They doddered, they crawled, they toyed with penlights in a simulation of the traditional candle-lighting ceremony. They allowed singing parents to manipulate tiny limbs in semblances of dancing, they flopped and they flopped a whole lot more. On the floor of the borrowed church vestry they did the things the smallest fries do.
It was Friday, the eve of Shabbat, and Sha-Baby time at Romemu, Manhattan’s Jewish Renewal, New Age haven of “music and meditation.”
And the parents? They trailed after their doddering and crawling progeny, they proffered the penlights, they glowed as they played serenading puppet masters and they ensured the tykes consistently righted themselves after their serial flopping.
The session’s highlight was the birkhat habanim ceremony, when parents gathered children under the canopy of a spread-out tallit and pronounced a communal blessing of the small ones.
The idea was that when it comes to the joy of Judaism in general and Shabbat in particular, you’re never too young to get it. And the parents seemed to be having at least as much fun as the kids.
Sha-Baby is a contraction of “Shabbat Baby” and conceived as a variant of Kabbalat Shabbat, the ceremonial welcoming of the Sabbath, specially tailored to tots “zero to 2.” The program is a natural recourse for a congregation that has seen a baby boomlet of late among its 220 members and that prizes pews-based, grass-roots initiatives.
“Ideas come up in an organic process,” said Ariel Rosen Ingber, an organizational consultant and the wife of Romemu spiritual leader Rabbi David Ingber. “Things just happen.”
Sha-Baby activities take shape from accepted child development exercises familiar to individual members or simply what feels right.
“It’s the spiritual sweetness,” said Sha-Baby co-creator Jennifer Tobenstein, mother of 10-month-old Eden Polson and an ordained Conservative rabbi. “It’s something everybody feels.”
Started last winter by Tobenstein in partnership with Rosen Ingber, Sha-Baby carries Romemu’s mission of rampant inclusiveness beyond religious observance, ethnic background and sexual orientation to the very earliest of the ages of man.
“Romemu is for families, not just individuals,” explained Tobenstein.
The Upper West Side’s only-for-infants Friday night service has offered five installments so far, attended by two dozen or so babies, with caregivers. It meets on the second Friday of every month.
The song playlist veers from the explicitly Jewish, like the “Shema” prayer, to the inspirationally secular, like “The More We Get Together” and “It’s always more fun/To share with everyone.”
There’s even Sha-Baby’s own theme song: “It’s a baby Shabbat, give it all you got…”
“You’ll never get it out of your head,” quipped Tobenstein.
During an interview in the common playroom of Tobenstein’s apartment building, charter Sha-Baby members Eden Polson and 1-year-old Baer Ingber (the Ingbers’ son) pulled vigorously at the reporter’s notes, whether from an intuitive suspicion of journalists or mere playfulness.
(In a providential moment, Tobenstein went into labor with Eden while chanting the haftorah for Romemu’s congregation during 2009’s Yom Kippur morning service. Mom delivered baby as the fast day’s sun was going down.)
Writer and musician David Adler plays guitar at Sha-Baby gatherings, where he is joined by his 1-year-old daughter Tess.
Of his daughter’s initiation he said: “It was a little rough at first. Tess was a little scared, but then she started to play, the other kids played with her, they interacted. She just fit right in.”
About the effect of his music on his young audience Adler commented: “It’s like swim class, where you dip your feet in the pool. The music seeps in. I don’t know how. There’s a feeling of home, comfort, belonging. And it’s great to contribute and have the chance to inspire.”
With its attention to music and movement, Romemu’s Sha-Baby is the playtime outer child to grownup Romemu’s intensively cultivated spiritual inner child.
Since its beginnings in 2006, Romemu takes claim as New York’s first and, so far, only branch of Renewal Judaism. It is also, contends Rabbi Ingber, the single outpost of Jewish Renewal closest to the syncretistic spirit and mystical passion of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, universally known as Reb Zalman and the movement’s patriarch.
A citadel of what it calls “transformative Judaism,” Romemu pursues a spiritual fusion across borders, plucking the vibes of Zen contemplation and the abandon of Burning Man raves along with the unembellished pietisms of the Baal Shem Tov. Besides citations from rabbinic literature Romemu imparts inspirational watchwords to members from the likes of St. Theresa’s — “May you be content knowing you are a child of God” — and even the root, decidedly nonviolent meanings beneath Islamic concepts of intifada.
