It’s never been more clear that people are starving for meaning, spirituality, connection and community, and they’re not receiving it from organized religion. The thesis that Judaism requires out-of-the-box revitalization and new ways of approaching spiritual community is evident by my own work over the last several years in Brooklyn. Jewish involvement is not dying. It is rather transforming, veering from the institutions of the past which sought to sow guilt and formality into an experience that is essentially individual and unique. Jews are fusing community with dynamic, innovative, and evolving spaces that are sacred whether it’s the beach, the nightclub or the forest.
The Jewish sacred texts of the past are laden with meaning that can be applied to the content-driven Instagrammers of today, if only we tailor it and apply it. The practices of the past can be revitalized and brought into prayer circles today, by moving from wooden pews into wide open spaces. The Chassidic mystical teachings from centuries ago spoke of these phenomena, embodying the Divine in physicality through practicing kindness, meditation, singing, dancing, and by contemplating the Divine in nature as well as text. The Gene-Sis aims to bring those practices, teachings and embodiment online and into modern Brooklyn, particularly in existing communities where people seek transformation and expansion– arts and music festivals, camping in parks, dancing in nature.
The Gene-Sis encapsulates all of the four principles proposed by NSPCI in various ways. Chochma/ wisdom is a key focus of the website TheGene-Sis.com, which funnels teachings of Chassidism and Kabbalah into user-friendly pieces. We leverage inspirational digital content trends with spiritual advice backed up with ancient wisdom. Parsha posts focus on current events and provide practical transformational tips, often based on previously-untranslated Chassidic discourses, and meditation recordings are based on prayer liturgy and Chassidic texts. Our online course “Soul Hacks”, took participants through a self-transformation journey on the 49 days of Sefirat Haomer, using Kabbalah to recommend daily acts of self-improvement via email.
Beyond the website, workshops are based on Chassidic teachings and facilitated at Burning Man-type festivals, with active, embodied journeys through the Chassidic approaches to teshuvah, Kabbalistic feminism, gratitude, and shabbat at festivals such as Burning Man, Nomadico, Gratitude Migration, PEX and Permajam.
Festivals are an astounding avenue for building communities of like-minded spiritual seekers. Some may be Jewish but are unfamiliar with their own heritage; others are fascinated with Jewish practices but have never felt comfortable in Jewish settings. Many who are familiar with other “New Age” or popular spiritual practices, are unaware of its existence in Judaism. Fusing this wisdom with knowledge of other paths, particularly Eastern traditions, psychology, eco-feminism and Native American practices, has enabled me to speak of Jewish teachings in a way that is relatable and always applicable and embodied.
When it comes to tzedek/justice, it is important for me that The Gene-Sis remain rooted in Jewish and Chassidic traditions, by creating initiatives that are relevant to Jewish holidays. For example, on Purim we gathered in Washington Square Park to share food packages with homeless people, bringing the joy of Purim to everyone. We were able to apply the mitzvah of mishloach manot – packages of food – and matanot l’evyonim – gifts to the poor – into an active, social justice mission for today.
Community/kehillah is undoubtedly the largest challenge. With so many options, it’s hard for a busy Brooklynite to invest time and money. The festival world has enabled me to better understand the challenges and beauty of building community based on Burning Man principles of Radical Participation, Radical Inclusion, Radical Self Reliance, Decommodification and Gifting. These new ways of exchange has begun to help me shape a better model for creating events with the burden shared equally by many, “potluck style”. This often comes from swallowing pride, expanding vision and listening to the people and their needs, knowing they will feel more compelled to co-create and participate than attend. It also means collaborating with existing spaces and injecting consciousness into their work, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. I have collaborated with communities as diverse as Orthodox synagogues to Burner collectives, creating meditations for a Sukkot Water Prayer for Chabad women as well as a New Year’s Eve bass music DJ for the Burner community. This also means building events targeted at niche communities that are not serviced, for example, reaching out to formerly Orthodox people for a Chassidic-style, egalitarian Rosh Hashanah Redux.
Without a doubt, The Gene-Sis is about kedusha – living in sacred space, and that is why our events vary from dusty deserts, to muddy forests, to Orthodox synagogues. “Holiness” is not something lofty to be attained; it is something real, to be lived. I try to avoid using the word “holy”, which sounds like an ancient synagogue with crumbling books, not something that is real, vibrant and alive. I use the word “real” instead because holiness is about being the real deal. It is about embodying the Divine in an active, engaged way that is real to everyone, and bringing into consciousness the Infinite Source of life so that it can be shared with others and transform this world.
This means bringing spiritual intention back into existing rituals, injecting fire, enthusiasm, and sacredness into secular spaces such as parties or mechanized rituals such as Sukkot or Shabbat. While many people like to meditate or do yoga on their own, it is juxtaposing those practices with other events viewed as simply recreational that is groundbreaking and eye-opening, and elicits the response: “I didn’t even know I needed this – but it’s exactly what I needed.”
The fifth principle, not yet proposed: Embodiment. Jews are the people of the book, which poses the danger of becoming too heady, failing to move down the body and into action. Our spiritual experiences are in meditation but when we go out and start pounding the pavement, it’s hard to feel connected. Dance, mindful eating and ritual-based meditations are key signatures of The Gene-Sis, including a Healing “Dance Through It” workshop and a Mindful Eating Kiddush program in the works. The answer is in your feet, and dance as medicine is one I fully intend to unleash across the Jewish world in as many ways as possible in future, through additional partnerships, ceremonies and spaces.
Rishe Groner is a writer, teacher, strategist, marketer, musician, dancer and lover of life. As the founder of TheGene-Sis.com, Rishe focuses on bringing ancient Chassidic and Kabbalistic teachings into embodied practices around Brooklyn, including workshops, festivals, dancefloors and ceremonies.