Rabbi Alan Lew, influential Zen rabbi, dies suddenly at 65

Alan Lew once thought he would become a Zen Buddhist priest. So when he chose a different path — one that led him to rabbinical school and ultimately to the forefront of the Jewish world — it was unexpected.

So, too, was his untimely death Jan. 12.

“He was a beautiful example of what we can be,” said Candace Feldman, a staffer at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco and longtime colleague of Lew. She described him as compassionate, wise, generous and courageous.

Lew was the spiritual leader at Beth Sholom from 1991 to 2005, a community activist, a pioneer in the field of Jewish meditation and an author.

Lew died in Baltimore, where he was teaching at the Rabbinic Training Institute, a program of the Jewish Theological Seminary. After starting his day by leading a group meditation, he attended morning services and then went for his daily one-hour walk. He was found, collapsed, shortly thereafter. He was 65.

His death rocked the community.

“We were in complete and utter shock,” said Rabbi Michelle Fisher of Walnut Creek and a participant at the training institute. “We were all walking around with blank looks and tears in our eyes.”

Lew transformed Jewish meditation into an accessible practice through Makor Or, the first Jewish meditation center in the country associated with a synagogue. He also quickly gained a reputation for powerful, meaningful sermons and for nonprescriptive leadership. Those efforts revitalized what had become an aging congregation, more than doubling the membership of the synagogue during his 15-year tenure.

He also wrote three books, one on Jewish meditation, one about his life and one about the High Holy Days.

Lew also was a staunch activist. He publicly supported a range of social justice causes, even when his congregants consequently tried to unseat him from his pulpit in 2004 for taking a public stand on a handful of political issues.

He periodically slept in the park alongside the homeless, and was arrested during a demonstration on their behalf when the city intended to demolish a housing project in San Francisco’s Presidio. He attended every execution vigil at San Quentin since his arrival in the Bay Area.

He spoke out against the security barrier in Israel, despite his unwavering passion for the country. He led an Israel trip each year for Beth Sholom congregants, and during both intifadas — when other American Jewish agencies were canceling their trips — Lew refused to follow suit.

“He was the most ardent supporter of Israel you could imagine,” said Adam Hertz, a Beth Sholom congregant and board member.

On top of all that, Lew also was an author, poet and television host of an interfaith public access program, “Mosaic.”

And yet, the most important element of his life, said Rabbi Dorothy Richman, was the family he came home to at the end of his long days — his wife, Sherril Jaffe, and his three children.

“He loved his family with everything he had, and they were the source of strength that fueled all the amazing work he did in the community,” said Richman, who worked as Lew’s assistant rabbi for several years before moving to Berkeley Hillel.

Three Bay Area rabbis — Fisher, Menachem Creditor and Daniel Pressman — were in attendance this week at the conference in Baltimore, and all three did shmira, which is the mitzvah of sitting with and praying over the deceased so they are never alone.

“It was almost poetic that he was at a rabbinic leadership conference, training Conservative rabbis,” because teaching was so central to his rabbinate, said Rabbi Micah Hyman, Lew’s predecessor at Beth Sholom.

After the rabbis learned the news of Lew’s death, they talked about how they could honor him and support each other during such an emotional time. Later that night, institute coordinators scrapped the evening’s program and gathered everyone to study and discuss Lew’s work.

“His most profound and lasting influence is the idea that Judaism is a daily practice,” said Hertz, who often meditated with Lew at Makor Or.

“For a lot of people, Judaism is something you do on holidays, and maybe on Shabbat, but Lew believed Judaism was what you did everyday, every moment, and that was what mattered.”

Lew found Judaism uninspiring as a young boy in New York, and turned to Zen Buddhism in his 20s. After many years of Buddhist practice, he considered becoming ordained as a lay priest. But during a retreat at Tassajara in Carmel Valley, he realized his Jewish self was a bigger part of his being than he initially thought.

“The more I meditated, the more aware I became of the contents of my unconscious mind … I had a Jewish soul,” he wrote in his 2001 memoir, “One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi.”

At the time of that discovery, he was living in the Bay Area and working as a Grey Line tour bus driver while practicing Zen Buddhism. Shortly thereafter, he met his wife, Sherril. They got engaged 13 days after they met.

Lew attended rabbinical school at JTS in the ’80s, even though many people told him that, at 38, he was too old to become a rabbi. He returned to the Bay Area in 1991 to lead Beth Sholom until his retirement in 2005. The Conservative synagogue became his avenue to explore and teach the intersection of Judaism and meditation.

Even after he retired, he continued to teach workshops on Jewish meditation around the Bay Area.

Lew “was funny and playful, intellectually and interpersonally. For him, the whole spirit of meditation wasn’t to be heavy, but to be attentive,” Richman said. “Part of paying attention is seeing the humor in things and having a greater perspective.”

Lew is survived by his wife of 29 years, Sherril Jaffe Lew, and three children Stephen, Hannah and Malka Lew.

A funeral service is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 15 at Congregation Beth Sholom at 12 p.m. Contributions can be made to the Rabbi Alan Lew Memorial Fund, c/o Congregation Beth Sholom, 1301 Clement St., San Francisco, CA 94118.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.