Author, hypnotherapist takes helm as Antioch rabbi

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In 1967, Stephen Fisdel shipped off to Jerusalem to fight in the Six-Day War. As his plane soared from Cincinnati to Jerusalem, he prayed that the Jewish state would triumph.

When the adventurous 19-year-old arrived in Jerusalem, troops rifled throughout town, bulldozers plowed down the slums that once scraped along the Western Wall, Israeli fighter jets screamed in victory, as shopkeepers yanked boards from storefront windows and swept battle-dust away from sidewalks.

Landing only two days after the Israeli army had crushed the combined forces of eight Arab nations, Fisdel didn't expect his prayers to be answered so soon.

Nor did he expect to become a rabbi.

Today, Fisdel, 49, is the new spiritual leader at Congregation B'nai Torah in Antioch, a certified hypnotherapist and a spiritual counselor as well as an author.

In choosing Fisdel, the Reform congregation looked beyond his approach to scholarship.

"It was his overall presence, his personality, his sense of humor," said Norman Dritch, vice president of the congregation, who headed up the committee that hired Fisdel. "One thing that was extremely important to us was a concern for pastoral qualities. I know the definition of a rabbi is a teacher. But we don't want someone just to teach. When people are in crisis or in need, the rabbi is there for spiritual reasons, to help."

Josette Mata, the congregation's financial secretary, said, "When you're around him, you really feel connected. To God, spirituality."

Fisdel, who has had several careers, including selling office equipment, working for a winemaker and booking jazz musicians, sees a spiritual connection between Judaism and hypnotherapy.

"You're not going to get much closer to God by reading a gazillion books because it's only on a mental level," Fisdel said. "You must experience something to really know something, and through hypnosis and meditation one can move through the subconscious to connect with other levels of existence."

Beside practicing hypnotherapy, Fisdel is author of "The Practice of Kabbalah: Meditation in Judaism," published last year, and "The Dead Sea Scrolls: Understanding the Spiritual Message," which was recently released.

Discussing his latest book, he said, "The authors were not writing history or literature; they were trying to get a spiritual message across."

Fisdel spent 30 years researching the scrolls, the Tanakh and the lost literature of the Second Temple. The scrolls, he said, reveal the end days when two messiahs and a prophet enter the world. The first messiah will help destroy the enemy forces of Israel and restructure society. The second messiah will rebuild the Third Temple and reorganize Jewish ritual and prayer. The prophet will provide the messiahs with spiritual advice.

Fisdel emphasizes that "the survival of the state of Israel is essential for survival of Judaism." But he also believes that Jews should make aliyah by choice, and that the Jewish people also have an important role in the diaspora.

"God expected us to be a light unto other nations and it's very difficult for us to do in isolation," Fisdel said. "For the vast part of our history, Jews lived outside Israel. Ruth lived in Moab, the prophet Jonah, when he got upset, takes a ship to Spain; this moving around was common."

After the Six-Day War, Fisdel remained in Israel, returning to the United States in 1973 with a B.A. in Jewish history from Hebrew University. Ending up in Chicago, he taught at a day school and several Reform synagogues. At night, he earned a B.A. in Hebrew letters and a master's in Judaica.

In 1989, Fisdel decided to become a rabbi after reconnecting with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.

"I met Zalman in 1966 in Cincinnati and knew him as a graduate student," Fisdel said. "He opened up a yeshiva for training rabbis and since I always resonated with his approach, my interest in becoming a rabbi revived."

Fisdel was ordained in 1992 from P'nai Or Fellowship in Philadelphia. Later on in that year he became the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Chico.

Fisdel moved to the Antioch congregation in June, commuting from his home in Burlingame and continuing to maintain a private spiritual counseling practice.

B'nai Torah, a congregation of 35 families that meets at the First Congregational Church, is around 9 years old but has only had rabbis for the last four years. Fisdel replaces David Robbins, who was hired when the congregation's first rabbi, Sholom Groesberg, retired after three years.

"We wanted somebody who was interested in the people, who would be able to work with a diverse group," said Diana Lemberger, president of the congregation. "We have interfaith couples, couples who've converted. We needed a jack-of-all-trades. And he has quite a varied background."

Fisdel is pleased with his move. "They're potentially a growing congregation," he said. "They also seem to be looking toward developing a sense of community and internal cohesion as a community." Having a rabbi there on a permanent basis, he added, should certainly help.