November 30, 2000
The Gospel According to Agape
Thousands of Jews flock to an ecumenical church in Culver City. What does that tell us about Judaism?
Rachelle Benveniste looked for God, but she did not feel God in the synagogue. She looked for the communal support she needed as a divorced woman, but after a year at synagogue she still felt anonymous and invisible.
She looked for a personal relationship with a spiritual mentor, but a meeting with her rabbi left her cold. She yearned to reveal her own passionate spiritual connection, but Jewish ritual did not move her beyond nostalgia.
So she turned to Agape International Center of Truth, and found Reverend Michael Beckwith and Science of Mind and prayer and meditation and unconditional love and acceptance.
Like a growing number of Jews in Los Angeles who feel disenfranchised from organized Judaism, Benveniste found what she craved at this Culver City ecumenical spiritual center. Thousands attend Agape's three services every week to be inspired by the rich music, straight-to-the-heart sermonizing and a meticulously orchestrated emotional and spiritual high.
Among these are an estimated 3,000 Jewish Angelenos, ranging from those with no connection to their faith to active synagogue members, from former Orthodox Jews and temple vice presidents and day school teachers to New Age searchers.
Most of these Jews quickly get beyond the fact that Agape holds many of the trappings of a church - a reverend, ministries, a massive choir - because Agape does not espouse Christian theology or iconography. For them, moving their worship out of the main sanctuary and into this converted industrial office space has strengthened their relationship with God, their self-awareness and their connection to others. And all this, they say, without replacing or conflicting with their Jewish roots.
"Agape services opened in me a certain way to experience things deeply, ways that were not easily accessible in a mainstream Jewish approach," says Rina Daly, a Jewish educator. "It allowed me to access something within myself that was missing from me."
In a Jewish community paying more and more attention to spirituality, Benveniste, Daly and others like them offer a stunningly clear - and rare - glimpse into the hearts and minds of Jews who have found their divine connection outside Jewish tradition.
Agape's Jews give voice to the mostly anonymous multitudes of seekers who have opted out of Judaism. And there is much to learn from what they are saying, from looking at the style and substance they chose over Judaism.
"There is a Talmudic passage that a wise person is one who learns from everyone," says Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz of Jews for Judaism, who does not include Agape in his roster of cults and missionaries trying to convert Jews. "I would hope that all the good that attracts Jewish people to Agape could be rediscovered within Judaism. There is something attracting people that is positive and fulfilling, and if we can figure what that is and get it back somehow in the synagogue, maybe we can learn to make our congregations more friendly and more spiritual, and do it within the framework of Judaism."
So what is it that Jews are finding at Agape? Services that are spontaneous and ecstatic, filled with excellent music; an enthralling preacher who is dynamic and involving, shooting from the hip and to the heart every time; a community that is welcoming and loving; a spiritual path toward awareness of God, self and the planet that is accessible, healing and fulfilling.
The only drawback? It's definitely not Judaism.
Howard Jay Rubin is unofficially known as the rabbi of Agape, though he holds no ordination. He teaches a class in metaphysical Bible and kabbalah, and leads Gesher Ohr, the Jewish group of Agape that holds holiday celebrations.
He grew up in suburban Conservative Judaism and then embarked on a spiritual quest, touching upon everything from Eastern religions to Chassidism.
He ended up at Agape nearly a dozen years ago, then a new offshoot of the Church of Religious Science being led by the magnetic Beckwith.
Rubin says what attracted him most was the depth Agape was able to lend to his Jewish search by revealing to him that mystical and metaphysical approaches were contained in the Torah and the Jewish tradition.
"All of a sudden I found that I had the translation software in my mind to be able to see those spiritual practices and mysticism in Torah," says Rubin, a professional magician who works at the Magic Castle and private events.
For him, Agape has meant becoming a more active, involved Jew by interweaving - sometimes melding - Judaism and Science of Mind, also called Religious Science, a movement founded in 1926 by Ernest Holmes with lectures at the Ambassador Hotel.
