A guiding spirit

Jews from all denominations tend to leave God out of the picture. Aryeh Ben-David’s Ayeka organization aims to help people talk about Him

Aryeh Ben David 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aryeh Ben David 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘When a bunch of Jews get together, what do they talk about?” asks Aryeh Ben-David. “I’ve asked this question to Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews across the US and Israel, and it’s amazing – I always get the same list and almost always in the same order.”
Ben-David says the answers provided are usually food, family, Jewish geography, health, money, entertainment, etc. But one thing is always missing: God.
For that reason, Ben-David, a veteran educator at many institutes across Israel, including Pardes, where he taught for 20 years, decided to drop everything and develop Ayeka, an organization that runs a website and holds workshops at different venues.
“The Jewish people brought God to the world, and now it’s the one thing we don’t talk about. So I wanted to create a very safe space, without agendas, without judgment, without critique and arguing, where people could explore their relationship with God,” explains the Gush Etzion resident who made aliya from the US 30 years ago.
“I have found, for myself, that Jewish identity without a vibrant, live relationship with God begins to get hollow at the center,” says Ben-David, who trains the Ayeka facilitators. He says that the topic is a very delicate one, and most people do not have the tools to even discuss it without lapsing into clichés and contradicting themselves.
To fill that void, Ben-David created a program with specific educational content and a unique approach.
“We use Jewish wisdom, but the goal is not to acquire more information or knowledge – the goal is to have it affect our lives,” he says.
The process begins with a small group learning something together. The next step is an experiential exercise. “I’m not a flaky guy,” asserts Ben-David. “I don’t sing, I don’t dance, I don’t do drama – I’m a complete nerd. But I found that we need some kind of experiential exercise to bring it into our lives. And that also allows time for reflection.”
The exercises usually involve writing or art, the key, making it personal.
“If we’re talking about Passover, then the writing could be something like ‘Who is my Moses? Who will help me get out of being stuck?’” says Ben-David. The final step, the most radical in Ben- David’s opinion, is a “spiritual havruta.”
“You take a partner, and with guided questions, you talk. [It involves] confidentiality, deep listening, no giving advice,” he explains.
After all this, there’s still homework to do. But Ben- David maintains that as a result, people really begin to bring the wisdom into their lives.
He describes one of the experiential exercises in which participants take a piece of paper. On one side they write what they did that week that they think was in the image of God. On the other side, they write what they did that they think was not in the image of God.
According to Ben-David, the participants always fill up both sides. “Everybody, from their insides, knows when they’re good and when they’re bad. And then the question is ‘How will next week be different?’ We want to create a space where an adult can grow personally and spiritually and make their Jewish life meaningful.”
Ayeka offers a number of different modules, including sessions on “Having a relationship with God,” and “How to bring God into my daily life.”
According to Ben-David, most Jews will never be asked the most basic of Jewish questions: What does it mean to live in the image of God? Ayeka doesn’t assume to have the answer, but it does try to facilitate finding it.
“We hold that everybody has wisdom within them, and we want to be the springboard and venue for them to listen to their inner voices, with the help of Jewish wisdom, and come to their own conclusions.”
After three years of activity in locations across the US and Israel, Ayeka has facilitated thousands of people in their quest to live in the image of God. And for Ben-David, the effort has been well worth it.
“People have continuously told us the same thing: ‘It’s the only time in my busy week that I have for reflection… I have unique conversations. It’s bringing out the best part of me, and I’m growing personally and spiritually,’” Ben-David recounts.
Ayeka is now developing a high-school syllabus for a number of US schools with the goal of demonstrating that Judaism is not just about accumulating facts and being smart but about living in the image of God.
Ayeka’s programs, which take place in different venues and homes, are usually in English and are open to Jews from across the spectrum because “We are all struggling with the same things. It’s a very unifying experience,” says Ben-David.
But Ayeka is not meant for everyone. “If people aren’t looking for spiritual growth, if they’re happy with where they are, that’s fine. We’re not trying to persuade or convince people,” he asserts.
In preparation for Pessah, Ayeka is offering special educational material to the public, geared towards making the holiday more meaningful. “When people buy a new Haggada, it’s usually just information, just another smart idea. But we wanted to create a way that people could personally interact with each other,” explains Ben-David.
To draw people in, Ayeka produced a very funny video about a Seder nightmare. The video, which can be found on YouTube, is called “Ayeka Passover” and contains a link to the Pessah material at www.ayeka.co.il. There, one can find Ayeka’s free Pessah activities for both children and adults, including guided conversations for the Seder with trigger questions, a collage about understanding where we see God in our lives, and a few sets of four questions aimed at the host, the eldest person at the Seder, and the “slave” who prepared the Seder.
Ben-David sums up his mission: “Judaism is the most powerful vehicle for enabling us to become our best selves, and we have to recover that.”