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Jewish Journal

Crossroads of Contemplation

With the departure of Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, Metivta opens a new chapter.

by Julie G Fax

March 28, 2002 | 7:00 pm

If the responsibilities and exigencies of daily life allowed him to, Rabbi Rami Shapiro says he would simply disappear into his own world of silent contemplation. But given that he has a family and other responsibilities, he's found the next best thing: Metivta, A Center for Contemplative Judaism.

Shapiro took over as rabbi at Metivta last summer, after the retirement of Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, who founded Metivta in 1991. Shapiro is now at the helm of an organization that seems to be a perfect fit for his Jewish mission: deepening Jewish spirituality through study and silence.

"I think when you are really still -- and that means physically still and more importantly mentally still, when your mind is not racing around spinning its drama -- then you know God," Shapiro said, sitting in the library-meeting space at Metivta's West Los Angeles headquarters. "Suddenly, you are awake to the fact that you and I and creation are manifestations of God, and you need radical psychological stillness for that."

That vision of spirituality is at the basis of Metivta, which runs classes in meditation, Torah study and spirituality and holds meditation and study retreats, as well as long-term programs for rabbis and cantors.

This Passover, the organization is calling upon its members to fast from sunrise to sunset on each Monday and Thursday during the Counting of the Omer, the seven-week period beginning March 29 that marks the 49 days from the Exodus from Egypt to the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

"Fasting raises our consciousness," said Merryl Weber, a longtime Metivta board member, "and that raised consciousness must be channeled somewhere positive. So we are asking that people not only fast, but pray and meditate as well. We are also suggesting that the money they do not use for food on those two days be donated to those efforts that support the feeding of the world's hungry."

This is the largest recent public initiative of an organization that finds itself at a crossroads following Omer-Man's retirement last summer at age 67, following a heart attack and the increasingly debilitating symptoms of polio he had contracted in 1956. Now Metivta must carve out its own identity without the central personality that drove it for so many years.

Judith Gordon, Metivta's executive director, says that while a few people who were attached to Omer-Man left, most of the 4,000 members have stayed.

"I think when people began to realize that Rami didn't want to supplant or replace Jonathan, but wanted to take Jonathan's vision and move it forward, they opened themselves up to him," Gordon says. "Nobody who loves Metivta wants to see what Jonathan has given people here go away. They want to see it flourish."

Omer-Man is now rabbi emeritus and Shapiro and Gordon consult with him often. He also led High Holy Day services last year and teaches a weekly class through videoconferencing.

But for the most part, Omer-Man has let go, leaving Metivta in the hands of Shapiro, who, at 50, says he is "much too tied into my own thing" to worry about filling Omer-Man's shoes.

"Ultimately it doesn't matter, I think, whether it's Jonathan's approach or Rami's approach or the Metivta approach or some other approach. All approaches somehow have to be transcended," Shapiro says. "Really, we should be facilitating people's own experience of the divine, and not worrying too much about lineage or authenticity."

Omer-Man says the time was right for transition, not just for him personally, but for the organization.

"I left with mission successful," Omer-Man said. "The goal wasn't just to create Metivta. The goal was to influence other people, and I think that has happened.... We previously occupied a unique niche, and now it's wide open. So Metivta has to move on."

Metivta was on the vanguard of the revival of Jewish spirituality. When it was founded 11 years ago, there were few other places offering the healing and spiritual services that Metivta offered. Today, aside from organizations and synagogues dedicated to spirituality, many synagogues have recrafted themselves with a more salient spiritual element.

"On the one hand, that is a challenge -- we used to be the only game in town and now we're not," Shapiro says. "But on the other hand, it can be very liberating. It allows us to look at what everyone else has and say 'Given the core of our history, where does Metivta fit now?'"

One answer to that question may lie in taking Metivta's successful local programs and offering them nationally -- a process that has already begun. In the coming year, Metivta, for the first time, will hold its popular retreats outside California, with venues in Missouri, Massachusetts, Florida and Hawaii.

Metivta's classes in spiritual Torah study are now accessible through videoconferencing, and a redesigned Web site will include video streaming of the classes.

For the last three years, Metivta has run the Spirituality Institute, a retreat-based, two-year program in spiritual leadership that currently has 35 rabbis enrolled and will soon start tracts for educators, lay leaders and cantors.

But Metivta still holds its own locally, Shapiro says, since much of the last decade's spiritual revival has been in the ecstatic mode, not silent contemplation. Metivta is still one of the only addresses for Jewish meditation.

"Judaism is loud. Everyone understands Shlomo Carlebach, but I don't think people understand the opposite of Shlomo -- total silence," Shapiro says. "If you go to synagogue and have a moment of silence, that is what it is -- after 30 seconds everyone gets antsy."

Metivta therefore still has an important niche in "making the world safe for contemplatives," Shapiro says. "Not necessarily the world, and not necessarily all contemplatives, but I want to make the Jewish world safe for Jewish contemplatives."

The synagogue, he says, plays a vital role in Jewish life, but it is inherently ill-suited for contemplation because it is focused on prayer.

"The liturgy, as beautiful as it is, is intrinsically dualistic. You are chanting to someone, you are asking something from someone," he explains. "When the Psalmist says that 'silence is praise,' is more than being quiet, it is recognizing through silence that God is not other, God is the whole thing."

Shapiro himself practices several kinds of meditation, all based in kabbalistic and Chasidic tradition. He chants a Hebrew phrase for up to a half-hour or focuses on the Divine name to settle into a total mental silence. Throughout the day, even while doing other activities, he has a phrase playing in the background of his head as a "spiritual Muzak," he says.

The latter is "a way of creating a sense of spaciousness where you function so you have an ego but you aren't that ego," he says. "When you come back to the normal world, you come back with a sense of spaciousness and that allows you to be much more graceful and much more compassionate and just and much more powerful without being assertive."

Shapiro's personal need for silence drove his decision to leave Temple Beth Or, the Reconstructionist congregation he founded 20 years ago in Miami, Fla. The congregation, which he acknowledges was extremely centered on his personality, was based on his book, "Minyan: Ten Principles for Life With Integrity," and he wrote and translated much of the liturgy as well.

Shapiro, who grew up in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, went to Reform seminary, studied Reconstructionism and was affiliated with Chabad in college, remains a prolific writer of essays, poems and free-form translations of Jewish texts. His weekly Torah portion e-mail has garnered another 200 subscribers for Metivta, and his classes and retreats, so far, have been well-received.

He has undertaken rewriting much of Metivta's printed material, from brochures to mission statements, and in the process hopes to clarify Metivta's vision.

"If there's one thing I can do here, it's to help people better define what they are about. I insist on clarity. We should know what Metivta's mission is and vision is, and we should know in a sentence or two who we are, and I don't think there is coherent statement of who we are at the moment," Shapiro says.

Omer-Man, meanwhile, who says he is feeling stronger and is "delightfully busy" in his retirement, stays quietly vigilant from his perch in the hills above San Francisco Bay.

"Watching Metivta is like watching a kid when he or she gets married. They are starting their own life, and you don't want to become an intrusive in-law," Omer-Man says. "They are creating their own new life, and I wish them well."

If you would like to participate in this fast effort you can call Metivta at (310) 477-5370 or send e-mail to metivta@metivta.org .

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