Haredi Life

Heimish psychedelics: a quiet revolution

Haredi interest in psychedelics is no longer relegated to renegade Hasidim.

Credit: iStock

May 26, 2024 12:40 PM


Yaakov, a Hasidic man from Borough Park in his 20s, had no idea what he was in for when a friend, with whom he shared an interest in meditation, invited him to a circle for a “sacred tea.” The tea, he was told, would “deepen the meditation.”

Yaakov invited a friend along, and they expected tea with some snacks and small talk. When they arrived at the location, a private apartment in Bushwick, Yaakov saw floor chairs arranged in a circle and sensed “right away that this is something else we’re in for.”

The “sacred tea” was in fact ayahuasca — a term Yaakov wouldn’t learn until some years later — a brew containing the potent psychedelic compound DMT, made from two plants native to the Amazon jungle.

“I’d never even had weed or anything,” he says. “It was very deep and a bit scary for me. I tried to make conversation with my friend, but they encouraged us to be silent and sit with ourselves.”

He remembers the intense smell of the burning copal incense as he watched his friend writhing with nausea. “I felt bad for him,” Yaakov says. They both wondered whether any of this was religiously problematic. “I was a little concerned if it’s legitimate.” Being from a community which strictly regulates members’ lives, the experience felt potentially subversive. But, he said, “I had a certain trust that I shouldn't worry about that, and that things were OK.”

That first psychedelic experience took place about a decade ago. In the years since, he has attended scores of ayahuasca ceremonies, but he still remembers that first one, at which he experienced a “very joyful cry.” He also remembers this: it wasn’t a Jewish ceremony — at most there were a few secular Jews there. He had to step outside his religious Jewish world for the experience.

Since then, things have changed drastically.

Within some of the most insular, Yiddish-speaking corners of the Hasidic world, psychedelics have taken off. “It's catapulting,” says clinical social worker and therapist Bruchy Moskovics, who publishes Yiddish-language psychedelic educational videos on Instagram.

Aside from ayahuasca, some of the other popular psychedelics include magic mushrooms, known for their primary psychoactive compound psilocybin; MDMA, known more widely in pill form as ecstasy; bufo a.k.a. 5-MeO-DMT, a powerful dissociative psychedelic derived from the venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad; and ketamine, also powder that is prescribed as a dissociative anesthetic but often taken for its psychedelic or healing effects, both in underground contexts and legal clinics.

Psychedelic substances can open human consciousness to channels of reality that are hard to reach in sober lives. They can be exhilarating or frightening. They may cause visual or auditory hallucinations, a flood of emotions, a burst of energy, a mystical experience, feelings of love and connection, or of terror and temporary ego dissolution — an experience that researchers and therapists say has potential healing properties in certain contexts.


For thousands of years, humanity has used mind-altering entheogens — psychoactive compounds used in ritual or ceremonial contexts — for healing and spiritual connection. These range from ayahuasca among indigenous tribes in the Amazon to cannabis among holy men in India, not to mention the most common plant medicine among the ancients in the Land of Israel: wine.

According to some scholars, cannabis and the indigenous Middle Eastern acacia shrub — shitim in Hebrew — which contains DMT, may have been used in ritual incense and anointing oil among the ancient Israelites.

Today, psychedelics (aside from ketamine) are illegal in the U.S. under federal law, ever since 1971 when President Nixon launched the War on Drugs. But prior to being criminalized, substances like psilocybin and LSD were used in research, including famous studies at Harvard. Until an emergency federal ban categorized it as a Schedule 1 drug in 1985, MDMA had seen increasing use through the 70s and 80s for experimental treatment in couples therapy.

Now, a major shift in public perception regarding substances is underway, with psychedelic policy reform spreading around the country. From the state of Oregon to localities like Oakland, California, at least a dozen jurisdictions around the country have passed psychedelic policy reform measures and are lifting criminal sanctions around these substances.

Research institutions such as Johns Hopkins, NYU, Imperial College London, and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) have found evidence for psychedelics’ ability to help treat trauma, anxiety, depression, addiction, chronic pain, eating disorders, grief, and a host of other conditions, while also being able to stimulate creativity or provoke what some describe as mystical experiences.

