Jewish Renewal conference visits St. Louis


Michael Esformes isn’t shy about why he attends conferences. “For me it’s mostly about fellowship,” said Esformes, a cantor from upstate New York. “As fellow travelers, we have similar values within the Jewish world. It’s a time for us to come together and support each other, love each other and know that what we are doing is important to the larger Jewish community.”

Of course, one would expect Esformes to enjoy the festivities. “I’m a little prejudiced,” he laughs. “I’m on the planning committee this year.”

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That committee was part of an historic event. For the first time, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal (OHALAH), the international rabbinic association for the Renewal Movement, scheduled its annual conference in St. Louis. The four-day event, held at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Clayton, wrapped up Jan. 13 after dozens of seminars, prayer sessions and a speech by Nehemia Polen, director of the Hasidic Text Institute at Hebrew College in Boston.

The opening of the conference was preceded by a Shabbaton as well as an ordination ceremony for nine rabbis and two cantors sponsored by OHALAH’s parent organization, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal (ALEPH). More than 160 participants attended this year’s event which was billed with the theme “An Oasis in Space, Time and Spirit.”

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, president of OHALAH was pleased with the turnout and said that planners for the conference, which is usually held in Boulder, Colo., packed in a tight schedule with several workshops each day.

“We would go from early morning davening at seven in the morning until late night studies and music well past midnight so we had very full days,” she said.

While the agenda was full organizers didn’t want it to seem hectic. Mintz said the gathering’s purpose is allow participants a chance to “re-Jew-venate” their spirits.

“Most of our people are clergy – rabbis, cantors, rabbinical students or rabbinic pastors,” she said. “Everybody is in the field of giving service so each time we get together, it’s an opportunity to study, to learn, to sing.”

The St. Louis presence was palpable. Rabbi James Stone Goodman of local Renewal congregation Neve Shalom said that he deeply enjoyed the event. He said that the prayer sessions and the opportunity to play music during liturgies were both memorable.

“I had a wonderful time,” said Goodman who was attending his first Renewal conference. “It was extremely stimulating for me to be around such a creative group of people. I heard some wonderful music and made some wonderful music and I heard some spectacular teachings.”

Not all of the participants at last week’s gathering were from Renewal institutions. Rabbi Edwin Harris of Central Reform Congregation was on hand for a number of the events. He particularly liked the evening of sacred chanting led by Rabbi Shefa Gold of New Mexico the day before the gathering’s official opening. Harris also lauded the important role of the various learning opportunities which tackled issues ranging from combating clergy burnout to planning more creative lifecycle events to employing wordless melodies in services.

“There were a number of good workshops,” he said. “It’s like professional development for rabbis.”

Harris said he was moved by Tuesday’s program which included a talk by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the movement’s founders and leading intellectual lights. Fellow CRC Rabbi Randy Fleisher was also impressed with the speech.

“He is really able to encompass many worlds into one seamless thought stream,” said Fleisher, who has attended the conference in Boulder three times before. “He combines his incredible Hasidic knowledge with a lifetime of stretching his spiritual awareness to include Buddhism, Hinduism and Native American shamanism with the language of interpersonal psychology and space age technology.”

Neve Shalom’s Goodman concurred, saying that while the topic was wide-ranging, its message was crystal clear.

“It really gave a charge to the next generation,” he said. “It was both a critique and a direction of what to focus on in the future. This is what we need to do. It was a thoughtful, smart, intelligent talk.”

Though this is the first time in the conference’s 12-year history it has come to St. Louis, for some attendees, this was anything but their first trip to the Gateway City. Phoenix Rabbi Barb Moskow of Congregation Merkaz Ha-Iyr, was native to the area until moving away in 1985. Although Moskow hails from the Conservative tradition, she still felt the event had something to offer to everyone.

“I think there is something in the spirituality of the Renewal Movement that can be used in all different types of congregations,” she said. “That’s why I came here, to get some new ideas, new ways of bringing a different style of worship that can be adapted to Conservative, Reform and Orthodox congregations.”

Program chair Hannah Tiferet Siegel said the conference’s main purpose was to give participants a chance to recharge and reinvigorate their spirits in an atmosphere of friendship and love.

“We know it’s been a very hard year, especially for clergy who comfort and care for their congregants,” said Siegel, who traveled from British Columbia, Canada for the event, “so we wanted this to be a place where they could relax and feel at peace, carrying that back into their work.”