NEW YORK – “Relax in your seat, close your eyes,” Rabbi David Ingber told his congregants on a cold, December Friday night, in a slow and soothing voice accompanied by subtle notes of piano in the background.
“What do you have to release tonight to let Shabbat in?” he asked, as he encouraged taking a few deep breaths. “Inhale Shabbat and exhale the week.”
Meditation is an intrinsic part of Ingber’s weekly service at Romemu, the congregation he began in 2006, that gathers every week inside a small church on the Upper West Side, its borrowed home as of today.
The Hebrew name Romemu evokes the idea of elevation, which captures exactly what Ingber is trying to bring forward, along with highlighting the relevance of Jewish practices for the body, mind and spirit. “Jewish life is elevated,” he said.
On its website, Romemu describes itself as “attempting to transform the way Judaism is practiced and experienced by infusing aspects of Eastern spiritual practices with traditional Orthodox influences, so the ta’am, or taste, is unmistakably Jewish.”
Besides incorporating moments of meditation and early Saturday morning yoga, Romemu’s services are filled with music and Jewish chants in which the fully egalitarian congregation takes part, and to which it even dances or claps, as the mood strikes.
Several instruments are used each week, including a piano, darbuka drums, guitars and, on occasion, a double bass.
But the main characteristic of the Friday night and Saturday morning ceremonies, Ingber explained, is that the liturgy and traditional Jewish texts are made more accessible by juxtaposing Hebrew and English; focusing on less, but fully exploring prayers; and connecting texts with their meaning in modern times.
When asked to describe the essence of Romemu, Ingber said it feels like shtiebel, the Yiddish word for a small space used for communal Jewish prayer, but “with the music of the hassidim and accessible prayers. If you are used to an Orthodox service, it will be familiar enough to say ‘I’m at home,’ and unfamiliar enough for you to think something is happening here, something changed. For the better, most people say,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
Romemu subscribes to a fairly recent approach to Judaism known as Jewish renewal, based on deep textual knowledge and a need to make the liturgy more accessible and relevant.
It was born between the 1960s and 1970s and was inspired by the time’s counter- cultural influences. The movement’s main leader, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, also known as Reb Zalman, died close to three years ago. Schachter-Shalomi was a Chabad movement emissary who came to the United States from Eastern Europe in the 1940s. He was drawn to social changes of the 1960s and influenced by Christian, Sufi and Eastern mysticism in beginning the movement.
“Reb Zalman really was a pioneer in thinking outside of the box of how Judaism could be experienced through joy and all sorts of other ways,” Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, executive-director of ALEPH, the umbrella organization for Jewish Renewal, told the Post.
“It’s a neo-hassidic movement. A lot of times people assume that we are more closely related to the Reform or Conservative movements,” she explained. “We believe that we have gifts we can bring to everybody in all denominations.”
“I think Judaism in America is moving past denominational boundaries,” Schechter- Shaffin added. “We’re really moving into a period of trans-denominationalism, and Jewish Renewal is that: We welcome you just as you are and we welcome you to contribute just as you are. There is a lot of space for creativity and for exploration, and it’s highly inclusive so it’s very attractive to a lot of people.”
Ingber met Schachter-Shalomi over a decade ago, during a period of deep soul-searching.
Not finding his place in the religion and questioning many of its aspects, he had moved away from his modern- Orthodox upbringing and Judaism in general.
Still, Ingber felt as though his religious journey was unfinished and that perhaps Judaism needed an overhaul.
When he met Schachter-Shalomi, he said, something just clicked.
“It was like a chiropractic adjustment on my soul,” Ingber said. “It was clear that I had met someone who understood me and that I wasn’t crazy. I was always seen as being ‘out there,’” he explained. “When I was ultra-Orthodox I was ‘out there,’ when I was in the world of modern-Orthodox I was ‘out there,’ and when I met Reb Zalman I was no longer ‘out there,’ I was ‘in there.’” Ingber’s questions had found validity. While it is very much based on the essence of Jewish liturgy, Jewish Renewal is, in fact, using a critical eye to approach many aspects of the texts, particularly when it comes to Halacha, Jewish religious law.