Moreover, soon FDA-approved MDMA will be available in "psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy" prescribed for those with PTSD, while synthetic psilocybin, also in the context of therapy, may soon be prescribed for major depressive disorder.

For now, though, decriminalization has not yet come to New York, where most American Haredi Jews live. Beyond FDA-approved clinical trials or expanded access centers, procuring these substances still requires underground dealers and facilitators — those who guide individuals or groups through psychedelic journeys.

Nonetheless, psychedelics’ legal status is not deterring the skyrocketing numbers of those interested in its effects.


A decade or so ago, Hasidim experimenting with psychedelics did so mostly on the fringes of their communities. Many were on the spectrum of “OTD,” or “off the derech” — a term used for those who stray from religious life as they had originally experienced it at home or in the community.

They would throw substance-fueled trance parties in the Catskills, or gatherings in underground all-night plant medicine ceremonies — some in silent prayer, and others with a guitar player or two strumming to niggunim (traditional religious songs).

Yet, something has shifted, and Haredi interest in psychedelics is no longer relegated to renegade Hasidim. The national trend has now made it into the most insular Hasidic communities, in places like Williamsburg and Monsey. Now, mothers in their 40s use them seeking to replace anxiety with self-love; fathers and businessmen employ them to explore their inner child; and even a few open-minded rabbis who may personally experiment with psychedelics might recommend them to their followers in need of a spiritual boost.

One Monsey-based Hasidic underground facilitator, Moshe, told Shtetl that among Hasidic clients, there are various reasons for coming to “the medicine,” as it’s referred to, but there are some common themes.

For many, it’s about understanding themselves better, and living more emotionally healthy lives. “I feel stuck,” a middle-aged father from Williamsburg told the facilitator. “I'm struggling with self-worth. I don’t have a lot of confidence.”

One religious professional in the community said that, now in his 40s, he feels a double challenge. “I want to feel more connected to my wife and kids,” he said, according to the facilitator. Beyond that, though, he craved deeper spiritual experiences. “I also want to understand myself better and be more in touch with my neshama.” Neshama is Hebrew for soul, although in Hasidic usage it often refers to the divine spark within each Jew. Echoing the spiritual sentiment, one middle-aged mother from Monsey said she wanted "to know Hashem [God] and feel his unconditional love."

Then, there is also the desire to heal from previous traumatic experiences.

The Monsey mom said she was dealing with issues of dissociation and sexual trauma. “I know that part of the tikkun” — or repair — “is that I have to stop bypassing the body.”

Another middle-aged mother spoke of her childhood trauma growing up with an unstable mother.

“I want to be more grounded and less anxious,” she said. “I feel that will come with surrender to what is and just letting my negative emotions be.” Her intention, she told the facilitator, is to take her healing many steps further, “to accept myself the way I am, get to a place of love, be in tune with myself and give myself what I need and have an easier time regulating.”

These days, numerous group and one-on-one ceremonies take place each month across the tri-state area, catering specifically to a Haredi demographic. What explains the shift? It’s hard to say, though it may simply track with broader trends toward greater mental and emotional wellness. As insular as the Hasidic world may be, that which is genuinely helpful and no direct threat to those in power will find a way in.

Moskovics, the therapist with the Yiddish videos, says that psychedelic prayer circles offer a sense of community and belonging for some religious seekers who, until having tried “medicine,” have struggled with faith or spirituality.

This is true of the past, when it was those suffering faith crises or feeling alienated from their communities who sought out psychedelics even if it meant leaving their community to find the medicine. For those raised within the Hasidic lifestyle, “in a strong, tight knit community, with a strong, obligatory value of believing in the Torah,” a crisis of faith leaves a void that many are desperate to fill. “It makes sense that when it fails for you within the community, you might naturally look for it elsewhere,” Moskovics says — like a Rainbow Gathering or an ayahuasca ceremony.

But rather than needing to venture into the outside world — the jungles of the Amazon, Manhattan nightclubs, or gentile “meditation circles with sacred tea,” as Yaakov had initially done — meaningful, communal, psychedelic experiences are now taking place within Hasidic settings that, in some cases, might help people reaffirm their faith and sense of belonging rather than question it.

