COVER STORY:A vision of spirit

In the Bible, Jacob wrestles with an angel; Joseph has a dream that the sun, moon and 11 stars are bowing down to him; and Ezekiel sees winged four-faced creatures, a wheel and other fantastic sights that he calls “visions of God.”

Jewish tradition abounds with Divine visions and close encounters of the metaphysical kind. But do Jews have such peak spiritual experiences today? And will they talk about them?

With that in mind, we put an ad in j. asking our readers to share their experiences. Some described intense connections while chanting, a “gentle energy” while touching the Torah scroll, a realization of being part of something greater than oneself, a sudden flood of tears followed by joy and the cessation of pain.

Ronald Bedrick, 57, of Oakland, writes that he’s had several such experiences since he began to reconnect with Judaism during the last 10 years. One of them occurred while he attended a healing workshop near Safed in northern Israel.

“My heart opened very deeply, and much sadness and pain was released,” writes Bedrick, who now has a practice as spiritual healer and counselor, and teaches at several local JCCs.

Suddenly the following words came to him: “Ani adonai elohechem emet. [I HaShem your God am truth].”

Closer to home, Alaiya Aguilar, 42, of Albany, who has served as a cantorial soloist, writes: “When I’m on the bimah … I drop into a place in myself that is silence … My voice emerges from that place, but it is no longer my voice, it is the voice of everything coming through me.”

And Sally Churgel, 49, of Sebastopol, describes a journey that led her from exploring other religions “as a disenchanted young adult” to a renewed commitment to Judaism and a bat mitzvah two years ago. She writes about the power of the “prayers and songs in Hebrew,” particularly the chanting of the Sh’ma.

Discussing such phenomena, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a columnist for j. and a spiritual counselor in Palo Alto, said, “A spiritual renaissance has happened.”

Emphasizing that “relationship with God has always been at least one of the core pillars of Jewish life if not the center of Jewish life,” Eilberg said that it was not something many Jews talked about until fairly recently.

“Anyone who has opened a prayer book sees that God is everywhere,” she said. But “talk about personal experience seemed rarely welcome in synagogues. [It was something] for characters in the Torah, but it stopped at the end of the prophetic age and was no longer for regular people — with the exception of the Orthodox.”

In recent decades, a hunger for spiritual connection has propelled a number of Jews into new directions, including the rediscovery of old paths. Some “regular people” are describing encounters that border on the extraordinary, and that don’t necessarily happen within the context of a religious service — or lead to synagogue affiliation. However, some of our readers say such direct spiritual experiences have resulted in a return to Judaism or an enhanced Jewish faith.

That’s what happened to Delton Weiss, 31, a San Franciscan who described himself at the time as “completely nonobservant,” though his father is Orthodox and mother Conservative.

“Sure, I had my bar mitzvah, but that was a long time ago. I never went to shul, never ate kosher, and wanted to get as far away from my father’s brand of Judaism as possible.”

But he was driving alone in silence on a quiet road in rural New Jersey, in a car with a broken radio, on Dec. 2, 2002. “Then it just happened. I experienced a brilliant flash of light, love and joy.”

Since then, Weiss has “begun taking steps back to HaShem, and back to the ways of my [Orthodox] father,” joining a synagogue in New Jersey and beginning the process to make aliyah next year. “My life has never been the same since.”

Others talk about the healing power of God that pulled them out of deep pain.

Anna Heffron, 57, a Massachusetts resident who formerly lived in San Anselmo, remembers the incredible heartache when her second child died in utero in 1979 and she needed to have a cesarean section. She chose to have general anesthesia and never saw the baby.

“I regretted that decision for five years, descending every spring into that familiar pit of mourning and remembering,” she writes.

Then, after going through grief work, she had a vision of her daughter, “and she was beautiful. I felt, in that moment that I was in the presence of God.”

She threw herself into support-group work, co-leading a group for pregnancy and infant loss for 18 years. She also enrolled her two children in San Francisco’s Hebrew Academy and joined Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. A 32-year resident of the Bay Area, she now belongs to the Cape Cod Synagogue in Hyannis.

Every day, in her “mind’s eye,” she continues to see a vision of that lost daughter — a vision that has healed her by connecting her to God.

