Rabbi Alan Lew
In a Judaism some believed was narrow, Rabbi Alan Lew saw expansiveness. In Jewish practice that some saw as rigid and formal, Rabbi Lew taught intimacy.
So perhaps it was no surprise that as Jews across the country wrestled with Rabbi Lew's legacy in the wake of his death Monday, several said the exact same thing: "He brought me back to Judaism."
"He taught me about spirituality, a real belief that there is a God, how God can be part of my life and the beauty of Judaism," said Sheila Ornstein, a member of the Monroe, N.Y., congregation that Rabbi Lew led in the 1980s.
He was rabbi emeritus at Congregation Beth Sholom and died while on a teaching trip to the East Coast. He was 64.
There are many rabbis who helped personalize Judaism in recent decades, driving what many see as a revival in Jewish practice that continues today. But what made Rabbi Lew so distinct was that the seeds of his journey were Buddhist, a lens that awakened him to age-old, but oft-ignored, contemplative traditions in Judaism.
Meditative Jewish practice thrives today, particularly in the Bay Area, in part because of Rabbi Lew.
In the 1970s, he was at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in Carmel Valley and on the verge of becoming a lay Buddhist priest. But a series of meditations led him to see that it was fundamentally at odds with his core identity as a Jew. Nonetheless, he would never relinquish what he had learned as a Buddhist.
He went to rabbinical school, became a member of the Conservative rabbinate and moved to Monroe, N.Y. He returned to the Bay Area in 1991 to lead Congregation Beth Sholom in the Richmond District, but his return also presented an opportunity to integrate meditative practice into Jewish practice.
"He thought God was real and God was an everyday affair," said Norman Fischer, a Zen priest, longtime spiritual collaborator and friend for four decades. "He found that on the meditation cushion."
Rabbi Lew put it this way on the PBS program "Religion and Ethics News Weekly" in 2006: "Meditation helps show us the truth of our lives and it also helps bring us together with others, and it also gives us a sense of the presence of the transcendent."
Even though Rabbi Lew was often called "the Zen rabbi," several said it was a wrong to believe that Rabbi Lew mixed Buddhism into Judaism. They say he simply explored elements of Jewish tradition that others glossed over.