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Finding the Magic in Shemini Atzeret

For the witches at Jewitch Camp, observing the holiday means combining Jewish prayers with neo-pagan rituals

Merissa Nathan Gerson
October 02, 2015
Photo: Shoog McDaniel
Nomy LammPhoto: Shoog McDaniel
Photo: Shoog McDaniel
Nomy LammPhoto: Shoog McDaniel

Shemini Atzeret—the Jewish holiday that comes at the end of Sukkot—is a time when Jews around the world say Tefilat HaGeshem, a prayer for rain. And the people who will gather to mark the holiday at Jewitch Camp outside San Francisco on the evening of Oct. 4 are no exception.

But this gathering, described as “a sanctuary of spirit drawing on earth-based magic to pursue tikkun olam,” will go further in its rituals. The group of around 50 feminist, eco-conscious, Jewish-influenced witches who will convene in a sukkah constructed around a hot tub in Richmond, California, won’t just be shaking the lulav and the etrog. They’ll also be casting a circle, calling in the directions, and invoking everyone from the Native American ancestors of the land where they gather, to Ba’al Hadad (literally Master of Thunder), an ancient Canaanite storm and rain god.

“It’s very much about tapping into Canaanite/pagan roots,” said Susie, a Jewitch Camp steward who goes by one name. “Baal Shem Tov earth-based ruach led with kavannah—less about intellect and books.”

Jewitch Camp includes a cross-section of Bay Area Jews, many queer and transgender, and many of whom are involved in Kohenet West, a Hebrew Priestess training program that has ordained 40 Kohanot, or “Hebrew Priestesses,” since 2006. Some are followers of Starhawk, a prominent neo-pagan author of Jewish origin and a founder of the Reclaiming movement, a modern neo-pagan iteration that inspired Jewitch Camp.

Jewitch Camp was born after Susie and Jonathan Furst—an outdoor educator, part-time shepherd, and leader of San Francisco’s congregation Keneset HaLev-Community of the Heart—attended California Witchcamp, a retreat in Mendocino, California, in 2014. Both were then members of the queer feminist minyan Pardes Rimonim, whose High Holiday ceremonies included Jewish-pagan rituals like invoking the goddess Asherah and calling in the four directions. Combining these values with the ritual practices of the retreat, Susie and Furst—along with fellow co-founders Devin Pastika and Rabbi Jane Litman—created Jewitch Camp: part pagan and Canaanite reclamation, part queer feminist activist collective, part eco-feminist Judaism.

Whether it is the Shemini Atzeret gathering, a Summer Solstice ritual allied with Code Pink and the Anti Police-Terror Project, or a Tu B’Shevat New Year of the Trees celebration, Jewitch Camp events often include anti-racist action and always include some sort of tikkun olam and ritual practice. This may involve worshipping the “Dark Goddess,” addressing police violence, or making gluten-free sufganiyot. Participants may invoke Lilith—a folkloric, often demonized figure thought by some to be Adam’s first wife, before Eve—or practice chanting, movement, and what they refer to as “magick.”

They draw influence from the early works of Rabbi Jane Litman—one of the group’s original founding members, also known as Jane Litwoman, who along with Rabbi Julie Greenberg created “Dyke Shabbos,” uniting NeoPaganism and Judaism in new liturgy and ritual. Other significant influences include Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a pioneer feminist rabbi, storyteller, and peace activist; Rabbi Jill Hammer, who co-founded Kohenet; and many others, from Rabbi Gershon Winkler to Rabbi Arthur Waskow and beyond.

Jewitch Camp clergy are all queer or transgender Jews making a space that is home to those who may otherwise feel alienated from Jewish spaces. “We create a trans-inclusive space,” said co-founder Pastika, a male-identified trans person. “We made a great effort making this Jewish/pagan community as diverse as possible.”

The East Bay of San Francisco is peppered with a large variety of self-proclaimed witches, Jewish and non, the uniting factor often being a reclamation of earth-based ritual, of the divine feminine, and of attention to the goddess. The popular Jewish streams of witchery in the Bay Area are vast and varied, from Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Training (not self-defined as witches but appealing to many who do) to Makam Shekhina (which describes itself as “the convening of Kohenet Hebrew priestesses and Ateshi Ashk Sufi dervishes gathering in counter-oppressive devotion”), all the way to the almost cult-like popularity of Dori Midnight, a Jewish witch from Northampton, Massachusetts, who brings her healing practices to the Bay Area on occasion.

