Director of Zen temple in harmony with her Jewish roots

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As someone who has maintained a vital connection to her Jewish faith even as her Buddhist practice has deepened, Tova Green says the two traditions share some basic tenets.

An awareness of the preciousness of life.

The necessity of living an ethical life.

A sense of interconnectedness.

Meditation at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Beginner’s Mind Temple, also known as City Center photo/courtesy of the s.f. zen center

Also, she adds, “there are practices that are mutually enriching.”

Green is the director of the San Francisco Zen Center’s Beginner’s Mind Temple (also known as City Center), a post she has held since April 2011. The temple is a Soto Zen training center open to the general public.

The San Francisco Zen Center  — which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — also encompasses Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Ventana wilderness area of Carmel Valley.

A New Yorker who grew up in a secular but culturally ardent Jewish family in the Bronx, Green moved to San Francisco in 1990 and began visiting Green Gulch Farm and San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav soon after arriving.

“I was very happy when I had my bat mitzvah at 55,” she said. She studied and underwent the ceremony with two other women at Sha’ar Zahav.

“My interest in Zen practice also deepened and I moved into City Center in 1999 and have been a resident ever since.” In 2003, she was ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and given a dharma name, Jisan (“mountain of compassion”), by her teacher. The full formal name she now uses is the Rev. Jisan Tova Green. Upon ordination, she became a practice leader and then a co-founder of the Zen Center’s Queer Dharma Group.

Before moving into her current position with City Center, she was a social worker at the nonprofit Hospice by the Bay. Green earned a master’s degree from the Smith College School for Social Work in Northampton, Mass., and completed the school’s certificate program in contemplative social work in 2008.

Tova Green

While it has been argued that embracing Buddhism violates halachah, or Jewish law, which mandates belief in only one deity — the God of the Torah — Green disagrees.

“I have heard that, but it’s not how my rabbi feels,” she said. “Judaism and Buddhism are very much in harmony.”

Buddhists do not consider Buddha to have been a god per se, but rather, a compassionate teacher to whom they show reverence and gratitude. They do not worship him (or subsequent buddhas) as a deity.

The prevailing wisdom is that Buddhism and its practices have a particular appeal to Jews. One survey holds that 30 percent of non-Asian Buddhists are Jewish. However, a 2010 Pew Forum study pegs the number at closer to 6 percent. As for why Jews would be drawn specifically to Buddhism, Green noted that “there are as many reasons as there are people.”

A Jewish compatibility with Buddhism was introduced into popular culture by poet Rodger Kamenetz in his 1994 bestseller “The Jew in the Lotus,” which brought into wide circulation the term JuBu (sometimes written as JewBu).

In his memoir “One God Clapping,” the late Rabbi Alan Lew of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco recalled attending early morning meditations at the Berkeley zendo, or meditation hall, where he once practiced. He said his fellow students, “realizing that that most of us were Jews,” would make jokes about there not being enough people present for a minyan.

Sylvia Boorstein, author of “Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist,” refers to her “two vocabularies” — one Buddhist, the other Jewish — in her memoir, “The Courage to Be Happy.” She is the co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre.

The San Francisco Zen Center uses a building built in 1922 to house single Jewish immigrant women. photo/courtesy of the s.f. zen center

For some, including Boorstein, Buddhism leads back to Judaism. Lew, a practicing Buddhist for many years, journeyed through it to a surprising destination: the faith into which he was born. He became a Conservative rabbi, but introduced meditation to his congregation, believing it helped deepen the experience of worshipping as a Jew.

Green and Rabbi Camille Angel, spiritual leader of Sha’ar Zahav, offered a Jewish-Buddhist retreat last summer at Tassajara and recently co-led a class at the synagogue called “Many Blessings: Jewish and Buddhist practices for daily life.”

Jewish meditation at Sha’ar Zahav begins (and sometimes ends) with a niggun, a melodic chanting, to instill a quietude.

“There is a lot to pay attention to” in meditation, Green said. “Sometimes when we start to sit, we become aware of how busy our minds are. It’s a common experience. It can help when we notice that, to gently return our attention to our breath or to other physical sensations. Sometimes we have to do that multiple times.”

The attempt to attain a sense of inner peace and interconnectedness is also part of the Sabbath.

Another link between Buddhism and Judaism is, to a small extent, the building that houses the San Francisco Zen Center. It was built in 1922 when the Emanu-El Sisterhood for Personal Service (part of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco) sought a place to carry out its mission, aiding Jewish newcomers and urban residents in need. Julia Morgan and Dorothy Wormser were commissioned to design a building at 300 Page Street; the Zen Center bought the building in 1969.

“The incredibly beautiful building that gracefully houses San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center temple and sangha [community] once housed single Jewish women who came to San Francisco seeking a better life,” Mary Morgan, chair of the San Francisco Zen Center board of directors, wrote in a history of the center.

“The original purpose of the building was to provide a physical, educational and spiritual place of refuge for women who were trying to find their way in San Francisco. San Francisco Zen Center is the beneficiary of the work of the sisterhood, whose members were true bodhisattvas [enlightenment beings] in their efforts to help these women— initially poor immigrants from Eastern Europe, then German women fleeing Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and then all kinds of women.

“The Zen Center and the San Francisco Jewish community share a bond through this magnificent building, and our collective efforts to hear and respond to the cries of the world.”

The San Francisco Zen Center
will host a celebration of its sacred architecture on Friday, Oct. 12 and Saturday, Oct. 13, 300 Page St., S.F.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.