A great thrill during this “Year of Deep Ecumenism” has been having Smicha Week, the “Getting It … Together” Shabbaton and Ruach Ha-Aretz right here in my town of West Chester, PA! As a 2013 musmachah (ordinee) of the ALEPH Rabbinic Program, and spiritual leader of an independent Jewish community in West Chester, Makom Kadosh (thejfcc.com), having many of my teachers, friends, and colleagues here has been fantastic.
A highlight of the two weeks of Jewish Renewal on-goings in West Chester was a “Deeply Ecumenical Experiential Field Trip” that was held on Monday July 6. A group of about 25 students, rabbis, teachers, and lay leaders visited two nearby spiritual communities: the mazar (tomb) and farm of the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship (bmf.org) and the labyrinth at the Church of the Loving Shepherd (lovingshepherd.org).
I have been a member of the Bawa Muhyayaddeen Fellowship for about seven years. Their late sheikh, M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (died 1986), was a friend and colleague of Reb Zalman. Many long-time members of the community fondly recall Reb Zalman’s visits, along with students, to the main home of the Bawa Fellowship, on Overbrook Ave in Philadelphia. Several have told me over the years how impressed they were with Reb Zalman’s humility and restraint and gently inquisitive nature.
We began our visit to the beautiful 100+ acre farm site in western Chester County with tours of the gardens and cemetery, led by several members of the community. Many in our group noticed the similarities in burial practices to Jewish tahara. In this community, not only are the deceased lovingly cared for by friends and relatives, washed and placed in a shroud, they also dig the graves and bury the deceased directly in the ground, with no casket and only a simple marker.
Next we entered Bawa’s serene marble mazar (tomb), where we said a shehechiyanu. Although Jews have prayed in this mazar before — me, Eliyahu McLean, and perhaps a few others —a gathering of this sort had never before happened. Uniting Reb Zalman’s students and Bawa’s followers was a glorious moment. We learned about Bawa’s practice of silent zikr and then did it for about 20 minutes. We shared salaams/greeting of peace with each other, then spontaneously, it seemed, we joined hands and sang “Shalu Shalom Yerushalayim … Pray for the peace of Israel, Pray for the peace of Ishmael, Pray for the peace of all the world, The whole world shall live in peace….” Many had tears in their eyes as we left the mazar. There was such a deep sense of hope and peace. We enjoyed lovely snacks provided by our hosts, even though most of them were fasting for Ramadan.
Our next stop was the labyrinth at the Church of the Loving Shepherd. But first, lunch in the beautiful pine grove on the grounds. We were warmly greeted by Rev. John Woodcock, CLS pastor, and by Rev. Dr. Debra Sutton, assistant pastor, who facilitates labyrinth walks monthly. Debra spoke to us about the history and structure of the labyrinth, that the spiral is the most ancient form, found in cave paintings and recapitulating our own DNA. We received permission to have an intention entering the labyrinth, or not, to make eye contact with others, or not, to go fast or slow, stop along the way, or not.
The experience was very intense for many of us. Some who have walked a labyrinth before found this time to be richer and deeper — perhaps the company, the setting, our morning experience, or coming off of Smicha Week and/or the Shabbaton … so much richness there! After walking, which took some people 5-10 minutes and others 20 minutes or more, we had a chance to journal, talk to another person, and then share in the group, if we wanted. We returned to West Chester University cosi revaya, with our cup overflowing, basking in the warmth of deep immersion in a variety of spiritual practices.
Rabbi Elyse Seidner-Joseph is an ordainee of the ALEPH Ordination Program and is committed to deep ecumenism, interfaith dialogue and meaningful connections between traditions.