Founder of Berkeley meditation center becomes ordained as rabbi

Avram Davis, who founded Chochmat HaLev about 10 years ago, is known by many just as Avram. When the Chochmat spiritual leader is being official, he tacks Dr. onto the front of his name.

You now can call him “rabbi,” too

For years, Davis was academically content with his Ph.D. in the history of consciousness from U.C. Santa Cruz, plus numerous stints in Israeli yeshivot.

So what changed?

Chochmat HaLev has grown, and Davis said he is trying to grow with it. The meditation center is currently going through a reevaluation and restructuring process, to figure out where it’s headed, though there are no plans afoot to become a synagogue.

“We have evolved not just as an academy but as a community,” he said. “And as Chochmat has become better known within the Bay Area, folks have formed an opinion about us.”

Davis, who wasn’t born Jewish, comes from a military and farming family. He underwent a Reform conversion at age 13, with his parents’ permission, and then a Conservative one a few years later.

“I felt God very strongly in my heart, which pushed me in the direction of the Jewish,” said Davis, who uses the word “Jewish” liberally in his speech, as both a verb and noun.

Davis explained why for years he did not enter the rabbinate, even though colleagues and community members suggested that he should.

“I’ve hesitated partly because when you do something like that, you become pegged. The Jewish world is a very fractured place, and it’s so easy for it to get turf-oriented, and Chochmat is not immune to that,” he said. “I didn’t want to exacerbate that.”

Secondly, he thought the rabbi label might be off-putting to some. He felt he could reach people in a wider range of places and denominations if he were a doctor rather than rabbi.

“I thought I could encourage the meditation teachers we were training to go more easily into congregations of all kinds,” said Davis, noting that a rabbinical title can be inspiring to some, but off-putting to others.

While Chochmat is certainly Renewal in flavor, it chooses not to align itself officially with the Renewal movement. Davis was granted his smicha (rabbinic ordination) by Rabbi Gershon Winkler, who grew up Orthodox but now mixes Judaism with traditional Native American practices.

“Experiencing the transmission from my friends and teachers and experiencing the transmission of the lineage from them, was very powerful and moving,” he said. “And experiencing the transmission and affection of the community itself really brought me to tears.”

But Davis is refraining from calling himself a Renewal rabbi, for now.

“That decision has to arrive out of talking with my community and my board,” he explained, “because that gets into potentially political issues which I personally don’t like to get into.”

Davis said Chochmat probably wouldn’t change much as a result of his ordination, only in that it would become more cohesive.

“Intuitively, I think it will help the community, but in which direct ways, I don’t know how. It depends on the direction Chochmat goes, which is still being defined.”

On the personal level, though, Davis has high hopes.

“One of the biggest problems in the modern Jewish world is sectarian anger,” he said, “and so my hope is to work in the direction of lessening 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."