Israeli pairs spiritual road show heading to Bay Area

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Chaya Kaplan-Lester wasn’t born to be wild, but she and her husband, Rabbi Hillel Lester, definitely got their motor running and have headed out on the highway.

Theirs is no ordinary road trip. The Israeli couple and their three kids are cruising around in a 38-foot RV on a 10-day journey that will include several stops in California, including three in the Bay Area.

Their specialty is running workshops that promote spiritual growth, and their principle tool is the Torah.

While in the Bay Area, they will conduct a seminar at San Francisco’s Shalom School, a d’var Torah at Berkeley’s Ohr HaChaim Beit Midrash and a larger-scale workshop at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

Rabbi Hillel Lester and Chaya Kaplan-Lester

At the Shalom School, Kaplan-Lester will lead a Tu B’Av seminar she says mixes Kabbalistic teachings and psychological exercises surrounding the holiday (sometimes called Judaism’s Valentine’s Day).

At the Chochmat HaLev event, Rabbi Lester will lead a workshop called “Breaking in Order to Become Whole: An Inner Journey from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah.” He draws on biblical stories and insights to address the individual’s potential for transformation.

His wife addresses similar issues, only she speaks to her audience through theater and poetry. At Chochmat HaLev, she will perform her one-woman show “Babel’s Daughter: From the Bible-Belt to the Holy Land.” While autobiographical, the show is intended to be more than first-person theater.

“I wanted to make it something not just about entertainment,” Kaplan-Lester says. “People can turn on their TiVo for that. It’s about people having their own insightful revelatory journey, using my story as an echo chamber.”

In the play she recounts her life story, growing up disinterestedly Jewish in Memphis, Tenn., turning rebel then discovering a richer religious life in Israel. She then invites audience members to take notes describing their own personal journeys.

Afterward, everyone shares.

Kaplan-Lester and her husband — who met and married six years ago while living in Berkeley — will soon return to Israel, where they are about to formally open the Jerusalem Center for Transformative Torah. There they blend traditional psychotherapy with Torah study and Jewish meditation.

She calls it “Esalen meets Jerusalem” (Esalen is a humanistic, multidisciplinary retreat center in Big Sur.)

“It’s our passion,” Kaplan-Lester says of the couple’s center, which until now had operated without a permanent location. “It’s about creating a banner in the Jewish world, blending psychology and Judaism.  We hope to say this is the next frontier.”

They have the credentials to back it up. The rabbi received his ordination at the Sulam Yaacov Yeshiva in Jerusalem and is a certified meditation teacher. His wife studied Jewish theology at the University of Oxford and earned a master’s in clinical psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco in 2007.

After they moved to Israel, they then merged their professional, personal and spiritual lives. In addition to her practice (which combines traditional psychotherapy and Torah insights), Kaplan-Lester also blogs for the Jerusalem Post and writes poetry.

A major aspect of the couple’s mission is extending their Torah-based healing to all Jews, no matter their level of religious observance or Jewish education.

“I’m Torah observant,” Kaplan-Lester says, “yet I feel I want to transcend the denominations. You don’t often find that in a Torah-observant person.”

And how do they manage to run their center, treat clients and raise three children?

“My husband and I have an ideal of an egalitarian relationship,” Kaplan-Lester says. “He’s incredibly supportive, and that shared spirit allows me to be productive. And we don’t sleep.”


Rabbi Hillel Lester and Chaya Kaplan-Lester will give presentations at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18 at the Shalom School, 834 28th Ave., S.F. $20; and 2 p.m. Aug. 21 at Chochmat HaLev, 2215 Prince St., Berkeley. $18. Information:

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.