New S.F. meditation center to greet Y2K – quietly

For those who still haven’t figured out what to do for New Year’s Eve, Rabbi Alan Lew of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco has a suggestion.

Lew’s idea of welcoming the year 2000 involves sitting on cushions in quiet contemplation at the new meditation center, Makor Or, in San Francisco’s Richmond District.

“We’ll be quite calm and balanced while the world goes mad all around us,” he said.

Joining Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev as the only two Jewish meditation centers in the Bay Area, Makor Or, which Lew translated as “wellspring of light,” will open on Friday, Dec. 31, with a combination observance of Shabbat and the arrival of Y2K.

“It’s the first time the center will ever be used,” Lew said of the session, which will include pre-Shabbat meditation and Shabbat dinner. “After that, we’ll have an evening of meditation and study until after midnight.”

Noisemakers and confetti? Forget it. There won’t even be instruments or recorded music. After all, “it’s Shabbat,” said Lew.

This is the first meditation center in the country that is affiliated with a synagogue, said Lew, who has written a book on Jewish meditation, “One God Clapping.”

Lew began a meditation group at the Conservative Beth Sholom five years ago. Since then, members have been meditating in the foyer of the synagogue’s sanctuary. But in six weeks, the group will move its meditation sessions into a house next door to the sanctuary.

Makor Or is renting the house from the synagogue, which recently bought it for more than $900,000.

Rent and meditation programs will be funded in part by the Cummings Foundation, a N.Y.-based philanthropy that serves the Jewish community. Last month, the foundation approved a grant that will give Makor Or $45,000 a year for the next two years. Lew said he has raised an additional $60,000 from local donors.

“Jewish meditation is very important and the Cummings Foundation approached us to encourage mainstreaming meditation into the synagogue.” said Lew, who couldn’t believe his good luck when the foundation “contacted me and asked if I was interested in this grant.”

A practitioner of Zen Buddhism who later became a rabbi, Lew currently leads meditation sessions four times a week: twice before morning minyans, once before an evening minyan and before Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday nights. He also offers a weekly class on meditation.

Makor Or will offer much more, according to Lew. Daily meditation sessions will begin in January. Also in the works are classes every night of the week except Friday and Sunday, monthly all-day retreats and other events that reflect the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays.

Makor Or is specifically aimed at rank-and-file congregants at Beth Sholom and others interested in exploring meditation. Lew does not view meditation as out of the Jewish mainstream.

“I myself do not teach Kabbalah. I teach a very down-to-earth, simple awareness meditation that’s meant to enhance the every day practice of normative Judaism,” Lew said.

Lew, however, won’t be the only instructor.

Others will teach on different days of the week. Lew said the lineup will include Norman Fischer of San Francisco Zen Center and teachers from Chochmat HaLev.

Also, Rabbi Gedalyah Fleer from Jerusalem, who guides students through the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, will conduct several classes in early 2000.

Whether Makor Or will be a part of Beth Sholom is still being negotiated, according to Lew. The grant was given to the synagogue with the stipulation that the center “should be both separate from the synagogue and part of it.” The center will have its own board, with synagogue members and non-members, but it will answer to the synagogue’s board.

For the most part, the synagogue won’t be using the house, except to store items in the basement. If Beth Sholom does want to use the space for some events, perhaps Makor Or’s rent could be reduced, Lew suggested.

Lew has hired a marketer-administrator for Makor Or, but “the staffing is not yet clear.” He isn’t sure whether an executive director will be hired, although he did say someone will probably live in the house and take care of it.

In Lew’s words, “the story behind the house is like a fairy tale.” The synagogue purchased it from Buddhists. The former owners turned the top floor into a meditation hall. The occupant before the Buddhists was a Sephardic rabbi who occasionally led services at Beth Sholom.

The congregation decided to buy the house last year. Lew said Beth Sholom may raze the house or at least do major renovations as part of its planned synagogue expansion project. But that won’t happen for five to 10 years.

In the meantime, it will be Makor Or’s house, although Lew is still seeking a zoning variance from the city of San Francisco. He doesn’t expect that to be any problem, and noted that no neighbors have expressed concern.

“And I doubt that they ever will,” Lew said. “After all, the nature of our use is that it will be very, very quiet. A meditation center is one of the best neighbors you could ever have.”

Especially on New Year’s Eve 1999.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.