Inviting, inclusive, joyful, deep: Aquarian Minyan turns 40

As the sun slips behind the Golden Gate, high in the Berkeley Hills a group of 20 men and women, some past retirement age, others fast approaching it, sit in an open-air circle sipping wine and preparing to welcome the Sabbath Queen.

They take turns speaking from the heart, stating what they wish for themselves this Shabbat and what they want to give up for the next 24 hours. “Sore knees” makes the latter list more than once; serenity, rest and peace in the Middle East make the former.

As the air chills, the group heads indoors for Kabbalat Shabbat. The dumbeks (Middle Eastern drums) come out, as do the photocopied prayerbooks. Singing and the chanting of prayers begin, including the Shema, each syllable drawn out languorously, like a mantra, like a breath.

The vibe is warm and comfy. Occasionally, someone will rise and dance along to the singing. The service ends with blessings, and then everyone digs into a scrumptious potluck dinner.

This is the Aquarian Minyan, doing its thing as it has for four decades.

The Bay Area’s oldest Jewish Renewal congregation marks its 40th anniversary this year. Though a majority of its congregants are aging, they remain on fire for their distinct form of Jewish observance.

One of them is Barry Barkan, 73, a Brooklyn native and certified holy man.

Members of the Aquarian Minyan today welcome Shabbat in the Berkeley Hills (above) photo/dan pine;
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches a group from the minyan in 1981(below) photo/yehudit goldfarb

A ba’al bracha (master of blessings), Barkan describes himself as a “promiscuous blesser.” Whether at Shabbat services, giving money to Berkeley panhandlers or passing fellow shoppers in the produce aisle of Trader Joe’s, Barkan compulsively bestows blessings on others.

He owes it to the Aquarian Minyan, of which he was a founding member. Barkan credits the minyan with providing him a Jewish home that balances tradition with a touch of counterculture spirit.

Barkan says the Aquarian Minyan and its spiritual godfathers, the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (who died July 3), “made room for every Jew to enter as an equal. We didn’t have to bring anything but our hearts and life experience to our Jewish selves.”

The Aquarian Minyan’s influence on other local Renewal congregations, as well as on the Jewish Renewal movement overall, has been incalculable since its founding in 1974.

Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont and Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev both owe their existence to the groundwork laid by the minyan. Both institutions’ founding rabbis — Burt Jacobson and Avram Davis — spent years as part of the minyan’s spiritual community.

More broadly, with the charismatic and influential Schachter-Shalomi and Carlebach devoting time and energy to the minyan, their followers passed through its doors, many of them forming Renewal congregations elsewhere around the country.

In a very real sense, the face of Jewish Renewal itself, which blends egalitarianism and innovation with joyful, Hassidic-flavored spirituality, was sharpened at the Aquarian Minyan.

Reb Zalman got the Aquarian ball rolling in 1974 after leading a Kabbalah workshop in Berkeley. A few acolytes, led by Barkan along with Yehudit and Reuben Goldfarb, formed a kind of proto-havurah. It eventually evolved into the Aquarian Minyan, so named by Barkan after Schachter-Shalomi — considered the father of Jewish Renewal — reminded him they were living in the Age of Aquarius.

Twenty years ago, Schachter-Shalomi certified Barkan as a master of blessings, a designation Reb Zalman much made up himself, which was fine with Barkan. Both Jewish Renewal and the Aquarian Minyan, Barkan adds, “enable the stretching of the Jewish zeitgeist.”

Its style of “living room Judaism” has enthralled members old and new. Lay-led services are held in homes, utilizing a siddur written by members. Group chanting and drumming provide the soundtrack. Reflective, meditative prayer provides the ruach (Hebrew for “soul”).

Today, after four decades, the minyan is in reasonably good shape.

Membership stands at some 80 households, down from a high of 150 but holding steady. Congregants hold Shabbat services, Shabbat lunch and Torah study in homes several times a month. The annual Purimspiel held at Berkeley nightclub Ashkenaz is legendary. The minyan also stages popular services for the High Holy Days (this year at Chochmat HaLev and Rudramandir Center for Spirituality and Healing, both in Berkeley).

But the graying of the minyan is undeniable.

Many members, some of whom go back decades with the minyan, are now in their 60s and 70s. With no brick-and-mortar building, Hebrew school or regular b’nai mitzvah program, attracting young families has proven a challenge.

Without new blood, will the Aquarian Minyan age itself out of existence?

Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank at Shavuot,1994
photo/yehudit goldfarb

It’s a concern to Minyanites. But having made it 40 years, original members are celebrating the journey thus far.