Rubin offers, as an example, the "Shema," the Jewish prayer that proclaims the oneness of God - a principle central to Science of the Mind. Rubin is able to meld Judaism with Religious Science because one of the latter's principles is that there is one unifying universal deity, and people can choose their own rituals and religious systems to arrive at oneness with God. It is ecumenical not in the sense that it blends practices, but in that it allows individuals to choose their own.
"We don't limit people's practice," Beckwith said in an interview after Sunday services a few weeks ago. "We encourage people to explore. We believe when you really go to the heart of the major religions, they are pretty much saying the same thing and that practices are born out of what was best for them culturally at the time," he says.
That message of universalism, of the oneness of all people, is one of the most disturbing aspects of Agape, says Ron Wolfson, a principal investigator for Synagogue 2000, a project to revitalize congregations, run out of the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future at the University of Judaism (UJ).
"I get very nervous about these kinds of attempts to blur the beauties of particularism," says Wolfson, a vice president at UJ and director of the Whizin center.
"On the one hand, you look around at the Agape audience and see people of every color and creed and religious background, and the metamessage is it doesn't matter who you worship, God or Buddha or Jesus; we are the post-particularistic movement of the 21st century ... we're all one human family," he says. Judaism, on the other hand, "is rooted in the particular life view of a tradition that is thousands of years old and that has very broad but specific sets of guidelines and particular religious and spiritual and ethical guidelines."
But Benveniste has a different view. Rather than being able to discern God through the structure of rituals and mitzvot, as Judaism offers, she felt liberated by removing spirituality from rules and dogma. "When Michael Beckwith speaks, you hear him speak of various spiritual leaders of the world. It's not like 'here's this set of rules and this set of beliefs and this is it,'" she says.
Rather, one can gain revelations, those insights into the soul, through Science of Mind's system of prayer and meditation: recognizing the presence of God everywhere and unifying with it; realizing that what you are praying for "has already happened in the mind of God and that you are making yourself available for it," according to Beckwith. And when a person learns this system of prayer - at Agape workshops - "they move into a prayer without ceasing attitude, they notice they are praying full-time," Beckwith says. Benveniste credits her new career as a successful writer and teacher of creative writing to the insights into herself she has gained through Agape's classes and services.
"It was a revelation to me that I could really make choices that were not from fear," she said. Heeding her deep internal promptings worked for Benveniste, but not for everyone associated with Agape. One rabbi tells of an Agape family he knows who lost everything when they sold their home and business to pursue their own path.
And even beyond the material danger of such an approach, investing so much power in the human will -to the point of believing that positive thinking alone can shape reality - seems contrary to Jewish principles. Says Rabbi Mordechai Finley, leader of Ohr HaTorah and an expert in Jewish spirituality: "In Jewish spirituality, evil is real; the sitra achra [the other side], the yetzer hara [evil inclination] are placed in the human being by God, and you can't just get rid of it by positive thinking. It has to be dealt with in a forceful and insightful and courageous way," he says.
Still, he says, he has seen a strong spiritual and Jewish awakening in members of his congregation who have come from Agape and soon take on observance of Shabbat and transfer their meditative and spiritual practices to a Jewish framework.
And while many Agape members end up at Ohr HaTorah, Finley says, "I don't think there is anybody who started going to Ohr HaTorah and found it inadequate and then went to Agape. My experience has been over the long run that the Agape connection diminishes and the Jewish connection is strengthened," Finley says.
He adds that Jews searching elsewhere for spirituality is a natural outcome of the Judaism of generations past that diluted Jewish tradition.
"One of the problems of the reductions of Judaism to morality and ethics - which in my mind is one of the worst misteachings of 20th century Judaism - is that the ramification is that someone who is ethical can be a great Jew," without any other Jewish observance, Finley laments.
In fact, Ohr HaTorah is probably the best example of a synagogue that has recognized the Jewish spiritual yearning and done something about it.
Finley points to the similarities between the community he oversees and Agape, similarities that are emerging in a growing number of synagogues in Los Angeles and across the country.
Ohr HaTorah focuses on community, breaking the congregation - which meets in a West L.A. church - into neighborhood groups, enhancing personal connections and a sense of fellowship. Agape has dozens of special-interest ministries, everything from those who work with the homeless to yoga groups to groups for gays and lesbians.