“It gives many people a sense of community, a sense that ‘something can heal me, and I’m part of the people who do it,’” Moskovics says. “Many people who live and feel this way about psychedelics are also motivated to keep doing them because this is what keeps them part of their newfound community, part of their new circle, looking up to the shaman as rebbe, to ayahuasca as Torah.”

That, too, Moskovics is quick to note, opens up its own unique set of problems. Turning to the medicine for its ancillary benefits can lead to new dilemmas. “It’s almost like, ‘If I heal and I don’t need the medicine, what happens with my new community if this is where we all gather?’ Oftentimes people don't continue to need the medicine, but are drawn to the medicine circle anyway just to feel that comforting sense of community another time.”

In a way, though, this highlights a broader, perhaps more important issue: true, the Haredi community may be using psychedelics, but are they really ready for it?


The uptick in psychedelic interest is a national trend, and by no means unique to the insular Haredi world. But this community of descendants of Holocaust survivors, where inherited trauma runs thick, may face greater challenges.

“We've been in crazy trauma over the last 80 years basically,” Moshe says. “The way I see it is whoever survived had to cut off any ties to his feelings.”

Those who survived the Holocaust had little time to stop and think about mental health. In order to rebuild shattered lives and devastated communities, Moshe says, you had to be disconnected.

“If they weren't in survival mode they wouldn't have been able to. But we're not surviving anymore, so what happened to all the emotions that were blocked till now?”

But, despite the need, the trend might be taking off faster than the community can learn about using it safely.

The developing language conventions around psychedelics reflect how perceptions of their use have changed. It’s not about “doing drugs,” with all its negative connotations . Rather, these compounds are powerful tools. As such, there’s the risk of using them without learning how to safely venture down the psychedelic path. This is especially true for vulnerable people who have a desire to “heal.”

So, to do psychedelic work safely, Moskovics says, the first step is finding an integration specialist or community. “There's an important part of healing that happens in circles,” she says, and doing psychedelic work without a community of understanding, kindred spirits can be dangerously isolating. 

To those looking to work with a guide, she says, they should look for someone who asks their client, “When I am no longer there as your ‘space holder,’ who is your support system and can you be resourced from within to support yourself, as well?” In a best case scenario, she says, when choosing a psychedelic guide, the client would be able to determine and find someone who “has the ability to regulate their own nervous system, who honors that this is your journey and not theirs, who is willing to witness you at your worst without saving you from it, and who inspires hope in you.”

Moskovics says that those considering psychedelics should know that the healing agent isn’t just the medicine itself — it’s everything surrounding the experience of the medicine, from the people present during the journey to the music that was playing, as well as the way a person integrates its lessons into their everyday life. 

“People forget that the psychedelic experience has three parts: preparation, sitting with it, and integration,” Moskovics says, with integration arguably being the most important piece. Integration is about drawing wisdom from the psychedelic experience and applying it to everyday life. It becomes a question, Moskovics says, of how to “bring the psychedelic state into the mundane.” 

On par with integration is set and setting, which refers to one’s internal world going into a psychedelic experience, as well as the external factors surrounding it. Both are very influential in determining how a psychedelic experience will go. The set usually involves a person’s intentions, as well as any past traumas, mental health issues, and other personal matters that could rise from beneath the surface under the psychedelic spotlight.

There's also the importance of knowing the basics, like dosing, or cadence of use. How much is too much? How frequent is too frequent? What even is safe space, who is a safe facilitator, and what questions should one ask in order to find out? These are just a few topics that require there to be some education about in order for someone to know what questions to ask. 

To be clear: psychedelics are not for the faint of heart.

And even with greater education, those considering a psychedelic experience should still grasp that, "it does not do the healing for you, it just gives you the way where to go," Moseh, the Monsey facilitator, emphasizes. "You have to ask yourself, 'do you have the time and money to do therapy after?'" 

Echoing the words a rabbi once said to him about the medicine, Moshe told Shtetl: “Psychedelics are like kabbalah. They're not meant for everyone. They’re just for a minority.”

Please note names have been changed to protect identity.