Life coaches meld spirituality, practicality to help answer burning questions

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When she first returned from spending a year in Jerusalem, Lisa Colton was at a loss. Keeping Shabbat in a meaningful way was easy in Israel. It was a real separation, it was holy, it was how Shabbat is meant to be observed.

But when the former Bay Area resident returned to the United States, more specifically to Burlington, Vt., it was different. Strictly observing Shabbat often meant staying home, in her apartment, alone. It just didn’t feel right.

Enter Laura Sari Geduldig, life coach. Geduldig helped Colton identify what she loved most about Shabbat, “and how I could introduce that to my life in Vermont, even if it didn’t look exactly the same as it did in Jerusalem,” said the 28-year-old Colton.

Geduldig, 32, is part of a profession that has really taken off in the last decade: the life, or personal, coach. And many, including Geduldig and the other coaches profiled here — Michael Scott, Marci Rinkoff and Eva Way Konigsberg — are relying on their own relationship with Judaism to coach clients.

A coach is there not only to help you set goals, but to help you follow through on them. A coach helps you identify what may be holding you back. A coach gives you someone to be accountable to.

Though Geduldig and Colton were friends before they entered into a professional relationship, a coaching relationship is much different from a friendship.

“Coaching is more one-directional,” said Colton. “Each appointment was totally focused on me, very purposeful. It was not the general storytelling and processing that would go on in a friendship. It was … goal- and action-oriented.”

While Colton, who runs a Web-design firm specifically for synagogues and Jewish day schools, felt she needed coaching for her spiritual life, others seek it out to help them define their goals or make a transition in life.

Or, as Geduldig said, coaching is about “making sure you don’t have a black hole or blank spot stopping you from having a fulfilling life.”

Often clients don’t even know what those blank spots are, said Rinkoff, an Oakland life coach.

A life coach’s work is very different from what rabbis do, according to Konigsberg, who has been working with an interfaith couple on how to raise their children.

“Coaching is different than pastoral counseling,” Konigsberg said. “A rabbi would say, ‘This is how the Jewish path is.’ My whole emphasis is ‘Let’s get to your truth and how you’re going to practice that.”‘

And each life coach found his or own truth before switching to their new career, often through volunteer work like Scott and Geduldig.

For Geduldig, it was her work for the AIDS ride, a weeklong, 585-mile bike trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which raises money for AIDS research and services. Then, one day she saw a small ad in a newspaper for a “life purpose coach.”

“That just clicked for me,” she said.

She began taking courses, eventually getting a credential from the Coaches Training Institute in San Rafael.

“It’s about helping people find their life purpose, their passion, and getting paid to do it,” she said.

Coaching is also about finding balance; many people who seek it out have too much stress and need help living a healthier lifestyle.

Geduldig believes spirituality can help. A regular practitioner of yoga, she combines coaching with body movement.

Coming to Judaism mostly as an adult had a profound effect on her. “It filled a space in my soul I didn’t know was empty,” she said. “It created so much more fulfillment in my life, and cultivating that spiritual part is something I love doing with people, whether it’s Judaism or other spiritualities.”

Konigsberg, 49, came to coaching from the corporate world; she was an executive vice president of a computer company and CFO of another, both of which she started.

But Konigsberg was miserable. Seeking a coach herself in the early ’90s, she felt a desire to help others. The decision to become a coach was an obvious one.

At first, the Oakland-based Konigsberg attracted clients who wanted her to help them launch a small business of their own. But she was completely burned out on dealing with anything business-related and resisted advising those who sought her out.

“I wanted to get away from the numbers all together,” she said. But instead of attracting “lost souls figuring out how to get in touch with their higher selves, they came to me because of my business background.”

Konigsberg, who took courses at the institute in San Rafael but isn’t certified, recently helped a woman struggling to keep her dance school running and two men working on software that will aid cancer research.

Around the same time she began feeling dissatisfied with her professional life, she also began on a spiritual quest, which resulted in her becoming a certified teacher of Jewish meditation through Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev.

It’s easy for her to see the connection.

Konigsberg uses meditation techniques with her clients, if they are open to it.

She also uses techniques like guided visualization meditation, which is “oriented to opening up that person to their inner truth. I really believe that we all have a spark of goodness in us,” she said, “from which we derive our own sense of what we want to do and need to do.”

Rinkoff also combines meditation with her coaching work.

The 38-year-old spent many years working for the United Jewish Appeal in Houston and then business development for large corporations. She switched to coaching after going back to school for a graduate degree in psychology and realizing that coaching was much better suited to her.

Just as meditation has become a regular part of her life, Rinkoff, who aligns herself with the Jewish Renewal movement, said she has made coaching a part of her spiritual life. “Meditation has brought me closer to my own spirit and in essence to others,” she said. “And coaching is also a spiritual practice for me because it allows others to recognize their own sense of self and in essence, their spirituality.”

Scott heard his calling at age 60. A Jew with Buddhist leanings from Montreal (which evolved from his reading Rodger Kamenetz’s “The Jew in the Lotus”), Scott, along with his wife, moved to the Bay Area four years ago, deciding to live on a houseboat in Sausalito.

In Montreal, he’d belonged to a Conservative synagogue, where he had become a bar mitzvah. Later, he joined a Reform synagogue and became close friends with the rabbi, an American. He watched his daughter Julia become bat mitzvah there. Now he attends services on occasion at Shabbos Shul in Mill Valley, though he says he normally prefers to “go to the woods to be near God rather than worship in a building.”

Scott had spent his entire professional life running various businesses; his family owned one, in clothing and manufacturing.

“Over the years, though, I was running these stores, and I kept getting visits from people, mostly youngsters, some in tears about their girlfriend or their parents, with crises in their lives. Instead of kicking them out of the place as a good capitalist would, I’d put down my pencil and talk to them over coffee,” he said. “These were clearly signals that I was doing the wrong work, but I was paying no attention to that.”

In the Bay Area, he thought at first that “coaching might be one of these New Age frou-frou California things, but it’s legitimate, serious work. I need to know I’m doing serious legitimate work and not some granola-munching New Age stuff.”

Scott knows from his own experience that going inside yourself can sometimes be scary process.

“A rabbi said something like, ‘Too many people substitute reaching out for reaching in.’ It takes courage to reach in, and people need help to do that.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."