Wednesday, 30 December 2015 12:59 Andrea Jacobs
RABBI SARAH Bracha Gershuny is a whirlwind attached to a serene center. Like a thoughtful powder keg, excited words overlap without obscuring the meaning.
Gershuny became the spiritual leader at Boulder’s Nevei Kodesh, which began in 1993 and now has a membership of 135 households, in 2014.
The Jewish renewal congregation was about to celebrate the High Holidays.
“I was waiting for my visa to come through,” she says with a breathless British accent. “It got very intense. At the end, [founding rabbi] Tirzah Firestone officiated. This year I ramped up.”
Emailed photographs reveal a Botticelli countenance more akin to an ethereal goddess than a flesh-and-blood rabbi.
Nevei Kodesh’s leader seems to embody both.
Gershuny, who turns 34 this month, was born and raised as a modern Orthodox Jew in London.
“There was a big emphasis on secular education in our family,” she says, “and also a good Jewish education. Obviously there were a lot of exclusions for women. But I loved its depth of practice, and studying Torah.”
Fast forward to Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Renewal retreat Gershuny attended at age 23 in New York’s Hudson Valley.
“Elat Chayyim was founded by students of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,” she says. “I’d never heard of Reb Zalman.”
The Jewish Renewal movement seeks to enliven contemporary Judaism through kabbalistic, chasidic and musical traditions, meditation, dancing and ecstatic prayers, and gender equality.
It’s been said that Jewish renewal is an attitude, not a denomination.
Prior to encountering the movement, a radical departure from her religious origins, Gershuny had been reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
She was inspired by the book’s emphasis on recreating oneself, healing old wounds and intensifying spirituality.
“I’d say it all came about by chance, but it was more like fate,” she says of stumbling upon that retreat in the Hudson Valley. “I had already tuned into my spirituality and wondered whether there was a Jewish ashram somewhere.
“A friend of a friend suggested Elat Chayyim.”
A group of 20-something Renewal enthusiasts lived in harmony full time at the retreat center, surrounded by nature, rivers, leafy foliage; practicing meditation; learning from Jewish scholars.
Her year there “was incredible.”
GERSHUNY’S STAY at Elat Chayyim opened her up to previously untenable opportunities and liberating spiritual expression. “I had an ambivalent sense of G-d until then,” she says. “I was still modern Orthodox but the limitations frustrated me.
“I hadn’t come across a form of Judaism I liked better until I found Jewish Renewal. It maintained the joy and richness of Orthodoxy, but it also had an egalitarian stance.
“They believe in peace and justice, discovering the purpose of our rituals and updating them for the 21st century.”
At one point Rabbi David Cooper led a seven-day silent meditation retreat.
He later approached Gershuny and said, “You must have considered becoming a rabbi.”
“I had considered being an Orthodox rabbi for about a minute!”
But a passing idea blossomed into reality.
Gershuny attended Hebrew College’s non-denominational rabbinical school headed by Rabbi Arthur Green in Boston. “It was new at the time,” she says.
“Since I wasn’t raised Conservative or Reform, I didn’t think I’d find what I needed in their rabbinical seminaries.
“Jewish Renewal has an online program with intensive personal sessions, but my main goal was connecting with a community — people living Judaism as a spiritual path.”
She discovered a spontaneous and experimental paradigm, which appeals to her in general.
“It was a very warm and healthy environment.”
Gershuny was ordained by Hebrew College in 2012.
SHE LEFT everything and everyone behind and moved across the Atlantic to become the rabbi of Nevei Kodesh, the energized Jewish Renewal synagogue in Boulder.
In addition to regular members, many Boulder-area residents attend its Shabbat services and events, and between 400 to 500 people come for the High Holidays.
“Nevei Kodesh is one of the flagships of the Renewal movement,” she says. “We have a full-time rabbi, staff, our own building and a Hebrew school. It is a fully established synagogue.”
Gershuny says that Rabbi emerita Tirzah Firestone established a strong female leadership presence at the congregation.
“I’m honored to follow in Reb Tirzah’s footsteps. She cleared the way for me. There is such fertile ground of experimentation and a depth of spiritual engagement and practice.
“I believe the congregation was searching for someone like her. Some people joke and say that I’m Tirzah 2.0.”
Whether she’s discussing music, emotion, spiritual accessibility or other elements, Gershuny’s enthusiasm for Nevei Kodesh and Jewish Renewal is boundless.
