An adventurous young teacher reaches out to spiritually-searching Israelis in the Far East
By Michi Yosefi
Translated from Hebrew by Matis Greenblatt
Every year, upon the completion of their military service, thousands of young Israelis set out on a journey of personal growth to the Far East or to South America. The annual number of visiting Israelis to the Far East has been estimated at 60,000, of whom a large number are young people. Some are satisfied with a short, eventful trek to the Himalayan slopes or to the colorful population centers; while some spend lengthy periods at temples or visiting famous gurus as part of their spiritual search. Many people wonder what moves these youths to set out on trips often lasting many months, much of which is spent in harsh conditions lacking basic amenities.
People search for themselves. Israeli youth sense a painful rootlessness. Israeli society is macho, often lacking in sensitivity, exuding dogmatism. Throughout a lengthy army service young people must don garb which suppresses individual perspective and during which there is little time to probe the questions which occupy and disturb the mind of a maturing youth. When army service is completed, everything gushes forth: the strong yearning for freedom, for individual expression, for finding a spiritual solution to life, and for gaining an understanding of the essence and purpose of life.
It is important to point out that finding answers to his spiritual search within Judaism is almost inconceivable to a secular youth who grows up with the impression that Judaism is a technical religion bereft of depth and experience, one that lacks richness and sensitivity. In large measure Israeli youth’s knowledge of Judaism is linked to a harsh stereotype: a shtreimel-wearing Jew who throws stones on Shabbat, or a draft-dodging yeshivah student. A mikvah is a place where one immerses oneself prior to being married in order to receive a rabbinical certificate.
There is a powerful tendency to consciously recoil from anything that smacks of tradition. For a certain segment of Israelis, it is easier to respect the customs of Christianity and Islam than the customs of the synagogue; respect for the synagogue is sometimes associated with the first step toward teshuvah or religious compulsion, two loaded concepts, given the delicate state of Israeli society. So a spiritual search is on, but Judaism is not considered an option.
These are some of the chief reasons for the long-term worldwide trips. Trips to India, in particular, enjoy great popularity among Israelis. Why India? First, India is one of the poorest countries in the world, so living expenses are low. An average traveler can get by on $300 monthly. Furthermore, the stay in India is an experience; everything is different, strange and captivating compared to travel in even the most beautiful European spots.
But the main attraction of India is that it is a spiritual supermarket which displays a potpourri of spiritual goodies. There is a widespread perception of India in the West as a country of serenity, where people know the purpose of their earthly lives; a place where in spite of great poverty, people are happy, a country permeated with spirituality. This perception is only partially true. Daily life is actually quite jarring in many ways. To cite a few examples: In India, thousands of baby girls are killed every year because their parents were disappointed in their baby’s gender, which would require a large dowry in the future; there is still a caste system in which the priests stand at the top of the pyramid and the untouchables stand at the bottom; from time to time there are violent outbreaks between Hindus and Moslems, and many people are killed.
In the diaspora as a whole, especially in India, where the Israeli traveler finds himself without the media’s preoccupation with religious-secular relations; without the establishment; divorced from the rat-race of studies or earning a livelihood; far from family life; he finds a time span which enables him to think and probe the questions which were previously suppressed in the deepest recesses of his unconscious.
In the hearts of many of the youth who set out on these journeys there is nestled the hope of undergoing an intense spiritual experience which will provide answers to their questions and confusions. For some, part of the spiritual journey is accomplished with the aid of drugs. In India, drugs, especially hashish and its byproducts, are widely used and are cheap compared to the West. Though taking drugs is illegal, the police make no strenuous effort to combat the practice, partially because drugs sometimes are part of the spiritual repertoire in the Hindu religion: in some of their temples smoking hashish is part of the monks’ holy service. There are even places where governmental shops sell hashish. A significant segment of Israeli travelers arrive in India after their first encounter with drugs. Some respond to further involvement with drugs by attaining a heightened consciousness which leads them to join one of the pagan cults (see box, “From the Spiritual Supermarket,” page ___).
Recognizing this growing phenomenon, I felt moved to take action. I agonized with friends over the proper approach and, with God’s help, decided to attempt establishing a Jewish spiritual center in India: it would serve as a place for learning and workshops to deepen Jewish identity, and for dialogue with people of differing views; a place where one could celebrate the Jewish holidays in a Jewish family atmosphere.
