Berkeley school lures Jews with meditative path to God

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One woman came from Germany to take classes. Another student was an ex-Ku Klux Klan member.

They're among 500 people who have flocked to Berkeley's Chochmat HaLev, an independent learning center that offers a highly spiritual approach to Judaism and may soon be ordaining rabbis.

"There's a resurgence of belief that each of us must connect with the divine," says Avram Davis, a teacher who founded Chochmat last year.

"Judaism tends to be academic and book-oriented," Davis adds. "But my experience is that it's a matter of the heart and a connection with the divine."

Davis opened Chochmat HaLev (literally, wisdom of the heart) only 14 months ago with no press coverage, no advertising and no salaries for its workers. Yet in September, the center expanded to include a yearlong spiritual leadership course. Within two years, says Davis, the curriculum will hopefully include a rabbinic ordination program.

Chochmat offers a meditative rather than an intellectual approach to God. While steeped strictly in Jewish tradition, the year-long Spirituality Leadership Course includes Monday night meditations at the Buddhist Monastery at Berkeley's Institute for World Religion.

Chochmat also offers lessons in Jewish Renewal liturgy; rights of passage; structures of Jewish life; Jewish mysticism and tikkun olam (healing the world), which the course listing describes as "unlearning oppression, integrating spirituality and social-change work [and] skill in working with others to heal the world."

Students in the one-year program as well as those enrolled in Chochmat's shorter-term courses, retreats and meditations come from a cross-section of the Jewish community.

"We're many groups," Davis says. "Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, MTV." Davis himself did not grow up in a religious home and did not even have a bar mitzvah until he was an adult.

Interest in Chochmat grew quickly. At first, people started "getting together and talking about it," Davis says. Eventually, 50 people applied for the yearlong Spirituality Leadership track, though it was only designed to hold 20 students.

The program's oldest student, 53-year-old George "Gershon" Caudill, was so enthused that he traveled from Boise, Idaho, leaving behind a job he'd held for 23 years.

He also left behind a checkered history, having grown up in a family of Ku Klux Klansmen.

Caudill and his wife, Judy Steinberg, wanted a change: They chose Chochmat over a rabbinical school in Philadelphia because they felt it afforded them the opportunity to be spiritually active.

"We want to be involved in the planning of the Chochmat," Caudill said.

Those who finish the one-year program receive no actual degree but earn a certificate of completion, says Nan Fink, who directs the program.

And they become relatively sophisticated Jews. Graduates have developed the skills to lead unofficial meditations, services, religious musicales and rites of passage.

"The first thing is to deepen [students'] spiritual practice," Davis says. "We give them the tools for leading or following, to set up services if they have to," and to "surrender to the Jewish experience."

Davis, 44, received his doctorate from U.C. Santa Cruz's history of consciousness program and has taught at various Bay Area venues for the last eight years.

Before founding Chochmat, he started several short-lived programs, including one called the Thirteen Gates meditation group. But he believed there was a demand for spiritually focused Jewish schooling.

A spiritual rather than academic approach "is part and parcel of Judaism," he says.

Given the high enrollment at Chochmat, it appears that spiritual approach is catching on. The difference between an abstract and a spiritual approach, he says, is like "the difference between reading the menu and eating the food."

And if your spiritual efforts aren't nourished by connecting with the divine, he says, "you're better off going to the beach."