Oh, maggid: Berkeley conference to explore leadership role

Sarah Etz Alon works with maggids, trains maggids, hangs out with maggids and herself is a practicing maggid.

Just don’t ask her to define a maggid.

“It’s very difficult to say what a maggid is or what the maggidic movement is,” Etz Alon notes. “It’s a loose, nebulous thing.”

She hopes it might end up a little less nebulous after the third annual Maggidic Conference, which will held for five days starting Wednesday, July 16, at Chochmat HaLev, a center for Jewish learning and meditation in Berkeley. The conference provides maggids a chance to shmooze, exchange ideas and learn more about Jewish ritual.

In the Old Country, the maggid was the traditional storyteller and wandering preacher within the Jewish community. If the rabbi was the intellect, the maggid was the heart.

Maggids have been around since talmudic times — but what is their role today?

The 50 to 100 people (mostly maggids or maggids-in-training) attending the Berkeley conference will seek answers to that question. The event features guest speakers and workshops covering everything from Torah to meditation to Jewish ethics.

Several well-known local figures will appear, including Rabbi Daniel Lev, Rabbi Estelle Frankel and Maggid Jhos Singer.

Maggids today are finding work across the country, usually in Renewal settings, but also in Reform and Conservative synagogues.

They serve as storytellers, song and prayer leaders, or pastoral counselors. Some are ordained; others are not. Some get paid; others volunteer their time. Some work for established congregations, while others freelance.

All are passionate about Judaism and a joy-centered spirituality.

“People don’t want to give their lives over to the rabbis,” explains Etz Alon, an Oregon resident who founded the conference and serves as its executive director. “They want to make choices for themselves. They want to own the process of what it means to be Jewish in their lives. The maggid is the accessible person.”

Russ Cashin, a San Pablo resident, made a career change to become a maggid. He will not only attend the conference, but also will officiate at shacharit prayer services and organize the Shabbaton.

The former teacher says his calling to serve as a maggid comes from his deepest spiritual sense.

“I was drawn to it as a teacher,” he recalls. “Teaching in the Jewish world appealed to me, but it was more a place from the heart, the more spiritual aspect of teaching as opposed to just teaching by rote.”

He completed a two-year maggid training program in New York, then returned to Northern California. Cashin attended last year’s conference, also held at Chochmat HaLev, where he met Etz Alon and other leading figures in the maggidic movement.

“There’s a new type of spiritual leadership emerging in the Jewish community,” Etz Alon says. “Something populist connecting at ground level with people. Something exciting. Not necessarily just professional rabbis are doing cool stuff out there.”

In modern times, figures such as the late rabbi-troubadour Shlomo Carlebach, Jewish Renewal founder Zalman Schechter-Shalomi and even the late Chabad Rebbe Menachem Schneerson inspired the maggidic movement.

“It’s specifically not a top-down movement,” she adds. “It’s very much a grassroots movement. I think it’s taking the rabbinate somewhat by surprise. They’re not sure what to do with it, yet rabbis and cantors are part of it, too.”

Because of the movement’s decentralized nature, there had been no official ordination or education process. For the most part, various maggids around the country had little idea what was happening one or two states over.

That’s why Etz Alon launched her conference, the first one consisting of 12 participants meeting at her home in Eugene, Ore., two years ago.

“The first one went really well,” she says. “I had no idea what to expect. It was like the first Zionist Congress. I knew something was happening, and that we had to bring people together and toss them into the same environment.”

For Cashin, the conference offers not only an opportunity for professional development, but also a chance to tell the world that the maggid movement can change the face of Judaism.

“I see humanity at a critical point in its evolution,” he says. “In the Jewish world we have to have a dynamic shift. We need to bring in the ability to act in the moment from the heart, in spirit, one to one or one to many.”

The Maggidic Conference runs Wednesday, July 16 through July 20 at Chochmat HaLev, 2215 Prince St., Berkeley. For more information or to register: www.maggidconference.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.