The women in the Rosh Hodesh group at Bloomfield’s Temple Ner Tamid sat in a circle, eyes closed.
Nancy Dakota Adlman got up quietly, drum in hand, and walked slowly around the circle three times, stopping in front of each woman to drum at different “chakras,” or zones, of their bodies. She repeated the ritual with a rattle and a rain stick noisemaker. As she completed her final circle, she returned to her place and signaled completion with three chimes of a bell.
Slowly the women opened their eyes, as Cantor Meredith Greenberg, who leads the Rosh Hodesh group at the Reform synagogue, began to drum and chant. The women joined in quietly.
The Nov. 29 gathering to mark the month of Kislev was the third featuring temple member Adlman, a psychotherapist who has trained as a “shaman.”
Although rooted in Native American and Eastern religions, “shamanism” has been taught and adapted by some Jewish clergy, therapists, and healers as a way to bring out spiritual energies in the traditional Jewish liturgy.
Greenberg invited Adlman to lead healing services during the Rosh Hodesh meetings — and to lead the group for Tevet on Dec. 22 in its entirety when the cantor was away — for just that reason. Greenberg sees no conflict: Adlman is Jewish, and the meetings are grounded in Torah study.
The November session focused on Rebecca. Greenberg chanted passages from Torah portions involving the matriarch, then pointed out how unusually present, active, and talkative Rebecca is for a woman in the Torah.
The women then took turns reading and discussing midrashim, or textual interpretations, about Rebecca taken from The Five Books of Miriam, a feminist Torah commentary.
Greenberg said she believes in the power of creative ritual. “As a searching human being, I can take from wherever I need to ritualize certain moments,” she said. “I am not afraid of it — ritual is for you to create and move forward. We have the license to create without conflict — unless we feel we have gone too far.”
Adlman’s participation “feels like an organic part of the journey,” she added. “Maybe it’s because there are no words — just energy that is triggered. It feels like we’ve landed on something authentic. And we’re not trying to convert anybody to shamanism, obviously. For me as a leader, I’m trying to stir up what’s inside.”
Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Steven Kushner likens the shamanistic healing service to other innovations in contemporary Judaism. “We’ve had yoga and meditation, and I group these all together,” he said. “They are different modes of communicating with God and the divine within us. I don’t find anything inherent in these practices in opposition to Judaism.”
In fact, Kushner said, “the modern synagogue is much more open to alternative modes of worship and spiritual direction than we have been historically.”
Most of the seven women taking part feel Adlman brings something new to the group.
“There’s a level of spirituality here I don’t find elsewhere,” said Deborah Gussoff of Montville, after her first evening with Adlman. “It definitely set a new tone. It was interesting and different.”
Gussoff said she prefers text study, but added that Adlman’s healing service was not that far afield from other things Greenberg has introduced to Ner Tamid, including a chanting circle on Shabbat mornings.
“The cantor does so much drumming and incorporates so much of that; it provides another dimension of prayer,” she said.
Debra Sofer of Nutley said she feels at home with the healing service, something she was exposed to growing up in New Mexico. She comes to Rosh Hodesh for “the whole experience of sharing and learning together,” she said. The shamanic healing ritual “adds a certain energy and puts me in a meditative state, and I really enjoy it.”
Greenberg acknowledged that a handful of women stopped coming when Adlman’s rituals were added. That’s something she struggles with.
“If there’s one person I’m not reaching, but 500 I am, what is my responsibility as a shliha [emissary]? Should I change so that one person has a place? I don’t have an answer.”
The power of nature
The best-known teacher of Jewish shamanism is, arguably, Rabbi Gershon Winkler, who runs the Walking Stick Foundation in New Mexico. The foundation offers classes and programs on Kabala, Hebrew, healing, and Jewish folklore, often focusing on the common ground between Judaism and the “aboriginal” traditions of Native Americans.
Although Jewish tradition frowns upon magic and nature worship, Winkler, who has an Orthodox background, insists there is no conflict between shamanism and Judaism. Walking Stick says it teaches “ancient Jewish mystery wisdom” that draws from overlooked traditions of the Kabala “that are more concerned with the teachings of birds and trees than with codes and creeds.”
During the December Rosh Hodesh gathering, Adlman quoted passages from Winkler’s work to describe the link between the shamanic tradition and what she believes are lost Jewish shamanic traditions.
In a conversation with NJJN, Adlman said, “Shamanism is not a religion. That is a mistake people make. It’s a tradition with techniques to help people heal — by using the power of nature or plants and oils or a drum and rattle. It’s not a religious practice at all.”
Adlman views her ability to work as a shaman as an extension of her professional role as a licensed clinical social worker. “I’m a healer,” she said. “I relax people and put them in a trance, and that’s where the healing takes place.”
As she started the December healing ceremony — on the third night of Hanukka — four women were participating; the circle was smaller, but the effects were perhaps more intensive. As the Hanukka candles they had lit started to burn low, the women closed their eyes, and Adlman began the drumming, following a similar pattern as the previous month’s. But there was something palpably different, and the women emerged if not in an altered state, then more calm or peaceful. They described feeling a sensation of heat, of reaching, through the sounds of the rattle and the rainstick, a meditative state more quickly than through ordinary meditation, even of feeling resonance or energy shifts within. “Those reactions mean you are open to this kind of healing, and it will work for you,” Adlman said, as the group listened to an East Asian chant.
Adlman, 59, is stick skinny with short blond hair. Raised in Brooklyn, she was “always spiritual,” she said, and insisted on attending religious school. She wanted to become a rabbi or cantor, but, as a woman, that career path was closed to her.
She became a licensed clinical social worker instead, and read her first book on shamanism in 1988 — four years after a near-fatal car accident and four years after moving to Montclair from her native Park Slope in Brooklyn.
She eventually apprenticed with Montclair yogi and shaman Jyoti Crystal, who died in 2009. Adlman also incorporates aspects of shamanism in her professional practice.
Shortly after her mother died nine months ago, Adlman said she felt “a bolt of lightning calling me back” to Judaism. She came to Ner Tamid and began an intensive exploration. In addition to studying with Greenberg, she has looked into the idea of studying toward the cantorate at the nondenominational Academy of Jewish Religion in Riverdale, NY. The most recent of her three visits there was last week. But she said she isn’t sure she’s ready to take on that “quest” at her age.
She believes that Judaism and shamanism are connected — that shamanism comes out of tribal life and was probably part of Israelite tribal life.
“Somehow or some way, the tradition was lost. I think it was always there, and I’d like to reclaim it in conjunction with Jewish sacred texts.”