Music is central to Agape's service, with a regular band performing original Agape music, guest acts that hold their own on the Hollywood music scene, and a 250-member choir that performs once a month and attracts thousands of people.
At Ohr HaTorah, as at many other synagogues that are looking for spiritual rejuvenation, the service is packed with music that is "authentically Jewish but very exciting and moving," Finley says. And, at the core of it, both Agape and a growing number of synagogues are trying to touch that internal yearning for inspiration, that nearly subconscious longing for a connection with something larger than the self that in today's parlance is called a quest for spiritual fulfillment.
Many spiritual seekers "suffer from the misrepresentation that Judaism doesn't have a vital spiritual life to offer, and they are delighted to find out that Judaism doesn't just have a spiritual core, but Judaism has a spiritual practice," Finley says.
That was certainly unknown to Laurie Leah Levine, an Agape member who grew up at Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.
"Over the years I've looked for a place in me where I can connect spiritually, that gives me the bit that I didn't get going to temple," says Levine, author of "Spiritual Medicine." " I feel so much love [at Agape], it feels like home to me."
The fact that she is so happy there has been hard for her parents, who are still very involved in Conservative Judaism. "They have never been there ... and it bothers them that I love it so much," she says. (Ironically, Adat Ari El recently instituted a Saturday service, called One Shabbat Morning, featuring charismatic music and a more participatory liturgy.)
Even for Agape members, it's hard to get away from the feeling that Agape is outside the pale of Judaism. Rina Daly says that at first she was swept away by the services. She emigrated from Israel when she was 18, and the gospel music and Southern-style preaching were electrifying for her.
But while the inspiration and spiritual sustenance are real, she had a hard time with the fact that it is, in the end, a church. She found herself enjoying services but sitting in a panic waiting for the next reference to Jesus.
The panic deepened when her two teenaged sons began questioning their mother's spiritual allegiances. "I found great meaning and it helped me with my sense of spiritual crisis," says Daly, "but when I saw my actions may be confusing to my kids, or giving them a double standard, I chose not to participate in that way."
Still, she takes Agape with her.
"Once I became exposed to Agape I went to rabbis and said 'Did you ever consider another way of involving the audience?'" says Daly, who runs a family Hebrew school out of her home. "Synagogues can be so mental. People come and pay dues and sit and the rabbi or whoever is on the bimah does their thing, it's so passive. It bothered me that there was no sense of ownership over the prayer time."
Daly says during the past few years she has found more synagogues that are willing to offer ecstatic services. She is an active member of B'nai Horin, a Jewish Renewal minyan lead by Rabbi Stan Levy, and her sons had their bar mitzvahs at Beth Shir Shalom, led by Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels in Santa Monica. And she still attends Rubin's metaphysical Bible class.
Barbara Steffin, who has attended Agape services for about a year, says she chooses not to go to the Bible class because she goes to Agape to get something other than what she was getting at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, where at one point she was a vice president.
"Something was lacking at temple, and it certainly wasn't the people or the love or the cultural aspect. I loved the Jewish music and our language and food. However, listening over and over again to segments from the Torah and having it talked about just didn't connect with my need for spirituality," she says. "And if you've gone to Agape you know that Reverend Michael talks in the here and now, he talks about issues that are common to all of us, our pains and our pleasures," she says. "So where in the past I have never longed to go to temple, I do long to go to Agape, I feel like I need my Agape fix. It gives me sustenance to live a kind of life that I like, which is one of high morals, doing for others."
Still, her Agape fix does not fill that place inside of her that longs for a Jewish connection. She is still connected to her synagogue through her chavurah, a social group that meets monthly.
"I'm still finding my road. I don't have my path yet," Steffin says. Benveniste, on the other hand, is quite contented with her path. She says Agape has not only given her the spiritual and personal strength she needs, it has helped her find healing with Judaism itself after years of feeling turned away from her tradition.
She even bought a few Jewish books recently.
"I wasn't able to buy those books before, because I didn't see the light in Judaism," she says. "Now I'm open to it. That has been a great gift."