In August, 1997, I departed for a month-long trip to learn the lay of the land and to assess available resources. During the weeks of my stay in North India I formed a picture of the situation and decided that India was the place for effective action. Upon my return to Israel, I received the blessings of many important rabbis including the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu. I gathered up my wife and four-month-old son and settled in Dharmsala, India, to prepare for the holidays.
The response of the Israelis was astounding: on Rosh Hashanah Eve, about 200 Israelis and Jews from various other countries joined in the prayers and seudah. It is important to remember that Dharmsala is a tourist site largely due to the residence-in-exile of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. To our pleasant surprise, we met a wonderful young man from Toronto named Ezriel Cohen who had arrived there with a similar plan, and so we received unanticipated assistance.
An interesting incident occurred when we invited a representative of the local community to the Rosh Hashanah meal. The representative was a Buddhist monk named Gush Tengin who came from a London Jewish family. During the course of his greeting, he mentioned his lineage in public, something that he had never done previously.
Over the Sukkot holiday, hundreds of people came to visit our large sukkah and I was invited by the local community to participate in a symposium on “the transitoriness of life” with one of the important Tibetan monks. The event attracted many Israelis as well as Tibetans and was conducted in three languages. I spoke in Hebrew and Ezriel Cohen translated into English and from English to Tibetan. It went on for several hours and before the end, the Tibetan monk, Gasha Dava, expressed his amazement at Judaism’s depth, which was revealed to him for the first time. His astonishment caused many of the Israelis to feel that, in view of the monk’s public approval of Judaism, it might be well to study it. I told this to the monk, who smiled and said that he was happy to have been instrumental in Jews becoming interested in their religion and heritage.
After the holidays, we stayed for part of the winter in Goa, a city famous for its beautiful ports and for its pleasant climate. Every winter, Goa attracts thousands of visitors, among them a recognizable group of Israelis. In recent years, Goa has seen the development of Trance (a musical style) parties, which sometimes last an entire day. We were able to rent a house where it was possible to comfortably accommodate a large group.
At one of the Kabbalot Shabbat in Goa, I found a young man, a kibbutznik from the North, sitting and smiling with joy and satisfaction. I saw the light of Shabbat on his face and greeted him. He told me of two moving events that he experienced for the first time during that week: for the first time he took drugs, and for the first time in his life he participated in a traditional Kabbalat Shabbat. “And what do you have to say about those experiences?” I asked him. “I must say that the Kabbalat Shabbat was much sweeter than the drugs,” he replied.
Another moving incident occurred during our stay in Goa: one of the veteran visitors to India who stayed with us for a long period and came frequently to lectures and workshops, one of the steadies at our Shabbat table, expressed a wish to begin observing Shabbat. At the same time, he set forth the difficulties this would create for his traveling plans. I told him that this was a unique opportunity, and to begin immediately. I added that wherever he might be before Shabbat, he should organize a Kabbalat Shabbat encounter, gather together his Jewish brethren, purchase appropriate food and carry through Kabbalat Shabbat as he had absorbed it during his stay with us.
Several weeks later, I met a traveler in New Delhi who related to me with feeling about an enchanting Kabbalat Shabbat in Southern India in which he participated together with ten other Israelis. When I asked who organized that event, he related that the “rav” was none other than our young man who had recently resolved to observe Shabbat.
In the course of many conversations with travelers, a depressing pattern became apparent: traveling in the East, one meets not a few Israelis who have non-Jewish partners, who later return with them to Israel to be married. I met a young man who married an Indian girl whom he met in Poona. The wedding ceremony took place in a Hindu temple. The opposition to the wedding came from the bride’s Hindu family. When I met the young man, he was on his way to Israel with his wife to introduce her to his family. He felt no discomfiture except for the opposition of his in-laws.
With the approach of Tishrei, 5759, we struggled with the idea of returning to India, but had no financial means which would enable us to go. We received many phone calls from families of youth in India as well as communications from visitors who were looking forward to our celebration of the holidays. (My wife Tamar, who at first had found the entire Indian venture both mentally and physically stressful, had, after viewing the results, become an enthusiastic supporter.) At this point, we saw no way to bring our plan into actuality. It was then that we received the support of the Orthodox Union Israel Center in Jerusalem through the leadership of Rabbis Shai Solomon and Yaakov Blau and with the participation of Adi Friedman who, in his youth, had been a member of the OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY).
