A different path

In the Holy Land, scores of liberal Jews gravitate towards openness of the Buddha Dharma for a path of healing.

Jewish Buddhists (photo credit: Saransh Sehgal)
Jewish Buddhists
(photo credit: Saransh Sehgal)
By the shores of the Mediterranean, up the slope of Mount Carmel, colorful Tibetan prayer flags hanging beside a house in the village of Usfiya give off a vibe of sanctity and tranquility.
Almost every Saturday, there is a small community of Israelis who spend their day inside this hillside cottage, traditionally known to its denizens as the Dharma House. Far from the hustle and bustle of Haifa, they meditate, listen to teachings and practice a religion that has its center thousands of miles from their homeland but that many liberal Israelis absorb, either as a religion or as a culture.
These Buddhist practitioners, whose ethnic designation remains Jewish, have gained recognition in the world today as an entirely new “tribe,” the JewBu (JuBu), or Jewish Buddhists.
Their history dates back to 1893, when Charles Strauss, an American Jew, converted to Buddhism on American soil – the first recorded instance of its kind.
Like him, scores of American Jews have shown a fascination with this religion that traveled to them from the East, and some have made personal journeys to the religion’s heartland of India and Tibet, bringing back spiritual baggage and a change in discourse.
It is widely believed that these overseas Jews are by far the largest group of converts to Buddhism, constituting a community of their own among interested Westerners. A handful of writings like The Jew in the Lotus by Rodger Kamenetz, which recounts the historic dialogue between rabbis and the Dalai Lama; One God Clapping by Zen Rabbi Alan Lew; and That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist! by Sylvia Boorstein complement these conversion experiences.
But in Israel, the fascination with Buddhism as a new religion, and for some as a lifestyle, thrives for many other reasons. The vast majority of JuBus link the Jewish embracing of Buddhism to the suffering throughout Jewish history that allows some sort of an effort to separate one’s self not only from his or her own Jewishness, but from the entire Abrahamic sacred model. They embrace Buddhism to achieve that separation from the suffering inherent in Jewish history. It is understood that Jews and Buddhists share a deep understanding of the nature of suffering.
And while that continues to be relevant, many others have gotten involved through the young Israeli backpacker culture that has paved a path to Buddhist centers in Asia, following their army service. Still others admit they somehow got drawn to Buddhism because they believe it offers a peaceful breather from the pressure and violence they have known in Israel, while American Jewish Buddhists who have made aliya have kept engaging with the spiritual practices of the Buddha Dharma.
Dharma in Buddhism refers to the teachings of Buddha and also to form, feelings, impulses, perceptions and consciousness.
Asaf Federman, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University and author of His Excellency and the Monk: A Correspondence Between Nyanaponika Thera and David Ben-Gurion, suggests that the country’s first prime minister had a special interest in Buddhism, given his interactions with the German-born, Sri-Lanka-ordained Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera.
Even the world’s best-known Buddhist monk – the Dalai Lama, head of Tibetan Buddhism – has visited Israel four times, giving lectures to packed audiences. During the Nobel Peace laureate’s last visit in 2006, the Dalai Lama told Haaretz that “serious people are really learning more the principles of Buddhism, and more institutions are teaching our religion, and that will remain for a much longer time.”
Today, scores of Buddhist centers have sprouted up in almost all the major cities in Israel, allowing its members to engage in spiritual practice, philosophy, therapy or overarching religion.
In Tel Aviv alone, 20 to 25 Buddhist centers engage with different schools and traditions of Buddhism, some even offering a monastic lifestyle. Among the country’s best-known Buddhist centers are the Zen Center, Dharma House, Community of Mindfulness, Bhavana House, Vispassana Center, Tovana, Shambhala Israel and the Diamond Way, spanning Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
The Dharma House on Mount Carmel, which follows the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, provides a gateway to the Buddha Dharma in which Israelis from different walks of life can connect to a wide range of Dharma activities as sangha (community) members. Many members adopt a teacher-student relationship with Buddhist master Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, a noted Tibetan lama who visits Israel from his Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal.
It is also interesting to observe how shopping malls in Tel Aviv and other cities have begun carrying incense, crystals, tarot cards and books on Buddhist philosophy translated into Hebrew.
Tali Bar, a Dharma practitioner from Haifa who runs a traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture clinic, says it’s the Buddhist philosophy that has helped her see things differently in her daily life.
Ilya Urgyen, another student of Chokyi Nyima at the Dharma House, explains that “my inner sense needed to find a way that would resonate inside, and that led me to India and Tibet [to] meet real sages.”
Twice a year, senior lamas and abbots of Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and India come to centers in Israel, and scores of Jewish Buddhists come to seek blessings and engage in prayers and practices of the Buddha. In one of the regular group sessions, sangha members read “State of Happiness,” a text by a Buddhist master, and later did some chanting – all in search of happiness and a path to Nirvana.
Yael Barlevy, an abbot of Tel Aviv’s Zen Buddhist Center who considers herself a JuBu, explains how “practicing the spiritual side of Yoga” led to her Buddhist life.
“Israelis go to the army and then look for something they couldn’t find in Judaism, and thus find fundamental points of agreement between the two religions,” she says.
Following Buddhism, she continues, is “not about changing one’s identity; it’s just the change in the way of our thinking. Some Orthodox people, too, practice Zen Buddhism as a culture for peace.”
But although many liberal opinionmakers feel that believing in another faith does not necessarily involve a loss of identity – that it can actually strengthen Jewish identity – the question of whether such spiritual searching carries the risk of Israelis losing their ethnic identity is not so simple for others.
In a response to a question about Judaism’s compatibility with Buddhism on the About.com website, Reform Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser questions JuBus’ exclusion from the Jewish circle: “If some ‘Jewish Buddhists’ wish to expand the Jewish lexicon of practices toward spiritual goals that are consistent with Judaism’s values, why should they be excluded from the synagogue?” In his personal opinion, he says, “when ‘Jewish Buddhists’ ask to be part of the Jewish community, the answer often should be ‘no.’ It’s hard to live in two houses at the same time.”
However, he continues, he is also “open to the possibility that there are some ‘yes’s out there, especially when the attachment to the Jewish people is sincere and the attachment to Jewish practice is abiding. If I believe that Judaism has something to teach the other peoples of the world, it is also possible that Judaism can learn from other spiritual practices that are compatible with our own.”
Even the craftsmanship of Buddhist holy objects has a foothold in Israel.
Local couple Ayelet Cohen and Micha Strauss, both Buddhist practitioners living in Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, make prayer wheels according to Tibetan Buddhism traditions, having learned from Buddhist masters.
In November of this year, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, one of the most renowned Tibetan teachers and the first to visit Israel and introduce Tibetan Buddhism 10 years ago, will give Dharma talks and meditation sessions for the fourth time to Buddhist practitioners in Israel.
The subject will be “Open Heart, Open Mind: A Dzogchen Approach.”
The author writes on the geopolitics and cultures that intersect the Himalayan region.