Modern Jewish pioneers flock to Patagonia

(L-R) Seth Grossman, Sol Lieberman, Janet Winans and Adrienne Halpert, gathered in Halpert’s store, Global Arts Gallery, have found varied ways to express their Jewish identity in Patagonia, Ariz.

Whether engaged in traditional religious practices or celebrating the High Holy days at the “temple of nature,” for the dozen or so Jewish residents of Patagonia, Ariz., identification with Judaism runs deep. Patagonia is also the home of the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center, which is run by modern Orthodox Rabbi Gabriel Cousens, M.D.

“We were looking for the best situation to do holistic health” in a desert environment, says Cousens, who also chose Arizona for his center in 1993 because “Nogales and Tucson are two of the oldest Jewish communities” in the Southwest. Other members of the Patagonia Jewish community were drawn to the town for myriad reasons.

“I was a wandering Jew,” says Adrienne Halpert, owner of the Global Arts Gallery, whose slogan is “treasures from around the corner … and around the world.” She settled in Patagonia in 1994. Halpert, 61, grew up in New York City; her grandmother immigrated to the United States alone in the early 20th century when she was 12 years old, from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“I always asked her about her life as a little girl,” says Halpert, who attended a yeshiva from first through eighth grade and was raised with a “very strong Jewish cultural identity.” Halpert was a student at the University of Houston during the 1960s, married at a young age, but soon took off on her own. “My marriage wasn’t working at that time,” she says. “I was 20 when I got married. What did I know? Bubkes.”

Halpert traveled around Europe in the early 1970s, including spending six months on an Israeli kibbutz. “I love to travel,” says Halpert. “The more I’m around others [from different backgrounds] the happier I am. When you peel away the otherness, you greet and meet the heart of humanity.”

She hitchhiked through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in her early 20s. At that time, she says, “I was so young and fearless. That experience really cemented my core belief that a heart connection is available without regard to culture, gender, religious beliefs, or nationality. It’s there in all of us.”

In 1973, after returning to New York City, she left in a van with a backpack and around $100. Accompanied by her friend Sarah Winter, “another New York Jewish goddess, my mentoress, a feminist and activist,” she arrived in Tucson, where she learned to make jewelry with Mike and Mimi Haggerty of the former Piney Hollow Jewelry Store on 4th Street.

Halpert’s passion for vintage clothing, the arts and historic places led her to participate in saving the Temple of Music and Art and the opening of her shop, “Survival of the Fittest,” at 220 E. Congress St. She later became an arts administrator at the Tucson Arts District Partnership and was the first manager of the Hotel Congress “in its wild and wooly days, where,” she says, “the terminally chic met the unwashed.”

When Halpert’s mother died in 1989, “I wanted to focus more on being an artist. I wanted more space in my life.” In 1994, she moved to Patagonia. Now the back room of her 2,000 square-foot gallery is named “Lillian’s Closet,” displaying the store’s clothing in honor of her “very stylish” mother.

“I celebrate the High Holidays in the temple of nature at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek,” says Halpert. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah members of the Jewish community recite tashlich, which means “You will cast away.”

“We read prayers in Hebrew and throw crumbs into the creek. That way I honor my heritage,” she says. “I’m thrilled [to join] millions of Jews worldwide celebrating in the same way.

“Last year I participated in three Passover Seders in the Patagonia-Sonoita area. A lot of people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, attended,” says Halpert. “It’s another great way to share my culture.”

Although he doesn’t see himself as religious, Sol Lieberman, 64, a sculptor and theatre technician, recalls the Jewish traditions of his childhood and usually attends High Holiday “services” at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek.

Lieberman bought property in Patagonia with his wife 20 years ago. He grew up in a kosher household in Monticello, N.Y. Coming from a rural area, “I always wanted to live where there were no traffic lights,” says Lieberman, who “wanted to live in a cooler, greener, sweeter and safer place than Tucson.”

Growing up immersed in Reform Judaism in San Francisco, Janet Winans’ Jewish background indelibly merges with Western history. Winans, 77, a published poet, retired to Patagonia in 2003 with her late husband, Woody, who had been a county extension agent in Parker, Ariz.

“Much of my high school social life involved being Jewish,” she recalls, and attending San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El on Lake Street.

Winans’ poem, “Keeping Kosher,” which appears in her recently published “Staircase to Roots,” revives childhood visits to the delicatessen with her father : “Years afterward/my daughter marries/ Lutheran. Groom’s parents/ light their altar candle; /we do ours./ “Boruch atoh adonoi …’/ my heart insists./ A whiff of blintzes,/ blessings, cabbage rolls.”

Her deceased family members are buried in the Home of Peace Jewish cemetery in San Francisco, “a stone’s throw from Wyatt Earp’s tombstone,” says Winans, adding, “his favorite wife was a Jewish macher (big shot) known for her beauty,” who insisted that Earp — a Western legend — be laid to rest there too.

The womb-shaped mikvah at the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Patagonia, Ariz.

Seth Grossman, 42, came to Patagonia from New York City “to get healthy” by attending a 17-day juice fast in April 2008 at the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center. “I lost 17 pounds,” says Grossman. “And I fell in love with the place. There’s a warmth in Judaism that’s practiced” at the spiritual center.

