,” she says. That’s when she’ll do the ceremony herself. “The message is, ‘Even if you don’t belong to a synagogue, we want to make sure you get what you need.'”

Wynne most often leads weddings or baby namings, but she won’t do bar or bat mitzvahs. She feels that ritual marks a child’s acceptance into the Jewish community and should be conducted within a congregational setting.

Brodie says that while she and Batz don’t try to push unaffiliated clients into joining a congregation, it often happens naturally. “After the event, because we know the person, we can say, I think you’d like Congregation X, and I’d be happy to call the rabbi for you,” Brodie says.

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. Saying she’d like to stop using the word “unaffiliated,” she points out that “these people are connected, just not affiliated with a congregation.”

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.”

Last August, he officiated at a bat mitzvah for a family who belong to a congregation but whose rabbi was unable to accommodate a 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 after a birth.

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

Raised by communist grandparents in a heavily Jewish Chicago neighborhood, Loralei got her Jewish identity through osmosis. Jerry had even less of a Jewish upbringing.

Sam went to day school for a year but his learning disabilities proved too difficult, so Loralei 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 Berkeley Hillel. The family never considered having it at a synagogue, Loralei says, adding that it would have been “too much” for Jerry and most of their family.

“Sam was a new person that day,” says Loralei of the ceremony. “Something happened as he led the service. A new persona emerged.”

Even her 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 last fall he returned to his former Jewish day school — at his own insistence.

The people seeking those kinds of rituals 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 lifecycle ritual than nothing.”

While most of the people who turn to the Ritualist are unaffiliated, Shalva Sorani was a longtime member of Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, 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 Sorani a personal talisman to take with her to the hospital.

Sorani, who once worked as the program manager for Otzma at the Bureau of Jewish Education, found it tremendously comforting. “I didn’t have it in me to think about what I needed or wanted, and I don’t even think synagogues do these kinds of things,” she said at the time.

When her cancer returned in December 2004, the healing circle — led by Brodie and Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, who has since relocated — became a monthly event. “It helped me keep my faith and my hope, realizing there are so many Jewish teachings I can learn to support myself,” she said several months ago.

Brodie continued to lead healing circles monthly for her until Sorani died in early December.

“We were gathering to show support and our faces in whatever her process was at that point,” said Brodie. As difficult as it was to talk about the healing circles after the young mother of two died, Brodie said, “I think she was feeing very held and connected to Judaism through all of this.”

Sue Fishkoff writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency; Alexandra J. Wall is a j. staff writer.

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