In May 2019, Denver, Colorado, became the first city in the United States to decriminalise the personal possession of psilocybin, the predominant active compound in hallucinogenic magic mushrooms. The move followed a citizen-led vote in the city, pitched as a way of reducing the risk of prison time for people using mushrooms to cope with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and other conditions.
Magic mushrooms have been used in religious and ceremonial practices for countless years, with evidence of ritualistic mushroom use dating back 6000 years. Their increase in popularity with the counterculture movement of the 1960s saw them become criminalised across much of the western world, but in recent years, researchers have begun to study the potential psilocybin has on treating mental health conditions that do not respond to conventional treatment. Results from early clinical trials have been overwhelmingly positive, but for many people, obtaining mushrooms is difficult. For members of Denver’s Sacred Tribe community, magic mushrooms have been made more accessible, alongside spiritual guidance, thanks to Rabbi Ben Gorelick.
I’ve never knowingly met a Rabbi, but I spent many years living in one of the UK’s largest Jewish communities, in Prestwich, Manchester. Prior to meeting Gorelick, my mental image of a Jewish religious leader was of the stoic gentlemen I saw daily around town. Flowing black clothes, enviable headwear and a reserved sense of quiet wisdom. Yet there is a profound difference in the man who joins me, via Zoom, for a talk about religion, mushrooms, and the unifying quest to find meaning in our lives. Most notably, Gorelick has a certain sparkle in his eyes that intensifies when he talks passionately about the path that led to him becoming a mushroom rabbi.
Gorelick entered rabbinical school in 2016, after a fairly conservative upbringing. Instead of focusing on the study of traditional religious practice and orthodox Jewish law, he found himself drawn towards Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism whose core tenet is “A holy act is any act that deepens your intimate connection to yourself, to your community, and/or to God.”
Despite being raised in a religious household, Rabbi Ben admits he never really had a true ‘moment’ where he felt a heartfelt connection to God. While studying Kabbalah, halfway through his second year of studies, Rabbi Ben became interested in halakhic references to the use of psychoactive mushrooms and LSA, a naturally occurring psychedelic similar in structure to LSD, found in seeds of a number of plants, such as Hawaiian Baby Woodrose and Morning Glory. Discovering that natural entheogens were documented in historic scripture triggered his curiosity. Over the course of a few weeks, serendipity seemingly guided him closer to a psychedelic experience. A chance encounter with Michael Pollen’s book on psychedelics How To Change Your Mind, a deeper curiosity into the link between psychedelics and religious mysticism and then a profound call with a friend who’d sat with Ayahuasca for the first time all seemed like signs that were guiding him to his first trip.
“All of these things seemed to kick me down the path to try psychedelics, so I did!” Rabbi Ben tells me “My first experience with mushrooms was the first time I had felt oneness, the first time I had felt God in the way I wish everyone was able to feel.”
My first experience with mushrooms was the first time I had felt oneness, the first time I had felt God in the way I wish everyone was able to feel
Like many before him, Rabbi Ben’s psychedelic experience sparked a yearning to learn more about the psychedelic world that magic mushrooms had uncovered. He also wanted to see how that connection related to his faith. He attended seminars to seek out others in his religious community in a hope to find others who’d shared similar profound experiences. He even held ceremonies for other spiritual leaders in his quest to find a community that shared a desire to unite the psychedelic experience with religious practice, but he struggled to find a group that united faith and experience in a way that resonated with him.
In 2018, Rabbi Ben founded The Sacred Tribe, a member-based community that uses the framework of Kabbalah to create a space where people can explore their relationship with self and the world around them, using psilocybin as a catalyst for a deeper understanding. While mystical Judaism underpins much of the process of both the ceremony and integration process, being Jewish isn’t a prerequisite to becoming a member. Yet there does seem to be a deeper connection to religion among the community. “Most members of Sacred Tribe are 60-65% Jewish by culture or birth, another 35-40% are not, but had a heavy religious upbring.” Rabbi Ben says, “They maybe drifted away from that in their late teens or early twenties, because they struggled with some of the dogma or structure, but they feel drawn to our community as it gives them a new way to explore their connection with God.”
Despite psilocybin being decriminalised for personal possession in Denver, where Sacred Tribe operates, Rabbi Ben always knew that his community could attract unwanted attention. On the 10th of January 2022, that knock on the door came. During a routine fire inspection, Rabbi Ben was mistakenly suspected to be a known drug dealer from the area, the tip-off led to a police raid of the premises the group were using to cultivate the mushrooms used in ceremonies, and he was eventually charged with possession with the intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance. A charge that carries a minimum sentence of 8 years.
For a man facing a potentially lengthy sentence, Rabbi Ben seems remarkably calm about the future. Prior to the raid, Sacred Tribe had paid particular attention to its legal standing. In the US, religious organisations that use psychedelics as part of their practice are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. He believes the criminal charges levied against him are simply a conversation that needs to be had to establish that The Sacred Tribe is indeed a genuine religious endeavour, following ceremony, scripture and practice. “One of the things we strove to do from the very beginning of all of this was to do it right. RFRA was passed explicitly in response to people who were using psychedelics as part of their religious practice,” Rabbi Ben explains. “The burden is now on us to prove that we use mushrooms as part of a sincerely held religious belief.”
We have such a diverse group… our oldest member is 88. These aren’t hippies, many are old Jews, making their peace with God
It feels as if Sacred Tribe really is a genuine effort harnassing religion and psychedelics to explore the liminal space between spiritual development and community. “We have such a diverse group, we have people from 21 to people in their 80s, our oldest member is 88. These aren’t hippies, many are old Jews, making their peace with God” Rabbi Ben says. From our conversation, it’s hard not to believe this he really believes in the power of the work his community is doing, and even as an atheist, I feel drawn to much of what Sacred Tribe is about.
As it stands, the fate of Rabbi Ben is in the hands of the courts. On September the 1st, he’ll enter his plea and a date for trial will follow a few months later. For now, he remains cautiously optimistic that the authorities will look favourably on him and protect the religious freedoms of the members of Sacred Tribe.