But some Jews first discover a spiritual connection while exploring other faiths, notably Eastern traditions. That happened in 1986 to Ilene Serlin, 55, a San Francisco clinical psychologist and dance-movement therapist who has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism and a practicing Jew-Bu. Although her teacher assured her there was no conflict between Judaism and Tibetan Buddhism, Serlin felt pulled: “Where was my community? Which holidays do I celebrate?”

Her questions led her through Jungian psychology, Joseph Campbell and Jewish author and philosopher Jacob Needleman, who sent her to see his friend, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, formerly of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas.

“As I walked into that huge, posh, North Dallas Reform temple that Yom Kippur, I heard strains of music. Tears streamed down my face, as the songs reached an ancient family place in me.

“I since think of Judaism as rhythm. It is rhythm that connects me back to my ancestors, and what is, to me, a spiritual reconnection to Judaism.”

The High Holy Days, when the synagogue is dressed in white and haunting melodies pervade, are a time of renewal. In 1996, Daniel Turbin, a Colombian-born San Francisco resident, was debilitated by a severe upper-respiratory infection, exacerbated by working nights as a nurse. Out of work for six or seven months, he didn’t think he’d be able to go to Yom Kippur services — until a friend offered to drive him. During the service, led by Daniel Lev, he “went into a mental dialogue” with the Divine about not really wanting to be there” but attending out of love of God.

“When the time came for the Torah scroll to be passed around, I was pretty much in a state of meditative participation and dialogue. … When I touched the Torah scroll, I felt some gentle energy coming up my arm, and that is a miraculous event I will always remember.”

Turbin, now 53, continues to marvel at the experience. “From then on, I was healed. … That day I broke the fast, ate a huge meal, drank two glasses of wine and was perfectly fine.” The next day, he went back to work.

A surge of spiritual energy can often help families get through difficult times, particularly the death of a loved one. When her father, Martin Winslow, was diagnosed with cancer, Barbara Schechner, 64, of San Rafael “observed his coming to terms with his terminal illness. Our family told him privately and together that we were there for him for the whole journey. …”

“When the end drew near, my dad’s younger sister and I went into his bedroom and sat by his bedside. … I took his hand and said, ‘Your sister and I are still with you on your journey. May the music you’re about to hear make your journey more comfortable and peaceful.'”

She inserted a tape of Congregation Rodef Sholom’s liturgical music, and, as it played, her father squeezed her hand. “A small, gentle smile crept from the corner of his lips when he recognized the familiar music.

“The final song was ‘Listen,’ sung beautifully and soulfully by Cantor David Margules. As the words to this song enveloped my dad, I felt and saw him peacefully let go of his earthly body. His spirit and soul were lifted and carried to the next level as he ‘Listened to his God.'”

Her father died Aug. 1, 1998. Whenever Schechner plays the tape, “my dad and I are once again holding hands with love and peace in our hearts.”

Achieving tranquility can also come from a mysterious “visitor,” the premise behind the long-running TV series “Touched by an Angel.” Some Jews who are very much in the mainstream say they have been visited by a “presence” who steers them to calm and safety.

That’s what happened to Maxine Clamage, 66, a retired paralegal and technical writer from Mill Valley. Years ago, while raising two teenage daughters as a newly single mother, she would awaken exhausted, “anxious about money and how my daughters and I were going to survive financially, physically and emotionally.”

Praying to God for guidance, she awakened one night “to feel the presence of an angel in my bedroom. I was afraid at first to see such a huge illuminated creature with gigantic wings, until it enveloped me in those wings.”

Suddenly she “breathed a sigh of relief … [and] relaxed deeply. I knew at that moment that God was with me and that my daughters and I were going to be OK. I fell asleep and awoke refreshed, and was able to get on with my life as a whole person and a capable mother.”

Later, as Clamage was “accosted on the sidewalk by a demented neighbor,” another neighbor remarked on how calm she remained. Clamage responded that her angel was “there with his arms around me, protecting me from harm.”

Now a grandmother, Clamage said she hasn’t “seen” the angel since. But “the comfort is always with me — the sense that I’m OK. … It’s 30 years since my Jewish husband from an Orthodox family walked out on me, and I managed very well, so somebody’s given me strength.”

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].