“No matter who is leading [minyan services], it has that depth,” says longtime member Abigail Grafton. “It’s a community founded in a genuine encounter with God. There is a germ of a live spirituality in the minyan.”

A native of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Grafton grew up in an assimilated family. But after attending her first Aquarian Minyan event in the late 1970s, she found herself “mystified and totally attracted.”

She describes attending her first Aquarian Minyan High Holy Days and taking classes with Schachter-Shalomi as “a conversion experience.”

The Berkeley psychotherapist has been active with the minyan ever since. She is a former president (the preferred terms are “shomer” or “shomerit,” Hebrew for “guardian”) and she has had input on the governing board, as well as the minyan’s twice-monthly e-newsletter and website.

Grafton met most of her Bay Area Jewish friends through the minyan. Poets, artists, photographers and other creative people have joined, some staying, some moving on. She notes that many members also belong to or attend services at other local synagogues, such as Chochmat HaLev and Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom, also in Berkeley.

The fact that the Aquarian Minyan holds only two or so services a month might reflect that.

Shlomo Boaz (from left), Eliahu Klein and Reuven Goldfarb help Sandro Wallach prepare for his bar mitzvah in July 1978. photo/yehudit goldfarb

Grafton hopes the minyan can attract younger families and notes that the leadership has considered launching a children’s service and hiring a young spiritual leader next year. They also recently hired Lia Wiss, a part-time administrator and High Holy Days coordinator. Wiss, 63, moved from San Diego to Berkeley three months ago to accept the position and says she already feels at home.

“I’m really impressed by the Aquarian Minyan,” Wiss says, “by their longevity, their talent, the dedication to having a relationship with God within their own community. There is a glue that holds the minyan together that originated with [Carlebach and Schachter-Shalomi]. It’s inviting and inclusive, it’s joyful and deep, and it takes you somewhere. It takes me somewhere.”

The Michigan native has been active in the Jewish Renewal movement since 1990. She attended workshops led by Schachter-Shalomi back East and led many services over the years, often in living rooms, Aquarian Minyan-style.

“We are a haimish community above all else,” she says. “We’re homebodies.”

Wiss echoes Grafton’s intention to prepare a future for the minyan, reaching out to younger families and interfaith couples, though no formal strategy has yet been launched.

Shabbat celebration in October 2009 photo/jyl cohen

“Because we are an aging community we very much want to be intergenerational because we want to see the work continue,” she says. “We believe in it. We’re the elders; we’re the mentors.”

Though no longer affiliated, Kehilla’s rabbi emeritus Burt Jacobson was an early Minyanite. Ordained as a Conservative rabbi, Jacobson met Schachter-Shalomi 50 years ago and was heavily influenced by him. He belonged to the proto-Renewal Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass. in the late ’60s, then dropped out of Judaism, in part because he “felt the strait-jacket of halachah,” or Jewish law.

He came to San Francisco and plunged into the city’s vaunted counterculture. That set the stage for his encounter with the Aquarian Minyan.

“I loved the people,” he recalls. “Most didn’t know anything about Judaism, which was great as far as I was concerned. They didn’t have Jewish hang-ups.”

He didn’t reveal his rabbinic pedigree for a while. But once he did, he put his knowledge to good use leading many services, although he was never officially the Aquarian Minyan staff rabbi.

Jacobson left in the late ’70s, in part because he felt the minyan did not emphasize the progressive politics he believed in. He accepted a post at Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah and, later, formed Kehilla. Still, he credits his time with the minyan with giving him the confidence to become a congregational rabbi.

“I had the sense that I could reinvent the synagogue,” he adds. “Instead of a top-down organization, it could really be a community. I could bring some of the essence of the Aquarian Minyan to a synagogue setting.”

Miriam Stampfer, 67, is one of the minyan elders. The New York native grew up Modern Orthodox, and although she has a doctorate in biology from MIT and does cancer research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, she developed a God concept that harmonizes well with the minyan.

Aryeh Trupin (left) and Daniel Lev play at an Aquarian Minyan wedding in 1983. photo/yehudit goldfarb

After her first High Holy Days with Aquarian Minyan in 1977, she remembers thinking, “Ah yes, this is what I was looking for, baruch HaShem. It was a coming home.”

Stampfer liked the combination of “Chabad plus California off-the-wall,” and what she calls the spiritual “juice” of the minyan. “I went to meetings and got involved,” Stampfer says. “I jumped right in.”

To Stampfer, the minyan was “a place where your spiritual yearnings could blossom and be nurtured within a Jewish context, but not be mind-numbingly halachic.”