The site chosen was Dharmsala. We arrived between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and from the moment of our arrival, multiple activities began, including prayers, lectures, workshops and visits. For many of the participants, this was the first Yom Kippur in which they took part in tefillot. The pen is woefully inadequate to describe our powerful feelings during the course of Yom Kippur. The peak was reached during N’eilah – seeing, in a far-flung corner of India, tens of Jews standing and pouring out their hearts before our Father in Heaven as they called out Shema Yisrael at the conclusion of the day and with a mighty, lyrical rendering of L’shanah haba b’Yerushalayim.
We asked for help in building our sukkah, and many came to help build and decorate. Among them was a young man named Itti, a kibbutznik from Emek Yizra’el, who said to me, “You should know that I detest religious people, but I’m here to build the sukkah.” And this “enemy” labored many hours with great zeal, and even explored the laws of sukkah in order to find halachic solutions to problems that arose to ensure that the sukkah was kosher l’mehadrin, as in fact it was.
At the entrance to the sukkah a huge sign hung with the words “The Israel Center — Dharmsala” with the OU logo. On the first night of Sukkot, more than 100 Israelis came to our sukkah, filling the sukkah to capacity, forcing many to remain outside. Inside the sukkah there were siddurim, Tanachs and Tehillim — gifts of the OU, an organization which many learned was not merely a symbol for kashrut, but a tangible symbol of Judaism, close to the heart.
It is important to point out that our objective in India is not to create chozrei b’teshuvah [returnees to Judaism] in the usual sense. In the first stage, our objective is to provide the visitor with a warm, homey feeling towards Jewishness and to open up for him the treasurehouses of Judaism which were previously unknown to him — Chassidut, musar and kabbalah — and to remind him, “you are a Jew.” Since our return to Israel, we are in contact with many Israelis returning from India who are becoming closer to Judaism. My wife and I hope to return to India, along with other couples who have expressed interest in joining this bizarre venture in which the stakes are so high. Through our experiences, we have seen that there is hope. We are convinced that a fresh approach to alienated Jews, giving them a chance to taste Judaism in a warm, joyous atmosphere, has the potential to bring many back to the heritage of our People.
Michi Yosefi is a teacher and tour guide from Jerusalem.
From the “Spiritual Supermarket” – Two Popular Cults
Two of the groups most popular among tourists are the Vipasana and the commune established by Osho in Poona.
Ancient Buddhist meditation has been preserved in Burma and was brought to India about 40 years ago by Master Guanka, who received it from a teacher belonging to a chain of teachers who preserved this theory. The novice enters a monastery for 11 days, during which time he undergoes a profound meditative process, conducted in silence. Worship consists of a brief prayer in praise of the “luminous Buddha” (who was not considered a god by his pupils). Many former participants report having had powerful experiences in which they became aware of their inner selves, as a result of the intensive period of silence. Many of the Israelis who take the Vipasana course later pursue their spiritual search within Judaism because a part of the revelation that is emphasized is the understanding that there is room to objectively recognize one’s roots without previous conceptions.
This is an international commune which was established in the ’70s by Osho. He preached hedonism and permissiveness in all areas, bordering on anarchism. In his talks, he expanded on the point which is of particular interest to the ordinary Westerner: never submit to the dictates of the group, be yourself. Osho denigrated the institution of marriage and advocated male sterilization as a means of population control.
In the ashram (school of meditation) in the commune, one studies many esoteric subjects, including meditation and military arts, all for a handsome fee. Two points are worthy of mention: children are prohibited from entering the campus and all who wish to join the ashram — even temporarily — must submit to an AIDS test. At one time, Osho attempted to reside in the United States, but was deported because of tax evasion. He died in the early ’90s. His followers believe that his death was caused by poisoning while he was imprisoned in the United States. After the death of Osho, the place was run as a business by a group of 20 faithful followers.
One of the most important events in the ashram occurs every evening. All the inhabitants bedeck themselves in white (during the day, they dress in red) and engage in a meditative exercise. Afterward, the empty chair of Osho is brought into the hall and a video of one of his thousands of talks is shown. The evening closes with an ecstatic dance at the conclusion of which they all shout in unison, “Osho, Osho, Osho.”
In the ashram in Poona, which is about four hours from Bombay, there is a mixed population, mainly from the West. The most conspicuous groups are the Germans, Japanese and Israelis.
During their stay in Poona, many of the Israelis undergo a conversion procedure, known as sanias, during which they give up their Jewish-Israeli names and receive an Indian name expressing their new birth and their abandonment of their past. Many Israelis accept this with profound seriousness and are careful to identify themselves exclusively by their new name.