January 24, 2019

Dear ALEPH friends,

As some of you may have heard, The Embodying Spirit, En-spiriting Body program—for seven years an amazing laboratory for deep exploration of body- and movement-based approaches to Jewish prayer, Torah, mysticism, and life cycles—has come to an end.

As instigator and director of this program, I’ve been privileged to work with an inspiring and dedicated core faculty, including Latifa Berry Kropf, Rabbi Ori Har, Reverend Simona Aronow, Eshet Hazon Julie Leavitt, and Rabbi Leah Novick. Together we’ve developed a curriculum that has invited our students, clergy and lay leaders alike, to dig deep into the roots of Jewish tradition and to savor the nectar of Jewish spirituality through a myriad of movement and other creative forms—improvisational dance, Body-Mind Centering®, Authentic Movement, Five Rhythms, journaling, collage, poetry, and visual art among them.

Together, with the participation of nearly 40 students in three different cohorts, we’ve grown this work and developed new tools for individual spiritual growth and exploration. At the same time, we’ve supported our participants to integrate embodied approaches to Jewish practice and learning into their own lives and to share them with communities across the country and in Europe.

My dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Shefa Gold, recently published a piece, “Why Go On Retreat, Anyway.” In it she writes about her decision to take dedicated retreat time during her rabbinical education: “I was coming face-to-face with the requirements of three essential elements of a balanced, ever-deepening spiritual life. The first was a daily, moment-to-moment practice; the second was a connection to a spiritual community, and the third was a deep dive into retreat.”

I, too, have been a fierce proponent of the rich benefits of spiritual retreat in a Jewish context. The Embodying Spirit program comprised four week-long retreats, spread over 18 months. This format, woven together with periodic on-line learning sessions and regular khevruta check-ins, allowed participants to dive deep, to knit the precious learnings of the dedicated retreat weeks into their daily lives, and to receive the support of a growing international community of “somatic” Jewish practitioners, seeking to engage in a deeply felt, full-bodied, Four Worlds living Judaism.

I’m so proud of and grateful for what we’ve accomplished together! And, over the course of seven years, I’ve become aware that, as richly transformative as the four-retreat format has been, Jewish embodiment work needs to be made more accessible, more available to folks who can’t make the time and/or financial commitment to four weeks away from home in a rural California retreat center.

So after the graduation of Cohort 3 in April 2018, I made the decision to conclude the Embodying Spirit program, in its original form, so that we might look back and receive the rich fruits of our work thus far and begin to investigate other ways that embodiment might be integrated into the worlds of Jewish Renewal learning and practice. To that end, I’ve cleared my schedule to embark on two months of personal retreat time this winter during February and March, to rest, to write, and to dream into the future.

In May, I’ll be joining Rabbi Shefa Gold as guest teacher for her SOULIFT retreat in Wisconsin and will be bringing some of the Embodying Spirit approach into the realm of working with challenging experiences—dealing with tzurus. In July I’ll offer a class during the Ruach Ha’Aretz retreat at Stony Point Center in upstate New York called “Awakening to the Earth’s Call,” an experiential journey to re-open all our senses to the wisdom messages of the natural world. 

I’m also involved in a marvelous project called Taproot, which provides retreat space for Jewish activists, artists, and changemakers of all ages to deepen their connection to Jewish practice and community. My role as a Taproot steward involves bringing embodied and kabbalistic text study and prayer into our retreats. Having just concluded our second annual winter retreat (December 26-31) in northern California, we’re exploring offering programs other time frames and venues as well.

So, although the Embodying Spirit program as such has ended, the work goes on! Keep your eyes peeled for future ALEPH and ALEPH-affiliated opportunities to engage in full-bodied, movement-sourced, Jewish learning. I’m proud to be a leader and fomenter on the ALEPH path of renewing Jewish life!

And should you wish to support my two-month mini-sabbatical retreat this winter, I invite you to visit my on-line fundraising campaign, “Diane Turns Toward the Future,” or to make a tax deductible contribution directly to ALEPH, earmarked for “Rabbi Diane’s Sabbatical.” I thank you in advance for your generosity.

With great appreciation for the creative, inspirited community that is ALEPH and all its allied communities and programs, I wish you a deeply energized and productive winter, tapping the sap-rising life force of this inward-turning season.

