Chai Havdalah: Blending Jewish Religious Customs and Cannabis Culture

(Courtesy of Catherine Goldberg)

On a warm Saturday night in July, a group of people gathered together in Los Angeles for Havdalah—a Jewish ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. As part of the Havdalah tradition, a small silver container filled with sweet herbs was presented for smelling, only this time the usual mix of aromatic spices featured a new and pungent guest: cannabis.

Chai Havdalah is the brainchild of self-described gay Jewish stoner Catherine Goldberg, who spent 10 years envisioning a celebration blending Jewish culture and cannabis. (‘Chai’ is the Hebrew word for life—it’s pronounced ‘high’ with hard “ch” sound.)

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Goldberg set her sights on bringing Chai Havdalah to legal cities around the country, and as word has spread attendance has grown. Her first event in LA welcomed over 50 guests, while her most recent event in Denver pulled in more than 100 attendees. Guests range in age from 21 to 80 years old, and represent many branches of Judaism spanning from Reform to Orthodox. Goldberg credits the authenticity of the events as the reason why attendance is increasing.  “It’s the most authentic thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says.

A Look Inside Chai Havdalah

(Courtesy of Catherine Goldberg)

What exactly does a “High Havdalah” look like? The cannabis at the event is donated by producers and growers, so guests only pay for snacks, atmosphere, and music. Beyond options for smoking, the event also offers plenty of cannabis-infused food, such as cannabis challah baked by a professional bread maker.

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“It was the most delicious challah I’ve ever had—period,” says Goldberg. “For every event we have in different cities, we can feature different chefs and bread makers.” She keep the THC levels low at her events to avoid anyone having a bad experience: “All the desserts were CBD infused, except for one, where the THC was 2.5 mg. I do this because I like cookies, so I want to be able to eat seven cookies without worrying if I’m going to get too high or not feel good,” she explains. “I’ve had a lot of people ask to sponsor the Chai Havdalah events, and their products might be perfect for very young stoners that want to get super high, but we have 80-year-old women coming so we really have to focus on CBD products, 1:1 ratios, sativas … That’s been a mindful part of planning these parties.”

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Some may be surprised at the idea of an 80-year-old woman and an Orthodox man consuming cannabis together, but as for Goldberg, Chai Havdalah is all about bringing people and cannabis together. “The 80-year old women who attended Chai Havdalah [in LA] said cannabis has been in their lives for a long time, but they always felt they had to hide it and they always felt really ashamed about it even though they were using it to improve their quality of life,” says Goldberg. “The party was the first time they could be totally open and around like-minded people while enjoying cannabis.” This kind of inclusivity makes the Chai Havdalah events appeal to a wide audience, and invites are open to everyone, including gentiles.

Havdalah isn’t the only Jewish religious ceremony that can easily be tailored to bring people and cannabis together. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is a celebration that includes plenty of sweet treats, such as the traditional snack of apples and honey, the latter of which can be easily substituted for infused honey. ‘Chai Shabbat’ is another event Goldberg hosts for those who can participate, such as the Reform community. “For the celebratory holidays [such as Purim] where drinking is very much encouraged and part of the culture, cannabis can 100% replace alcohol,” she says. “That might not be completely in line with the Torah, because sometimes it’ll say you need to have X amount of glasses of wine, but if it’s up to me, I’m going to smoke X blunts instead.”

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Beyond Holidays: Cannabis as Medicine in the Jewish Community

(Courtesy of Catherine Goldberg)

Goldberg had help on the Chai Havdalah project from Shifra Zipp Klein. Klein, who is Orthodox herself, is also the owner of Mitzva Herbal, a medicinal kosher cannabis company. Her journey began two years ago when researching alternative treatments for her 12-year-old son, who was non-verbal and heavily medicated due to severe autism. She heard about cannabis as a potential treatment and despite discouragement from her doctors, decided to give it a chance. The results were immediate and the progress, amazing. “To have a child at 12 years old that doesn’t speak, saying ‘Mommy,’ … it changes everything,” Klein explains.

Soon, Klein realized she had other friends who could benefit from cannabis, such as a man receiving chemo and experiencing severe nausea. More and more people began to reach out to Klein for advice and help, so she was inspired to create her first infused chocolates.

Despite the fact that her medicine was helping many people, not everyone in her Orthodox community and congregation were initially convinced—in fact, Klein says that at first, people thought it was all a joke. Orthodox Jews are required to follow the law, and with cannabis still federally illegal, many consider it wrong to use—unless it’s being used as medicine.

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Klein tells the story of a rabbi who was at first highly skeptical of cannabis—until late one night, she received a call from him. “He said, ‘I need relief now.’ He had just had a procedure, [and] he was desperate.” Klein told the rabbi that he needed a prescription first, and the next day helped him get a recommendation. Her actions struck a cord, and the rabbi called her again later to express his deep respect for her and for medicinal cannabis. This sort of education and shifting perspective is part of Klein’s day to day work.

“A big part of our mission is education and being sensitive to people’s culture,” she says. “They just don’t understand, [and] we want to turn that around by being positive, keeping doing what we’re doing, and evolving that way.” Today, many in her community have come around to the idea as they’ve discovered the benefits of medicinal cannabis for themselves. “I think we’re taken a lot more seriously now, when people really see the need for it,” says Klein.

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Goldberg, for one, contends that the Jewish community needn’t feel limited to using cannabis for only terminal or very severe medical conditions. “Life is really stressful,” she says. “If there’s a natural plant that Hashem grew, that helps with anxiety and quality of life, that is medicinal.”