The High Holy Days of Judaism begin at sundown this Sunday, September 13, and this year folks in the New Paltz area who want to celebrate them in a group setting have some intriguing new options, courtesy of Shir Jaakov Feit’s recently founded Jewish Renewal group Kol Hai. Interactive gatherings that combine live music, chanting, movement, prayer, ritual, text study and group discussion (and sometimes a hike or a potluck meal) will take place throughout the week at various venues, mainly Deyo Hall at Historic Huguenot Street.
To paraphrase the classic Levy’s Rye Bread ad campaign, you don’t have to be Jewish to love what Feit and his group are doing — nor, indeed to come participate in the services and learn about the deep meanings of the ancient Hebrew mystical tradition and how group practice, facilitated by song, can foster what Feit calls “transformative spirituality.” His role as organizer of Kol Hai (he prefers not to use the title “rabbi,” though he has had Yeshiva training through the Aleph Ordination Program) is grounded in a philosophy of inclusivity or “deep ecumenism,” and he does considerable outreach to multifaith and non-Jewish families and the LGBT community. “I don’t peddle dogma,” Feit says.
In fact, the group’s name, Kol Hai, drawn from Psalm 145, translates as “all life.” He likens the style of religious practice in the Jewish Renewal movement to yoga, whose practitioners “feel better, connected to spiritual energy,” regardless of whether they accept the tenets of Hinduism or not. His goal is for participants of any background to experience Kol Hai services as an “opportunity for intimacy” through “simple acts and simple devotions” that will “open the heart and relax the body.” But unlike yoga, it’s a practice best not done solo. “There’s inner spiritual work we can’t do alone,” says Feit. “Prayer is only one dimension. It’s an opportunity to create community.”
That emphasis on Judaism-based community may present special appeal to the many contemporary non-observant Jewish Americans who grew up in households that might not literally believe in the biblical God, but still felt a strong cultural identification as Jews, and who might still miss the “affinity group” feeling offered by a religious congregation. Feit himself grew up in such a “culturally Jewish” family in New York City. When he was in third grade, he says, he was enrolled in a “very intimate” transdenominational day school called the Abraham Joshua Heschel School because his mother got a job there. “The synagogue we belonged to, B’nai Jeshurun, was very musical,” he adds.
A self-described autodidact, the young Feit took a few piano and guitar lessons and then went on to teach himself music, including transcription and composition. He cites Kurt Cobain as a big influence in high school, but notes, “Grunge guitar doesn’t require classical training.” After high school he spent some time working in photography, Web and graphic design, until his cultural roots started beckoning to him again. “In my early 20s I came back to look at my Jewishness,” he says, “how vibrant and pluralistic it was, as opposed to what else was out there.” He was drawn to the “vitality” of the Orthodox Jewish tradition, but found many of its teachings at odds with his desire for a spiritual path that reflected an “egalitarian ethic.”
Feit was profoundly influenced by his discovery of an ancient text called Sefer Yetzirah or The Book of Formation, which he calls “the beginning of my finding my mystical path back to my tradition.” He then discovered the work of Jewish Renewal movement founder Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. After his rabbinical training in a Yeshiva in Israel in the early ‘90s was interrupted by a family illness, Feit moved to Accord for an internship at Eilat Chayyim, a retreat center and “intentional community” founded by some of Schachter-Shalomi’s students. “That’s when I fell in love with the area,” he says. “I always wanted to come back.”
His work organizing retreats at Eilat Chayyim led to a long working relationship with the “New Agey” Romemu synagogue in Manhattan, founded by another Eilat member. Feit was recruited to be Romemu’s music director, a position that he still holds. But he and his young family recently moved to New Paltz, and he immediately began his work to organize a local Jewish Renewal group, where “Music is the core of what we’re offering,” in Feit’s words. “Chanting Hebrew helps us feel deeply connected. Melody can facilitate memory and mystery… What memory is for an individual, tradition is for a community.”
So whether your own roots derive from Judaism or some other “wisdom tradition,” Kol Hai invites you to join in some Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot rituals designed for “dispelling alienation and loneliness” and feeding “a richly informed life in the world.” There will be activities at Deyo Hall on both the eve and day of Rosh Hashanah, September 13 and 14, culminating at the nearby Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary with a Tashlikh or “ceremonial casting away of the previous year.” Tuesday, September 15 will bring a “contemplative hike” at the Mohonk Preserve that will feature “sounding the shofar [ram’s horn] on the mountain.”
There will be Shabbat morning services, including a baby-naming ceremony, on September 19 at the Mountain Laurel Waldorf School. And “the 26 holiest hours of the year,” Yom Kippur, begin with a Kol Nidre candle-lighting service on Tuesday evening, September 22 and continue throughout the following day, ending with a potluck at sundown.
Attendance at any and all of these celebrations is free and open to all, but those wishing to participate are asked to preregister online at www.kolhai.org/highholidays. You can also find out lots more about Kol Hai and venues and times for upcoming events at the website.