She served as treasurer for several terms, but perhaps her most enduring project was revising the High Holy Days machzor, or prayerbook. Over 10 years, she and the minyan’s former rabbi, the late Dan Wolf-Blanke, expanded on the work started by Schachter-Shalomi and Jacobson. That machzor, filled with Stampfer’s original artwork, is still in use.

Though she spends several months out of the year at her second home in Arizona, Stampfer remains a committed Minyanite. She, too, believes younger generations need to buy in if the minyan is to survive.

But there’s a catch.

“It would mean having younger people who would be willing to help lead services,” she adds. “The older people would have to let the younger people do it their way.”

For now, longtime Minyanites are still doing it their way, especially when it comes to individual spiritual expression.

Minyanite Abigail Grafton

Barkan says that early on, Schachter-Shalomi floated the notion of Minyanites becoming rebbe haverim, in which people practice “rebbe craft,” as Barkan puts it.

“When you go to the market, in business, when you’re teaching your children, you are learning how to make shalom in the world,” he says, “how to bring God into every encounter.”

Marcia Brooks picked up on that right away. The El Cerrito resident is one of the newer kids on the Aquarian Minyan block, having first attended services in 1982.

“A friend of mine told me she’d heard about this place in Berkeley that had a different way of looking at God and practicing Judaism,” Brooks recalls. “People led services. The kind of tunes they were singing and chanting was something I’d never heard. I loved it.”

The Los Angeles native enjoyed the minyan’s creativity. One Friday night, members held a Sufi Shabbat. On another, it was a meditation Shabbat. Then there were the Kallahs, national gatherings of Jewish Renewal adherents held every other year.

In 1993, Brooks helped organize the first West Coast Kallah, held on the campus of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. More than 150 people attended.

She also helped the minyan broaden its services by hiring a tutor to help bar and bat mitzvah kids prepare. There are very few such children in the Aquarian Minyan these days; members sent their kids to other synagogues for religious school.

“We have very few younger families, and we never had a school,” Brooks says. “Lots of families would leave for Kehilla for the school. People wanted to try, but we just didn’t have the focus.”

As a founding member, Barkan has devoted much spiritual energy toward building the Aquarian Minyan. His early experience with more traditional Judaism and later experience with hippie counterculture made him the perfect candidate.

Barkan grew up attending cheder (elementary school) five days a week, then moved away from Judaism in his adulthood. As a young reporter with the Associated Press and UPI, he covered the civil rights and counterculture movements, falling in with both.

Marty Gross leads a service. photo/jyl cohen

Eventually, like many spiritual seekers in the 1960s, he headed West where he met Carlebach, the “singing rabbi” and founder of the famed House of Love and Prayer in the Haight-Ashbury.

“He and I became tight,” Barkan recalls. “What Shlomo and Zalman did was open the door for people who were not halachic to come into relationship to Judaism. You would be taken seriously as a Jew on the path. On that level, I was all in.”

No congregation gets through 40 years without times of strife.

The minyan was rocked in the ’90s when stories surfaced of Carlebach’s alleged womanizing. Barkan remembers the minyan leadership being “totally nonfunctional” during that period, which many saw as a real crisis. Some minyan members did not want his name mentioned or songs sung; others felt Carlebach’s spirit was too deeply part of the minyan to be expunged.

But somehow the community stuck together.

For the future, Minyanites hope to institute what they call Jewish Renewal 3.0. The first stage focused on Schachter-Shalomi and Carlebach opening up Judaism to all comers. Renewal 2.0 centered on expanding the Renewal rabbinate and individual congregations.

Barkan says Renewal 3.0 is about creating a universal Judaism.

“Zalman always used the term ‘postdenominational,’ ” he says. “Now we need to get beyond rabbinic Judaism even in our own culture, and begin to see Judaism as a path to enlightenment.”

Will they get there? Minyanites will try. They have brought Wiss, along with Berkeley educator and ritual facilitator Arik Labowitz, who will serve as part-time spiritual leader. Other guest rabbis will step in over the course of the next year as well.

Meanwhile, despite ongoing concerns about keeping membership at critical mass, as well as passing the torch, Minyanites say much more unites than divides them.

“The awareness that there is a spirit world, that’s what kept us all together,” Stampfer says. “We are unabashed in our belief in expression of the greater reality of the spirit world and the coming of a time of renewal.”

Adds Brooks, “I would not be who I am Jewishly if I had not found the Aquarian Minyan. People all over the world have told me they never would have come back to Judaism if not for the minyan.”

on the cover

illustration/cathleen maclearie

Yehudit and Reuven Goldfarb at Aquarian Minyan retreat in the Sierra foothills, early ’80s

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.