HOT off the press: NY Jewish Week Feature Article: ‘Labshul is the first non shul shul!’

Thrilled to share this great press on Lab/Shul with amazing quotes and support from major leaders in the community:

Experimenting With The Synagogue

Steve Lipman

Storahtelling and its charismatic founder Amichai Lau-Lavie launch the unconventional, nondenominational ‘Lab/Shul.’

About eight years ago, shortly after the avant-garde Storahtelling spiritual theater troupe began offering its own High Holy Days services, Felicia Herman decided to try them out for Rosh HaShanah.

Natan, the philanthropic fund that Herman runs, had supported Storahtelling, and she “was curious. I wanted to see it in person.”

What she saw at the Union Square Ballroom, a rented space, was a hall “packed” with people, founder Amichai Lau-Lavie on the bima singing and talking, “a couple of drummers” and some guitarists accompanying Lau-Lavie’s words, while the text of the High Holy Days prayer book was projected on the wall.

Herman, “not a regular shul-goer,” now goes to Storahtelling for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur most years.

Soon, she’ll be able to worship with Storahtelling all year round if she wants, as Lau-Lavie — now a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary — and his supporters launch what may be their most ambitious project so far: an experimental Manhattan synagogue called Lab/Shul.
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Drink Down! No Love for Lapid’s new Liqueur Law. Word 36

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.




Did you hear the one about the former media star turned politician who walks into a bar?
And gets thrown out?
It’s about to happen.
Mid summer heatwave, a new financial decree was announced in Israel this week by Yair Lapid, following up on the most recent 1% hike in income tax: the liqueur law. In an attempt to curb teen drinking and equalize the price of spirits, cheaper alcohol like vodka and Arak goes up 50% while the more top shelf whiskeys are reduced by almost 30%. This law, debated for its reason, reasonability and results, was not Lapid’s idea – it was planned long before he took over finances, but he chose to go ahead with it, earlier than planned, with a clear message to the working/lower middle class: You count less and will pay more.
People are pissed. This isn’t a basic human right violation we are talking about it, and we got bigger problems to deal with, but it is a big deal, if only on symbolic levels. Arak is more than a drink.
Dubbed  the national drink of Israel, Arak has crossed over to the general population since the 70’s. A Middle Eastern favorite for centuries, made of grapes and Anise, affordable and perfect for this climate, it has migrated here from Lebanon, Morocco and Iraq and has become quite popular in many social settings but is still in many ways a low-brow brew. I, too, who grew up knowing nothing of it, have became an avid fan. Especially with an ice cube, mint leave, and a bit of grapefruit juice. A big part of its popularity is its reasonable price. The cheaper Arak bottles go for 35 NIS – about $7.  Not anymore.
The new law goes into effect July 1. Liquor stores are already pretty much empty of Arak. Everybody’s stocking up and the distributors are not releasing new stock. Yesterday, at a random liquor store, while waiting for my car to get some work done in a nearby garage, I interviewed the owner about the news. “it isn’t just the Arak or the cheaper Vodka or the income tax’ he tells me, ‘Lapid just doesn’t really care about your average working person. He and Bibi care about the ones who make as much money as they do, and we are all too weak and tired to scream.’
Arak isn’t bread (that’s getting more expensive also, btw) and it really is too hot to protest, but there is a rumble in the air. Lapid’s party is doing some good things in the Knesset – such as the new bill that was just passed this week incorporating women, for the first time, in the committee that nominates religious judges. But on the whole – there is a thirst for more, for change, for more sensitive wisdom that was promised pre elections but does not seem to be delivered.
I don’t think the Israeli public will hit the streets over the price of Arak. But thirst – of all types, for all reasons, legitimate or not, can topple leaders and create chaos and sometimes create real change.  And sometimes it ends badly, with everybody losing tempers and nobody winning at all.
That’s sort of what happens in this week’s Torah text, Chukat, in which the thirst for water ( if not for harder drinking) dominates the day. Miriam dies, and with her dries up the well that fed the people. It’s a gorgeous metaphor that hints at the loss of matriarchal leadership – quenching the soul thirst of the people, not just the needs for security and jobs.
The thirsty people protest and Moses, helpless, hits a rock instead of talking, as instructed. The place is renamed ‘the waters of strife’.
I think about that thirst of Biblical proportions. Theirs is a thirst of days- not the post workout or bike ride or long day in the heat thirst, with a bottle moments away – but the parched, many long days in heat thirst that dulls the senses: that kind of thirst.  It is not unlike the deeper thirst for love, for meaning, for being part of something bigger and for being truly taken care of.
That ancient frustrated meets today’s as bleak reminder but also as a hopeful hint.
It takes 12 men to replace one woman – shortly after Miriam dies the leaders of the tribes create a ritual in which they stand in a circle, sing a song to the well, and raise the water. This circle of leadership, the popular people’s circle is the response to the thirst, to the leadership that’s gone too far.
The Hebrew words for well, באר, is oddly linked to the English word for watering hole – the bar – exact same letters, and very similar needs. Water, or Arak, and all other options, I hope that we find – and create ways in which to come together, circles of care, to sing, and protest, and care of each other, and clamour for changes, and drink, responsibly, together.
I’ll drink to that! With the last of my cheap Arak.
L’chyaim. Shabbat Shalom.


