Spiritual awakening transforms agnostic into singing maggidah

Like many of her Gen-X peers, in her early 20s Rachel Ravitz was basically agnostic. But then she had a spiritual awakening that put her on a path of devotion from Sufism to Buddhism, and finally back to her Jewish roots.

The singer, guitarist and storyteller now shares Jewish music and narrative in an effort to awaken others to the spiritual resources of Judaism.

Her “Song of Ascents” program for women mixes traditional and original songs with thoughts from the Torah. The program traces her journey through the world’s religions and the spiritual path that led her back to Judaism. Although Ravitz and her musician husband, Mattisyahu Brown (not to be confused with Chassidic reggae star Matisyahu), sometimes perform together as the duo Milk & Honey, she mostly performs solo, for women only.

“Being together with women creates a uniquely intimate atmosphere where sharing on a deep level is possible,” says Ravitz, 39, who lives in Brooklyn. She was recently in San Francisco to bring her “Song of Ascents” program to Chabad women, visiting Santa Rosa and Mendocino last week for additional performances.

“I’m passionate about Judaism and sharing with Jews the beauty of their own tradition, because so many are not connected,” she adds.

One of the tools that Ravitz uses in her performances is Chassidic storytelling. She studied in a maggidic training program and although she never met him in person, was deeply influenced by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, “The Singing Rabbi.”

Ravitz wasn’t always so devoted to Judaism. She was raised Jewish, but studying theater in college, she was a disaffected Gen-Xer. Then she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and had to go through chemotherapy, and ended a relationship with a man she was dating.

Ravitz started reading her ex’s books on topics like shamanism, mysticism and Gnosticism to try and better understand him. A book on Sufism made a particular impact.

“It was very devotional, talking about God as compassionate, merciful and loving,” says Ravitz, who was also touched by the poetry of Rumi. She moved from her native eastern Pennsylvania to New York City shortly after her treatment and found herself invited to a dhikr ceremony, a Sufi devotional ritual involving chanting, drumming and singing.

It was through the Sufis that she met her future husband in 1992. They were married in a Sufi ceremony in 1994, and together journeyed through the world’s major religious traditions.

In 1998, the couple went with an interfaith Buddhist community to meditate at Auschwitz, and then with Sufis to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

“We ultimately were drawn to exploring Judaism as well, and ended up going to the synagogue of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach — a place of great devotion, singing and dancing,” Ravitz says.

While still heavily involved with the Sufis, Ravitz and Brown started writing music to the entire Jewish parable. Then around Passover in 2001 they journeyed to Israel.

“By then we were discovering that the Jewish path was where we needed to be,” Ravitz says. “So we had made three major pilgrimages … Israel was really inspiring and eye-opening … and we were writing more and more Jewish music.”

The couple renewed their vows in a Jewish wedding in 2001. Ravitz yearns to pursue music and storytelling full time, and is working on an album with her husband.

“My favorite thing is to open people up to the joy, beauty and inner teachings of Judaism so that Jews can find that their tradition is a resource for them, not only spiritually but practically,” Ravitz says. “The essence of the Jewish path is bringing heaven down to earth, bringing God-consciousness into every action.”