“We see halacha as good advice on how to lead a Jewish life, but not as the law,” Ingber explained. “I think it’s about trying to identify what human need and value halacha is pointing towards and then trying our best to live according to those practices.”
“There are values in doing things even if you don’t know the meaning of them, but for me personally, we don’t focus a lot on halacha in Romemu,” he added.
Ingber’s congregants therefore come from various religious backgrounds. Some observe Shabbat, others do not; some eat only kosher food, others do not.
The congregation even welcomes non-Jews, who take part in the services.
“I know that there are people who disagree with me, and people I love who disagree with me on this,” Ingber said.
“Anyone who walks through the door, if they are gonna do Jewish, that’s what we’re doing here, and I’m happy they’re here.”
“We build a shul around something that moves the human heart,” he said. “My responsibility as a Rabbi is to offer a space that offers Jewish practices which foster human flourishing. Not Jewish flourishing, human flourishing.”
This new age approach to Judaism, which Ingber sees as “a vehicle for all human beings who feel connected to this practice” has, however, drawn much criticism.
Among those who contest it, some have said Jewish Renewal and Romemu’s services are “too hippie-dippy,” specifically the free dancing and chanting; others criticized it for its leniency with Jewish religious law.
“If I have a critique of this age, it’s an age that lacks nuance in conversations about Israel, in conversations about spirituality, politics here in this country. Nuance is something that is an endangered species of intellectual activity,” Ingber said.
“You have the people who think, in general, that religion is bogus, and they think we are doing even worse,” he added.
“And you have the voices of those who think that religion is reducible to social action or justice work. And you have those for whom Jewish identity is the feature that is the requirement.”
Some of Romemu’s first-timers, he admits, often feel very awkward, but “as soon as you start dancing you can’t stop smiling.”
Jewish Renewal has attracted many in the American Jewish community who have felt out of place in more traditional settings of the Conservative, Orthodox or even Reform movements and has gained much popularity in recent years.
According to Schechter-Shaffin, there are about 50 communities like Romemu around the United States, and more in Canada, the Caribbean, South America, Latin America, Europe and Israel.
Angie Atkins visited Romemu for the first time on a Friday night some six years ago, when she and her husband were in the process of moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, after their youngest child had gone off to college.
She felt a strange combination of being “very uncomfortable but also immediately like [she] had gone to heaven.”
For 18 years before that, Atkins and her family attended a small egalitarian Conservative synagogue in New Jersey and always observed Shabbat.
“I don’t classify myself as an Orthodox, I never did, but I’m aspiring to keep all the mitzvot,” she told the Post.
“I am now technically breaking Shabbat when I walk into Romemu, but I feel like what Romemu is doing is the most important thing for bringing people closer in the world right now, and for bringing peace to the world.
“It’s Torah, it’s just a bit more evolved,” she added. “It’s a very private space. Everyone closes their eyes and you don’t care what other people are doing. You close your eyes, you pray and you don’t talk. If you cry, you cry; if you laugh you laugh; if you shout, you shout; if you meditate, you meditate. It’s totally acceptable.”
“In most shuls, when people don’t know anything, there is so much fear about [doing the right things]. It’s so not the point,” Atkins said. “At Romemu you can just do anything and it’s all sincere, so I hope that God accepts it.”
As an observant Jew however, Atkins sets some boundaries, specifically for the High Holy Days in the fall.
“I can’t listen to musical instruments on Yom Kippur and I can’t be sitting next to people who are wearing shorts and are not Jewish,” she said.
“But the rest of the time I find that incredibly compelling and inspiring.”
Atkins, who today sits on the board of Romemu, credits the congregation and Ingber for making her a “nicer, better person. I am happier, I am more patient, more sensitive, I’m kinder, I’m happy,” she said. “I found joy. It’s like falling in love.”