a group of people stand in a line in front of a banner that says "changing roles of jewish clergy"
Newly minted spiritual guides at their Jan. 14 ordination ceremony (Courtesy/Mia Cohen)

Four Bay Area residents among new Aleph spiritual directors

Four of the most recent graduates of the spiritual director program of Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal are from the Bay Area.

The fourth cohort, certified on Jan. 14, includes local residents Mia Cohen, Yesh Ballon, Gavriel Strauss and maggid Zelig Golden.

Aleph runs a wide range of training programs for the Renewal community, including rabbinic and cantorial ordination.

The mission of the three-year training program for Jewish spiritual directors, called Hashpa’ah, is “in the lineage of our founding rabbi, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,” said the program’s founder, Rabbi Shohama Wiener. Hashpa’ah, or being in the divine flow or consciousness of God’s presence, “is the traditional term for the relationship with a Jewish spiritual director, or mashpia, who offers guidance and support on matters of faith and practice, and on a personal relationship with the divine,” Wiener said.

Ballon, a 69-year-old retired architect and corporate trainer, said the skills he picked up during the program are beneficial to most people, regardless of their field. “We help people recognize in their lives the presence of whatever they choose to define as a spirit, divinity or inner wisdom,” he said.

“In some way, the things I’m doing now, I was intuitively doing all along — granted, I’ve honed my skills at what we call ‘holy listening.’ As a corporate trainer, I was trying to help people to find ways to be more effective in delivering services to clients, fulfilling commitments and feeling good about their work and relationships,” said Ballon, who lives in Palo Alto. “In that regard, there is a lot of overlap.”

Holy listening, he explained, is the skill of purging any personal agenda before hearing what someone has to say. “It’s our job to let the voice of God come through us,” Ballon said. “We only speak when we feel deeply moved to do so.”

It’s our job to let the voice of God come through us. We only speak when we feel deeply moved to do so. — Yesh Ballon

Aleph is the umbrella organization for Jewish Renewal, a spiritual movement founded by Schachter-Shalomi during the counterculture movement. Aleph also ordains rabbis.

Golden, 42, who was an environmental lawyer with the Center for Food Safety and went on to found Berkeley-based Wilderness Torah: Center for Earth-Based Judaism, said “as a community leader, I found a growing need to be available to support people as they explore their spiritual journey. This program has been amazing for that.

“In my work with Wilderness Torah, the top priority has been building a membership-based culture,” Golden said. “People work for and with each other to find purpose in life. It’s a spiritual community … and the Hashpa’ah program is a very powerful approach to being with people in a role of mentorship and spiritual inquiry.”

Cohen, 36, the rabbinic associate and co-director of the Community School for Jewish Learning at B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma, has spent more than a decade immersed in Jewish learning through Aleph. She is both a doula and herbologist, in addition to presiding over lifecycle events and teaching yoga.

Strauss, 38, the director of youth and family programs at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, said he wants to bring the program’s lessons to the larger Jewish community.

“When I started this training three years ago, I had no idea what Hashpa’ah was. Two days in, I realized this was my life’s calling,” he said.

Perry Fein

Perry Fein is a freelance writer.