There is a sacred aspect to each of our lives, “but many of us have never been given the opportunity to probe these experiences in others or in ourselves,” says Ridgewood resident Bette Birnbaum.
Through monthly discussions of spiritual memoirs, Birnbaum’s new study groups – the women-only Soul Sisters and the coed Soul Mates, both housed in area synagogues – will help participants “unpack or become intimate with our own questions about faith, belief, metaphysics, and the feeling that there is something greater” than ourselves. Birnbaum said the groups will use “prayer, music, writing, and conversation” to encounter these issues in the lives of the authors they study.
Some, she said, like Rabbi Alan Lew, author of “One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi,” “hit you over the head with this, but a lot of the authors are frightened by it.”
Since she announced the courses, mostly by word of mouth, the response has been “overwhelming,” said Birnbaum. In addition, the host synagogues – Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn, Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, and Temple Emanu-El of Closter – have been “very welcoming.”
Inspired by a class she took at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Birnbaum, who holds a JTS master’s degree in Jewish education and is a teacher in the community’s Florence Melton Adult Mini-School Program, said groups of this kind “sensitize us to journeys.”
“I love to teach adults,” she said, adding that Melton “was the love of my life. But you couldn’t do [in Melton] this kind of full book reading.”
Significantly, many of her new students are Melton graduates “who wanted to keep on studying,” said Birnbaum. She said that she had originally planned to create an all-woman book discussion group at her home, limiting the number to 15.
“But the concept struck a chord, and for some time I was turning prospective members away due to lack of space and had to find sites that could hold everyone.”
Subsequently, she approached Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn, where she is religious school and family program director. Given the green light, she held her first class there last Thursday evening. The Tuesday night Mahwah group and Wednesday morning Closter sessions, both coed, began this week.
“At our first session, we introduce the genre of spiritual autobiography,” said Birnbaum. “At subsequent meetings, I facilitate a discussion of each month’s book. We will hold an extra session in June for all who wish to write and present their own spiritual memoirs.”
The books are diverse, ranging from stories of journeys to, and away from, Judaism, and are written by Jews and non-Jews. The conversations initiated during class continue throughout the month in “e-mail conversations,” and Birnbaum provides guided reading/discussion questions for each memoir.
The teacher said she fully expects students to respond emotionally during some of the sessions, as they become more comfortable discussing deeply personal issues.
“It’s important to develop a language and sensitivity to the possibilities of these corners of our lives,” she said. “Everybody’s life is sacred. Have we ever thought of our lives that way?”
She also expects to hear complaints and see some anger, she said, especially during discussions of the book “Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir” by Shalom Auslander, in which the author talks about his rebellion against Orthodox Judaism.
The sessions will include assignments as well, said Birnbaum. For example, students might be asked to bring in a photo of someone who has affected them spiritually, or a piece of Jewish music they find particularly moving.
Birnbaum said courses such as this are important, particularly because “prayer as a spiritual avenue is closed off to many people – Hebrew is a major problem.” Not only are courses about spirituality an addition to our Jewish lives, “but it’s really thrilling finding out about this human experience.”
“Everyone has a religious or spiritual bone,” she said, “[but] we don’t have the language for it. We don’t do it in school. It’s hard to talk about. Having a language for theology is very freeing and comforting and gives you self-knowledge.”
Birnbaum said that sitting and learning with other Jewish adults – from other areas of the county and from other synagogues – “helps build not just a local community in the classroom but also a county and regional community. It’s like a meta-community of Judaism.”
For further information about Soul Sisters and Soul Mates, call Birnbaum at (201) 445-9957.