“We’re a liberal, progressive shtiebel with a simple philosophy: bring an open heart to your personal and spiritual experience,” said Rabbi Ingber. “It’s not unlike early chasidism.”
Romemu’s regular draw is its Shabbat service on Friday evenings, followed by a potluck supper and open mike performance, and another service on Saturday mornings. In its characteristic pursuit of ecumenical crossover and practical convenience, the congregation gathers inside the West End Presbyterian Church on Amsterdam Avenue (congregants call it “shurch,” for “shul” and “church”).
The word “Romemu,” from Hebrew Scriptures, means “you shall elevate” and is a universal part of the congregational greeting during services as the Torah scroll is removed from the ark. The group provides classes and lectures, held under ventures like its Kabbalah Café and staged at members’ homes. It also offers yoga instruction and men’s and women’s clubs, though with an Aquarian Age spin (the women’s club meets monthly, in line with the sacred female lunar cycle).
Romemu’s get-‘em-while-they’re-young spirit was well in place before Sha-Baby’s inception, such as its adoption of an old Libyan Jewish baby-naming ritual in which parents place a newborn on a Torah scroll open to the child’s bar or bat mitzvah portion.
In his address at one Friday night potluck kiddush following a Sha-Baby session, Rabbi Ingber cited Talmudic sources that exalted the oracular wisdom of young children as they repeated their lessons to elder sages.
The Ingbers make a striking rabbinical couple, Ariel’s willowy figure contrasting with David’s blocky torso, a product of the hockey playing and bodybuilding that consumed his youth. The rabbi’s preferred non-officiating garb tends toward shorts and sandals. Zen brush paintings share office wall space with bound volumes of Talmud and the Zohar.
From Modern Orthodox beginnings in Great Neck, L.I., Rabbi Ingber followed a long odyssey across the U.S. and Israel, through multiple arenas of sports and spirituality. Ultimately rejecting what he terms “toxic Judaism,” a perceived encrustation of ancient tribal prejudices enabled by a capricious God, Rabbi Ingber found his path under the mentorship of Reb Zalman and his calling with the founding of Romemu.
“We’re collectively healing from a wound that I like to call post-traumatic God disorder. We’re taking the juice from the tradition,” he said, “in favor of the pulp.”
A typical Romemu prayer service will venture from a familiar Judaic foundation to adaptations from Native American or Sufi practice, with a lilting Carlebach strain to member musicians’ flute and Middle Eastern drums the dominant binding thread.
Nationwide, the counter-institutional Renewal movement has become a legitimate institutional force, spawning organizations both for members (ALEPH) and clergy (Ohala).
Going back to the revelatory LSD trip Reb Zalman shared with Timothy Leary in the late Eisenhower administration, which has become part of both alternative Jewish and countercultural folklore, the Renewal movement emerged as the psychedelic ‘60s gift to American Judaism, with holistic mind-body Western and Eastern practices coming to substitute for chemically induced spirit enhancements, radiating from a beating Jewish core.
Drawing from his own super-jock background, Rabbi Ingber explained: “Think of Renewal as spiritual cross-training.”
Susie Kessler, program director of Makom, the meditation and spirituality organization housed in the Upper West Side’s JCC in Manhattan, has observed the participation of her own granddaughter in Sha-Baby activities.
“Romemu is a great addition to the West Side and the Jewish community in general,” said Kessler, who conducts an annual community seder at the JCC in conjunction with Romemu. “We need more resources that integrate meditation into Jewish communal life. And their Sha-Baby program is a wonderful opportunity for young families, who have become an important part of the Romemu congregation, to feel comfortable in bringing their children.”
Said Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi from his home in Colorado: “I’m very proud of Reb Dovid. People go where the energy is. Most shuls today have become no more than life-cycle facilities. Outside of weddings, bar mitzvahs and funeral ceremonies, they don’t give people what they need and want.
“In New York City, Romemu and institutions like B’nai Jeshurun exist to fill that gap.”
He views Romemu’s Sha-Baby as more than a welcome play group.
“Freud, looking at the psychosexual development of the child, talks about the oral stage of very young children,” said Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi. “A program like Sha-Baby provides the creative matrix for further growth. It cultivates the Jewish endorphins that will be released later along the human lifeline.”