The congregation meets twice monthly for Shabbat. One service is classic Jewish Renewal, and the second one is structured around Kirtan, which includes devotional chants and singing.
Kirtan affords congregants the chance “to play a little bit more and also go to a deeper place,” she says. “There’s less talking and more of a musical vibe. We dance and sing. People are . . . going somewhere.
“If you need to cry, you cry. If you need to get up and move, you move.”
That British breathlessness italicizes her words.
When Gershuny initially told her father and mother that she was no longer Orthodox, the parental sea split in two directions.
“My dad is an academic. He was OK with it. My mom, who is religious, was upset when I said I wasn’t Orthodox anymore. Mom had an excellent Jewish education and is fluent in classical Hebrew. She’s literate, knowledgeable.
“Now she’s very pleased that one of her children is into Judaism in a big way — even though I’m a little off the traditional track.”
During their daughter’s installation ceremony at Nevei Kodesh, her parents couldn’t hide their delight.
“We were sitting on the bimah together, and I could watch the faces in the congregation,” Gershuny says. “It was the sweetest thing. The congregation was so happy because they could see that my parents were having such nachas.”
The rabbi is single.
“There’s a lot of bleed-through between life and work,” she says. “I’m still in the process of grounding myself.”
A LOCAL publication proclaimed “Boulder’s new Hebrew priestess” in a headline this summer. The title generated attention, raised eyebrows and elicited endless questions — and still does.
Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Institute, was founded by Taya Shere and Jill Hammer in 2006 to celebrate the gifts of women spiritual leaders and the sacred feminine.
In Biblical Judaism, there are priests but no priestesses.
However, priestesses existed throughout ancient world.
The Hebrew counterpart is partly a reaction to Judaism’s patriarchal dynamic, an acknowledgement of the Shekhinah (the feminine “attributes” of G-d), and a salute to 21st-century feminism.
Although the Mishnhah uses the word kohenet to refer to a female relative of a kohen, a Jewish candidate for priestess status does not have to be of priestly descent to participate in the program.
Gershuny lacks all of the above. Yet there was something about her that caught the interest of Kohenet Institute.
“I was first exposed to the Kohenet Hebrew priestess program at Elat Chayyim,” she says. “Jay Michaelson introduced me to it. Kohenet just started a two-year program, and Elat Chayyim offered a one-year course.”
Priestesses-in-training were taught to cultivate their feminine aspects, and that interested Gershuny.
When she started her second year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College, some women asked her to rejoin the group. But life kept intervening.
“I went to Jerusalem for a year,” Gershuny says, “and I couldn’t fly back and forth to continue the training. I had to put it on pause for the time being.”
After her ordination from Hebrew College, she obtained a position as director of education at a Reform congregation in Connecticut.
Gershuny traveled to Berkeley for a job interview “and ran into Taya Shere, literally. We bumped into each other as we rounded a street corner. She asked me to join the institute’s West Coast faculty. I said yes.
“I graduated the program this summer with an astonishing group of rabbis, activists, artists, educators, cutting edge Jewish thinkers.”
For Gershuny, it was the equivalent of an extraordinary post-graduate degree, transforming her for the second time in her young life.
Asked how she integrates and individuates her rabbinic and priestess roles at Nevei Kodesh, she promptly articulates her response.
“As a rabbi, you are representing the past; preserving and stewarding the weight of tradition,” Gershuny says. “My primary responsibility is to the Jewish people.
“The priestess tradition has ancient, pre-Biblical roots. It’s not part of the Jewish establishment. That gives me the freedom to innovate; usher services into the future.
“As a Hebrew priestess I’m more of a universalist, serving the entire human family and the planet as a whole.”
She adds that congregants at Nevei Kodesh are already comfortable with feminine imagery for G-d. “The priestess aspect feels natural to them, but mostly it stimulates conversations.”
Sarah Gershuny’s personal evolution exemplifies the Jewish Renewal movement’s embrace of past and future.
People frequently ask her how they can get closer to G-d.
“They often sense G-d in nature — being outside, or on a mountaintop —but they are embarrassed because they think one should only be able to find G-d in a synagogue.
“In nature we encounter beauty and a pervasive intelligence. It’s magical.
“I’m a classical mystic,” she defines her apprehension of the Divine. “G-d is in everything and beyond everything. There is nothing that is not G-d — yet even this is not the sum total of G-d.”
Andrea Jacobs may be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News