The ritual took place in a synagogue, but the space felt wholly unfamiliar. The arc holding the Torah scrolls was draped in white fabric, as was any Hebrew lettering that betrayed the space’s laden identity. A DJ set-up sound equipment on the bima and played a soundtrack inspired by the Islamic call to prayer. Chairs were stacked neatly on the outskirts of the yawning sanctuary; candles and mats replaced pews.
At the front of the room, an altar was set up close to the ground. Participants — all female, many dressed in white robes — were instructed to imbibe a smooth stone with an “intention,” drop the stone into a glass vessel on the altar, and “seal” the practice by pouring water on top of the stones.
The event, titled “Well of Wills” and sponsored in part by a micro-grant from the Schusterman Family Foundation, was a first-of-its-kind “Prayer & Ritual lab,” a collaboration of five Jewish female artists with the goal of redefining spiritual leadership. The event took place at the Chelsea Shul & Chabad, though the women’s balcony and front-facing lectern were the only indications that the space was regularly used for Orthodox services.
The re-imagination of the sanctuary was intended to quell any ambivalent associations participants had with conventional synagogues.
“We tried to neutralize the intensity of the synagogue space,” said Danielle Friedman, 30, creative director of the day’s event and a multimedia artist living in Brooklyn. “We didn’t want the space to tell us anything. There was a lot to cover up.”
“We tried to neutralize the intensity of the synagogue space.”
Though the 30 participants came from both Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds, the full-day program — which included a morning visualization exercise and movement meditation, vegan lunch and break-out ritual workshops — aimed to give women agency over religious ritual.
“We are all seeking a rich spiritual life, but the Jewish community is no longer nourishing that need,” said Mati Engel, 26, one of the event facilitators who is an artist now pursuing a master’s in religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Engel’s comments are reflected in data. Increasing detachment from conventional religious beliefs and practices — including attendance of religious services — is chronicled across faiths in the 2016 Pew religious landscape study. Even among the Modern Orthodox, a first-of-its-kind study on the community found that synagogue attendance and the belief that prayer is meaningful is on the decline among the younger generation.
Now, young women — many of whom said they felt sidelined in Jewish ritual life — are attempting to recreate ritual on their own terms.
“We are all seeking a rich spiritual life, but the Jewish community is no longer nourishing that need.”
To be sure, the daylong workshop is not the first effort to experiment with alternative forms of practice, though it is the first to target an exclusively female audience. The Jewish Emergent Network, a collaboration of seven unconventional Jewish communities around the country, launched in 2016. One of its members, the New York-based Lab/Shul, integrates unconventional rituals, including “Storahtelling,” a practice that integrates theater into biblical narrative. Romemu, a Renewal-inspired congregation on the Upper West Side, often replaces conventional Shabbat services with yoga, ecstatic chanting and meditation.
Engel grew up strictly chasidic in Borough Park. Though she has since left the ultra-Orthodox world, she attributes much of her passion for ritual to her upbringing.
“The charedi world gave me soul,” said Engel. “If I didn’t have a chasidic upbringing, I wouldn’t be interested in ritual as a communal language.”
Still, though her chasidic upbringing lit her passion for spirituality and ritual, as a woman, she was left on the outside looking in. Recalling the “very masculine, text-heavy approach of accessing the Divine” from behind lace curtains and study-hall walls, she asked: “Where are women in this? Where is there a place for a sensory, sensual being — a place to connect to spiritual life and access a higher self?”
She and her co-organizers aimed to do this by “testing limits,” she said. Participants were asked to leave their belongings outside the sanctuary and encouraged to anoint themselves in fresh mint and sage. The lengthy morning meditation included free-style interpretative dance and music. In the afternoon, participants split into four groups and were tasked with creating their own self-affirming rituals. Two of the facilitators designed a “siddur,” which was made up of a deck of beautifully composed cards that encouraged mindfulness and personal meditation.
One siddur card asked participants to reflect on the “shadows” obstructing them from being in the present.
Engel described the day as a “radical experiment.” “We went to the opposite extreme to reaffirm ritual,” she said.
Still, for some participants, the departure from Jewish ritual and embrace of Eastern practices in its place was alienating.
“I wish there had been some discussion of theology and Jewish law,” said Ezat Yomtovian, 36, a veterinarian living in Brooklyn.
“I was expecting a discussion of ritual as it relates to female Jews,” she said, such as al netilat yadaaim, the ritual hand washing that precedes many Jewish rituals such as eating challah on Shabbat. She was disappointed by the absence of Jewish practice and theology — God was intentionally mentioned only once during the day.
Another participant, who asked that we not use her name, said she loved the “energy and atmosphere” that was created by the dance exercise, but that the rest of the day, which focused on creating and performing rituals, felt “jarring.” As was the alter ritual of the morning meditation. “That was not OK,” said the participant, who is herself Orthodox.
Though the break from Jewish practice left some nonplused, the dissociation was intentional, said creative director and facilitator Nessa Norich. Norich, 31, is active in the conscious dance community, which embraces dance parties free of alcohol and drugs. The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, she grew up attending synagogue and day school, though today she is not practicing.
“I wanted to know why we pray, and what are we praying for?”
“Growing up, I received a prescribed reason for praying, and a prescribed way to pray,” said Norich. “Rather than more analysis, I wanted to know why we pray, and what we are praying for.”
The Ritual Lab, though organized by Jews, was not “proclaiming to be a Jewish experience,” she said. “We did not want to exclude anyone from this experience. … This wasn’t about God. It was about us.”
Norich described her generation as “spiritually starved” with a “thirst for spiritual fulfillment and depth” that isn’t being met by Judeo/Christian religion. Instead, young people are “waking up to alternative forms of practice.”
Dana Jebreel, 29, a Modern Orthodox psychologist, said she did not go to the ritual lab to “rebel against what is instituted,” but rather to embolden her sense of ownership over ritual.
“I’m happy to do the ritual expected of me, but it’s not enough,” she said. “Ritual needs to come from within. I want ritual to sing with my voice.”