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Prayer Shawl/Red Flag: What Sparks Protest Most? Word 35.

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.






We tried different slogans for the protest: “Everybody’s Equal!”, “No More Mo!”, “Enough Already!” A kid sitting in the front put down his copy of Harry Potter and started shouting ‘“De-mo-cracy!” (This is all in Hebrew).  And while we were having a good time translating the old Torah tales of protest for our own realities, angry protesters were taking to the streets of Turkey with slogans and fists and demands for change.

Simple slogans, strong symbols –  works best.

This was this past Shabbat, in the shady courtyard of the Democratic School in Pardes Chana, a smallish city in the North, where 50 people gathered for a cozy afternoon of singing, eating and storahtelling – under the auspices of Darchei Noam – a new Masorti/Conservative congregation to this area.  We brought out the Torah and I translated verse by verse, storahtelling style, acting the story out and inviting the crowd to step into the shoes of ancient rebels and leaders and try to figure out what’s really going on and what can we learn about how to or how not to protest injustice. I was unplugged for shabbat and didn’t know that at the same time the protests were starting to grow in Istanbul and Ankara. But it’s not like all the people sitting there haven’t tasted public protest – even the kids. Recent years have seen a lot of them, everywhere, and also in Israel.

The text we read was Korach – this week’s Torah portion, Mose’s cousin, for whom this portion is named is traditionally  considered to be the bad guy, challenging, arrogantly,  the authority of Moses and of God. The protest that he leads ends with a mythic massacre, a miracle: the earth opens up to swallow him and all his followers.

But the more I read into what I think he was really doing the more I think he wasn’t all that wrong. His protest is the demand for equality in leadership, redistribution of power and wealth, and more access to the Divine.


Of course he ends up in a pit. This history, too, is written by the winners.

The Women of the Wall are called ‘Arrogant Procotours’ by pious protectors of the Status Quo and similar names by top government officials and rabbis; the Turkish Prime Minister named the protesters – a cross section of Turkish society – ‘terrorits’.  The 82 year old ‘terrorist nun’?

There’s more to this than meets the eye.

Some of sages also had a soft spot for Korach  and crafted careful rendering of his saga.  There is this one Midrash – a legend from the 5th century CE, about what sparked the Korach revolt: A blue prayer shawl.

In the text immediately preceding this story, Moses commands the people, on behalf of God, to start wearing shawls with fringes on them, one blue fringe on each garment corner. The midrash links the stories, giving Korach the didactic skills of a Talmudic sage and the showmanship of a modern day performance artist.

Korach, in consult with his wife,  creates 250 shawls, all of blue fabric, and attaches fringes to all corners.

He stages a protest with 250 leaders from the community all wrapped in the shawls, in front of the Big Tent.

And then Korach challenges Moses to a duel of words – with a legalistic question:

If the command is to have a blue fringe, what of a shawl that is all blue? does it also require a blue fringe?

Moses replies yes.

But Korach disagrees. ‘You were not instructed these laws by God. You made it up” – he accuses Moses in an early example of Hebraic religious conflict.

