Jerusalem is full of amazing people with remarkable stories, some of whom I formally call my teachers.
Having come to Israel from the upper West side of New York and been raised steeped in the Conservative Movement, I had been immersed in academia and the mindset it fosters at the time of my immigration to Israel.
At that time my “religious” life was very institutionalized and my spiritual life was largely separated from it. When I found a Jewish book that spoke to my spiritual side, it was usually someone trying to force Eastern practices into watered down Judaism which did not seem authentic to me. Jewish spirituality, as I knew it was Kabbalah and that was also alienating to me: With spherot and complex worlds unto itself, it made things more complicated when what I was searching for was something very natural and basic which I found in Eastern cultures.
The hasidic and spiritual world of Zalman Shachter and Shlomo Carlebach, to which I had limited exposure growing up, spoke to me, but I fell between the communities who celebrated life in that way who seemed to either reject halacha, or take an Orthodox view of it, neither of which felt comfortable to me. I remained between two worlds institutionalized religion in the Conservative Movement and a solitary path of spiritual growth through my own isolated meetings and experiences.
Jerusalem is a small community and when a colleague of mine left Israel, handing some Web sites over to me to maintain, I had no idea where it would lead. One of these sites was www.davidzeller.org. It took about a year before Rabbi David Zeller called me to update his site. Despite his popularity, I had never heard of him. As I do with all new clients, I invited him into my office for a free initial consultation. The day before the meeting, I decided I better look at his Web site.
What I found was a site that spoke about what I had been seeking: Jewish spirituality rooted in Judaism, but not necessarily Kabbalah. Having been ordained by Shlomo Carlebach, David was an Orthodox rabbi affiliated with an Orthodox synagogue, but his classes were open to all, and his openness attracted people of all backgrounds; men and women of all ages and levels of observance. After our initial meeting, when we discussed his work, his Web site and my stalemate between spirituality and religion, we became each other’s teachers and friends.
I began participating in David’s weekly classes. People would ask what the class is about; I would answer that it is about Jewish meditation then I would laugh at how used to I was at separating myself from what I was learning in my academic studies, correcting myself saying, “It is not ‘about Jewish meditation.’ We meditate.” Experiential education that had captivated me at Camp Ramah so many years ago was what I was now doing in a very different way. While we studied texts, we also learned through our own experience of guided imagery, meditation, study, discussion, song and by sharing our personal revelations, growing together. We learned by doing.
I enjoy going beyond the standard synagogue service and weekly lesson on parshat hashavuah. I seek to grow and express myself by reconnecting with the Oneness that connects all of us, our past and our future in the moment that is now. Rather than learning about our history, our texts and our traditions, the ability to learn about myself through teachings and mediations from our traditions meets this need in a much more fulfilling way. Just as experiencing Shabbat is a totally different experience than learning about Shabbat, connecting to the Oneness in each of us is a much different experience than talking about God. Using our liturgy to meditate or create a communal experiences that generate a “high” is a much different experience than singing prayers by route as mandated by tradition and regulated by scheduled services.
In David’s recently released book “The Soul of the Story: Meetings with Remarkable People,” he tells stories about his teachers and experiences after leaving a Reform Jewish home immersed with Jungian influence, his adventures as a long-haired hippie in California in the 1960s, life in Israel and in India and ultimately his return to traditional Judaism paved by his meetings with Shlomo Carlebach. However, for me, David is one of those remarkable people I have met, part of what makes Jerusalem special. In the Mishna, Pirkei Avot I:6 teaches, “Find yourself a teacher, acquire a friend for yourself and judge everyone favorably.” The last phrase is usually dropped when this verse is quoted, but it is essential, requiring the understanding, the awareness and mindfulness which one can only achieve after fulfilling the first two items. Rabbi David Zeller is just one of the amazing teachers I have had in Jerusalem. By bringing back that side of Judaism which has been downplayed since the enlightenment with spiritual teachings, songs and stories rooted in traditional Judaism, he is one of the people bringing Jewish life to a renaissance in Jerusalem and influencing Judaism around the world.