“I keep the Sabbath the way Gabriel [Cousens] taught,” says Grossman, “relinquishing all ownership, not doing or thinking about any business for 24 hours, connecting to spirit, which is such a blessing, or mitzvah … I recite the [Tibetan Buddhist] White Tara mantra, which sums up [my praying].”

Grossman remembers his father laying tefillin twice a day and studying Torah with a Chabad rabbi who would come to his office. Grossman, who became Bar Mitzvah at Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform synagogue in Manhattan, says, “I now identify more with Tibetan Buddhism,” adding, “at the same time I also honor the fact that my heritage got me where I am today. My mother was Sephardic; my father was Ashkenazi.

“My dad was a psychiatrist who often worked together with a rabbi. My mom [became a] Bat Mitzvah when she was 52,” notes Grossman. “As a kid she was told by the rabbi that she wasn’t smart enough.

“She [also] told me stories of the anti-Semitism she experienced, and how it shaped who she is today,” he says. His mother, Anne-Renée Testa, is now a psychologist who appears frequently on television and authored “The Bully in Your Relationship.”

When his father died, the rabbi with whom he’d studied Torah refused to speak at the funeral at Shaaray Tefila, “because it is Reform and he didn’t consider it a synagogue. My heart was broken,” Grossman says.

Grossman, who is executive director of the EponaQuest Foundation, which specializes in equine-facilitated human development, says the Tree of Life “gets to the spiritual stuff more than the religious, and has a lot to teach mainstream Judaism about spirituality, Kabbalah and Torah.”

Cousens, 66, founder and director of the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center, summarizes Maimonides’ philosophy in explaining his commitment to the center: “A hole in your soul causes a big hole in the body. If you take care of your body you take care of your soul. They go hand in hand.”

At the center, “we live life on all levels,” says Cousens. The stated mission of the center is “to help individuals and the planet transform and heal physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, making the transition from a culture of death and war to a culture of life and liberation.”

Cousens received an M.D. degree from Columbia University and completed his residency in psychiatry in 1973. His professional life takes him around the world, as a spiritual healer and raw, or live-food, nutritionist and a medical researcher and developer of a natural treatment for diabetes and a sickle-cell screening program. He’s also done humanitarian work in Central Harlem and with Chicago gangs and he is a rabbi ordained by Rabbi Gershon Winkler, founder of the Walking Stick Foundation in New Mexico. He’s an ordained Essene teacher and founder and director of the Tree of Life Foundation, which trains Essene priests and priestesses.

“The [ancient] Essene sect of Judaism refers to the wise ones of the desert that are the descendents of prophets, with very intense practices,” says Cousens. “They broke with the Temple in 186 B.C.” Cousens reverts to ancient practices from the Torah, and, he told the AJP, is writing a book about its “many teachings, filtered through mental and physical health.”

His teachings are directly related to Genesis 1:27, which illuminates sacred relationships “to fulfill God’s image,” says Cousens, noting that he often teaches workshops on spirituality in family dynamics. He refers to Genesis 1:28’s direction to “be fruitful and multiply,” adding that there’s a great deal of infertility that needs to be healed in today’s world.

And the vegan diet that the center espouses comes directly from Genesis 1:29, adhering to a plant-source-only diet, which, at the Tree of Life, also includes detoxification techniques, or colonics, and fasting.

Following an “intense Jewish mystical path” and the precepts of the Torah can “bring people back who have lost their Judaism,” he says. In addition, there’s a non-chlorinated, womb-shaped mikvah in a beautiful garden on the center’s property, which is used for weddings and other ceremonies, and not just for Jewish participants.

Anu Tarahum, 35, was involved with the Tree of Life for seven years, even converting to Judaism in 2001 under Cousens’ tutelage. “I’ve studied a lot of religions,” says Tarahum. “Judaism had the most family orientation, which is important to me.” However, he says, the Tree of Life’s dietary restrictions of eating only raw, vegan foods “were hard on my body and mind.”

Cousens says it’s not his goal to convert people to Judaism. Weekly Shabbat services are held at the Tree of Life; those who attend “leave with a good feeling,” he says. “We bridge Torah to the rest of the world, bringing Kabbalistic mystical Jewish understanding into everyday life. Torah has such practical applications to everyone.”

Back in town, Rosie Piper, 58, a health-care manager at the Mariposa Community Health Center in Nogales who moved to Patagonia from the Bay Area in 1985, has experienced being Jewish “as more of a cultural thing. I was born in New York City to Middle-Eastern Jewish parents. All my friends were Jewish,” she says.

“I’m used to being in a family where we expressed ourselves very openly, were direct and emotional with each other,” she says, realizing that not everyone was like that.

“It wasn’t until we moved to Patagonia and I became good friends with Paula Wittner,” a Patagonia Jewish artist, says Piper, “that I realized that we have a certain way of thinking and similar priorities.” When Wittner invited Piper’s family to a Seder, “I felt connected to my supposed religion. I definitely feel that there’s a bond between us because we’re both Jewish.”