And it’s all downhill from there. Either the content of his protest or the way in which he framed it or both – there is no room for opposition under God and Moses.

(Midrash Bemidbar Rabba 18:3:  Full Hebrew text



This coming Sunday, June 9, is the New Moon and that means back to the Wall for a morning of prayer – and protest. Sparked by prayer shawls, worn by more than 250 leaders of the community – all women this time, a big movement and moment has erupted – calling attention to an uncomfortable and important battle for justice, dignity and the change of the status quo at the Western Wall – and in all walks of Jewish life.

The Women of the Wall are about as much liked by most Orthodox keepers of Judaism as Korach himself. Ovadia Yosef, the leader of Shas, announced that he will attend,health permitting, on Sunday with 100,000 protectors of the faith.



Protester and protectors alike are both chanting the old words of Korach:

“Rav Lachem” – “Enoguh! You’ve gone too far!”


The protest in Turkey was sparked by the refusal of a few young people to see trees uprooted in the the public park; Korach started with a blue fringe. Here in Jerusalem, prayers shawls are again the symobl of all that is sacred and all can stifle the life of the soul.

Korach didn’t win. His story survived to remind us of the right to challenge authority – but also how to do it smarter. and succeed.

I hope that this coming Sunday will offer more prayer, less protest, a step towards respectful co-existence and a bit less hate. I’ll be there, with an all blue prayer shawl, and a slogan turned prayer: enough is enough.

Here’s to more justice, more respect, and way more peace. 

Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Late Night Crave 2 Early Grave? How to feed or not a hungry Soul. Word 33

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.



It’s 1am and I’m driving back to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv after a 4 hour Tantric Meditation Workshop for men in which I was both teacher and participant and I’m really hungry. For meat.
There’s not that much open at this hour on a weekday and although I have some fruits at home, and some decent cheese, I know that the late night shwarma joints are still open for a bit on Agrippas St. and the thought of one of those right now, with their salad bar of exotic types of pickles keeps me going through the drive. I didn’t have dinner. But what of my mostly vegetrian vows, and what of the recent urproar about what’s really going on in slaughter houses all through Israel?
I make a note of these objections, hesitate, but a louder voice, of which I’m neither proud nor totally ashamed, insists of hunger, not just for food but also for the consolation that it sometimes brings. Comfort food, some call it. Or frustaration food, a compensation, clearly noted, for the fact that here I was in a room with 15 amazing men, all breathing together and talking about erotic selves, and even though it’s the noble and right thing to do – here I am driving home alone, again. And hungry. Hm.
The link between the flesh and  meat, all the colors of desire, and of craving, and the human need for more. How often it gets us into trouble in sex and in food and from crave to grave. Dealing with this tension is exactly what the Tantric training is about.
So yes, the wrapped up meat sandwich, with parsley, pickled radishes, garlic spread, fresh finely cut salad and just the right amount of spice is warm and deeply satisfying as I sit there at Sami’s, surrounded by taxi drivers and an religious couple on a date. I am in bed by 2am, both satified and mortified, a restless sleep ensues. I think I dream of deserts, vast and empty, with only wisps of smoke in faraway horizons forever eluding my grasp.
In the morning I open the book to look deeper at this week’s text and there is the meat, and there is the craving, and there are the graves of lust. Numbers Chapter 11,  this week’s Torah text, B’halotecha, is a weird mix of protests for meat and prophetic visions. The people are tired of Manna, claiming that ‘our soul is dry’ and Moses yells and people begin to claim prophecies and visions, and from up above the qualis are sent, as they migrate each year, and the people hunt and binge and die in droves, the meat still in their teeth. The graves of lust are mass graves of desire, a warning forever etched in our collective soul.
What’s there to learn of this horrendous story? The simple lesson of ‘less is more’, of less craving, of more presence, of being satisfied with what you got. But who are we kidding? the desire for more flesh, sex, intimacy, meat, plenty, power is what drives us to distraction from those days in the desert to right here and now.
There are times for real needs to be met. Oliver’s ‘please sir, I want some more’ comes from an honest place of hunger. My yearning for that wrapped up flesh earlier this week comes from a hunger deeper yet, and more or maybe less complicated. I judge it and perhaps I ought to be more stern and disciplined – but I give it room, compassion and a sigh, and a hug.
Perhaps the story in this chapter of the wanderings of our ancestores is about greed that is based on nostalgia, on desires not for what is here and now, but for anything but. This is a hard lesson to learn, to remember, to put into use. Comfort food, after all, is about what we know from home, from Egypt, from childhood, even though it may be what our adult selves know to be ethically questionable and nutrioun wise – wrong. Part of growing up is about taking a stand on difficult choices, away from the past wrongs, towards a better next. Giving up on meat is def. one of those battles that we human must, i think, take on.
I try.
There is a fine line between excessive desire and ascetic withdrawl. Not every crave leads to an early grave. But many do.
We each must find that fine line and stick to it as often as possible.
Warning heeded, thank you Torah. But everything in moderation, including moderation. Every once in a while, like that other night, going to sleep with meat between your teeth (even though I flossed and brushed) is just what makes one really happy, and that, forgive me cows, and sorry Moses, is as good as it sometimes get. And yet it’s good to aspire higher.
Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Harder to change your mind or have a change of heart? Word 14.