Many blessings,
Rabbi Diane Elliot

ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal is pleased to announce that Rabbi Aura Ahuvia was installed as the new Chair of the Board of Directors effective July 1, 2018. Rabbi Ahuvia serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Tikvah, one of America’s only Reform/Renewal congregations, located in Troy, Michigan (near Detroit).

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor and the great-granddaughter of a shtetl refugee, Ahuvia had always felt the historic and cultural importance of Judaism but didn’t feel especially religiously motivated until after her children were born. Her path to ALEPH and renewal began with a pursuit for deeper Jewish knowledge.

“I intended to merely gain some lay-leadership skills through a program called DLTI (Davvenen’ Leadership Training Institute),” recalls Ahuvia. “To my astonishment, the fire in me roared to new life: I had found training not just for my sake, but for the sake of building a Jewish home, from scratch, for others. Shortly thereafter, I entered the ALEPH rabbinic program with the commitment to serve.” Ahuvia attended DLTI from 2004-2006. She received both her rabbinic and spiritual director ordination from ALEPH in 2015.

“I cherish my ALEPH education for several reasons. One is that it demands the integration of our whole selves—body, spirit, inner emotional life and intellect—to the task of growing in our Judaism. I credit this whole-self approach with enabling knowledge to find its way into physical practices, and mindfulness to inform prayer. It infuses everything I do: the way I pray, the way I lead services, the way I teach, and now, the way I participate in the movement’s leadership. Furthermore, my ALEPH teachers taught us how to play within tradition, by helping us understand the deep underlying structures of prayer and their meanings. For me, it was the recipe for creativity within authenticity that I had been seeking.”

“Rabbi Aura Ahuvia is home grown,” says SooJi Min-Maranda, ALEPH’s Executive Director. “We are so blessed to have her leading our Board with love, understanding and care.”

Rabbi Ahuvia steps into the role previously filled by Rabbinic Pastor David Daniel Klipper. “My intention was always for my role as board chair to be temporary,” says Klipper. “I feel very good about the state of the Board and highly confident in Aura’s leadership. Personally, I’m excited to be able to return to teaching, which is my first love.”

For Ahuvia, the Board provides sacred stewardship to ALEPH. “There are so many creative, brilliant and unconventional change agents in ALEPH’s midst. The Board’s role is as the supporting cast. I’m reminded of our ancient forebears who were asked to serve as humble olive pickers. Their holy task was to press oil from the harvest, which fueled the eternal lamp, signaling God’s eternal presence. Much of today’s fuel comes in the form of dollars, the energy of which goes directly into funding today’s Jewish lights, as well as structural and other types of support. Our teachers, students, future leaders and communities need our help.”

On Shabbat evening, February 9, Hazzan Basya Schechter (ordained by ALEPH in 2016) and ALEPH cantorial student Diana Brewer joined forces with musicians and leaders of three congregations in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts – home of the next Kallah – for a Kabbalat Shabbat service at Congregation B’nai Israel of Northampton.

The collaboration came about when Mount Holyoke College’s Professor of Jewish Studies, Mara Benjamin, alerted the rabbis of four area congregations that Basya would be in the area giving a concert with her band Pharaoh’s Daughter. Rabbis Benjamin Weiner, Andrea Cohen-Kiener (another ALEPH musmach), Justin David, and Riqi Kosovske secured a generous grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and collaborated to bring the communities together for a Kabbalat Shabbat that won’t soon be forgotten.

As many as 400 people gathered from the Pioneer Valley and beyond for this special evening. The “house band” came largely from the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA), co-directed by Diana, who has been serving as hazzan of JCA for a number of years. This collaboration is not a first for Basya and Diana, who have teamed up before in performances of Shechter’s collection of songs set to Yiddish poems by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on her album “Songs of Wonder.” Musicians from congregations Beit Ahavah and B’nai Israel also contributed to the musical davvening experience.

“It was a wonderful chance to bring our shared ALEPH learning out into the world together,” Brewer reflected. “I think people really felt that connection.”

Rabbi Benjamin Weiner of JCA said of the experience, “It’s a rare thing in life that a vision turns out just about exactly as you hoped it would, but that was certainly the case for me with this event. Basya had a great time… she spoke of the ease with which we assembled ourselves around her, and referred to the experience of real moments of sublimity in the midst of the service itself.”

Diana Brewer (left), Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel (middle), and Hazzan Basya Schechter (right)