The word “witch” is still a dangerous one in many communities—and often redefined individually by each group and its participants. Jewitch Camp, for example, does not tout a specific definition. “Who is a Jewitch?” Susie asked. “Anyone who wants to be. We don’t define. Using terms like magic and witchery—it’s limiting to have a strict definition. We don’t tell anyone what to be.”

She said that at the group’s first event they did a roundtable to define the word and none of the 40 participants came up with the same answer. There are a number of Hebrew words for witch in the Jewish tradition, according to Hammer, recent co-author with Taya Shere of The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions for Jewish Spiritual Leadership. In an interview, she cited words such as “baalat ov, a biblical term for a spirit-channeler or medium, mechashefa or sorceress (which is used both in the Bible and the Talmud), and charsheta, which Maggie Anton notes is used for female Jewish magic-workers in the Talmud.”

“The Kohenet Institute doesn’t use the term witch for our graduates,” Hammer explained, “and we are aware of the ways that term has been used to demonize women spiritual leaders.” She added that “in modern America, ‘witch’ tends to mean ‘practitioner of Wicca,’ and our program is rooted in Jewish traditions rather than Celtic, British, or European traditions.”

“I do call myself a witch,” said Nomy Lamm, a Bay Area writer and performer as well as a Kohenet Priestess and Jewitch Camp participant. “It is an identity it took me a long time to come into. … I was doing all kinds of witchy things in my most intimate private spaces and not knowing what to call it: studying kabbalah, tending altars, reading tarot, burning and burying things, and making medicines and casting spells. … To me, calling myself a witch is a reclamation of a slur against women’s magic, disabled people’s magic, it is the embodiment of what is scary to people because it is other and it is powerful and it doesn’t conform to the roles and projections of the society.”

Ryan Rebekah Erev, an activist performance artist and both an ordained Kohenet Priestess and a Jewitch Camp participant as well, also self-identifies as a witch. “My definition of what a witch is is someone who spiritually is based in shekhinah gaia, spirit of the earth and universe,” she told me. “In Jewish tradition there were parts of the temple and the mishkan that honored the elements. And actually, they are very fire-centered. When you entered the temple, the tzovah, or temple keeper, would use copper bowls to wash people as they were entering and before the high priest entered the Holy of Holies.”

Erev, who wanted to develop her practice as a Jewish spiritual leader, considered rabbinical school but found that with Kohenet and Jewitch Camp she no longer felt a need to go to rabbinical school. “I feel I am able just to be the kind of clergy person that I want to be,” she said. She now leads life-cycle events from weddings to funerals, baby namings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and gender transition rituals, illness rituals, mikveh, house blessings, and divorce rituals. The creator of Moon Angel Malakh Halevanah Cards, she intricately illustrated a tarot deck based on the cycles of the moon, using Yiddish words as guiding terms. Erev said she sees herself as a tzovah of sorts.

Reena Katz, a 39-year-old artist based in Toronto, has trained with Kohenet East at the Isabella Friedman Center in Connecticut. She is currently working on a queer and trans mikveh project called MKV that, she says, “explores the relationship of this sacred tradition to marginalized bodies, colonization in Canada (and Toronto specifically), and water projects such as the Water Walks happening across North America.”

For Katz, priestessing, witchery, and ritual practice drew her in because she was “interested in connecting to the history of how women served each other and community during Temple times, and also how we interconnected with other communities and their practices in the region,” she said. “I come from a context of deeply homophobic associations with Jewish ritual, history, and practice, so it’s been a long road for me. I started out as a young queer, encountering political Jewish dykes in my city who were organizing against white supremacy. They were not religious. As I moved toward an interest in Yiddish and klezmer music, I found many many queers who were re-inventing ritual and playing with gender roles and traditions in fabulous ways.”

Paganism has been reclaimed not just within Judaism, nor just in the San Francisco Bay area’s liberal bastion, but across the world often as an inlet to queer spiritual practice. It allows those who might otherwise be disenfranchised from Judaism an opportunity for engagement with a divine image that may include them, their body, and their life choices, rather than alienating them.

“There’s a whole history that the people who became monotheists were trying to turn their back on common paganists,” said Susie. “Our traditional liturgy says that these pagans over there were bad, that we are better as monotheists, but they were sisters and brothers and friends and co-workers at the time.” Jewitch Camp, she said, is a way “to dissolve the divide that monotheism imposed upon the pagan and Canaanite ritual and culture that preceded it, to bring back the forgotten elements and parts.”

Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.