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.



heavy כבד

What’s harder-  change of heart or change of mind? 

And how exactly are they different? 

There’s mental resistance to change and emotional drives that propel our behavior and somehow  both converge  too often to stop  many of us from making healthy changes that will improve our lives and those of others. 

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot in the past weeks. Something’s gotta give in my personal discipline and routine and I’m struggling with the shift from talk to walk and how free will (aka ye urges) gets in the way of long term commitments to productivity and well being. 
Yeah, that. My heart is heavy with the realization that old dogs and tricks ain’t easy. But I am not quite giving up yet. Just to be on the safe side I made no new resolutions for 2013.

I’m not the only one. At a fabulous Storahtelling B mitzvah This last Saturday in NYC the crowd of 200 including many teens  were asked – how many of you made new year resolutions? only 15 raised their hands. Why commit to something when you know you won’t come through? Someone explained and many nodded. 

I somewhat share the jaded outlook towards the potential for change but I refuse to buy it. Gotta change. But how?

Whether the reason for resistance  is in my heart or mind or both (and more?) – changing habits or decisions is a real struggle – maybe the most important inner one a person can deal with. There’s the big ones like obsessions and addictions or why Assad refuses to give up power in Syria, and there’s the ‘smaller’ vices that we’re used to and find hard to shake. We lug around some modes of living like heavy luggage, and refuse to let go.  We pay extra for the overweight. 

And that’s exactly what’s  going on in this week’s Torah tale, Va’Era. The King of Egypt is the Corporate CEO who does not want to change the system even though it’s clearly not what many of the cogs in the wheels want and the refusal to change may destroy the kingdom and himself.  Even threats like polluted rivers, amphibian takeover, extreme weather and contagious diseases that annihilate crops and livestock do not dissuade him. That is – he does make gestures towards change but keeps changing his mind – and heart- refusing the inevitable. One word keeps repeating in this narrative – ‘Heavy’. 

Over and over again he refuses to relent – right after a strike is over:  “But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, his heart grew heavy, and he did not listen to them.” 

The heavy heart as symbolic of the refusal to change resonates. 
it’s interesting that in Biblical Hebrew the word ‘Lev’ means ‘mind’ while in modern Hebrew the same word means ‘heart’. 

By the time the king says yes to the freedom after the tenth strike that will come next week – he has already lost so much. 

(Never mind right now the complex theological issue here – it is God who makes the king’s heart heavy, leaving him no room for growth and transformation. So much for free will. The only way I can read this is as psycho-mystical layer – that God represents a voice within us that is deeper and higher than our ordinary consciousness and is challenging us to overcome our greatest fears to truly release what we need towards the greatest freedom.)

Can we learn from the Pharaoh’s bad example how to heed the call for healthy and difficult changes a little early on and avoid as much of the ten strikes as possible? Maybe that’s why the Exodus story is so core to our culture – it’s the master story about how to really change. 

So now I have a new year’s resolution. Writing this has helped clarify a simple goal for a small step  by step change that I will try to do daily, combination of mind and heart for a great new year. We’ll see what happens..


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.