On January 12, 2009, Rabbi Alan Lew, whose path to the Conservative rabbinate began with an epiphany while he was preparing for ordination as a Buddhist priest, died at the age of 65. Although Lew had gone on to embrace the Judaism that he ultimately understood as his birthright, it didn’t lead to a rejection of Zen teachings; rather, he found ways to integrate meditation into Jewish life, including being co-founder of the first center of meditation to be connected to a synagogue.
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Alan Lew was born in New York in 1943, the son of Isaiah Lew, a dentist who specialized in implant surgery, and the former Charlotte Weisman. When Alan was seven, the family, which was secular, moved to Usonia Homes, a cooperative community in Westchester County, New York that had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
As he wrote in his 1999 memoir, “One God Clapping,” co-written with his wife Sherril Jaffe, Usonia was largely Jewish but was “surrounded on all sides by Revolutionary-era towns full of Wasps [who] thought of us as the Commie Jews on the hill.”
Lew attended the University of Pennsylvania and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received a master of fine arts in 1970, before moving to northern California. It was there, in his 20s, that he became interested in Zen Buddhism.
Zen and the art of bus driving
For a decade, Lew was a serious student of Zen, and a teacher as well – the first director of the Berkeley Zen Center. (He also published several books of poetry, and supported himself for a time driving a Grey Line tour bus.)
In the early-1980s he was on a retreat at the Tassajara Zen Center, ahead of his planned ordination as a Buddhist priest. Part of the process involves sewing the raksu, the breastplate that was supposed to be part of the priestly garment he would wear at the ordination ceremony.
“With every stitch of the raksu I was supposed to say, ‘I take refuge in the Buddha’ ” he wrote in his memoir, “but now, saying it with each stitch, I realized how uncomfortable I had always felt when I said it. ... I couldn’t say that I took refuge in the Buddha anymore – I couldn’t say it because I was a Jew.”
Around the same time, as he began to engage for what was really the first time with religious Judaism, Lew married Jaffe, a writer. Soon after, at age 38, with a newly born daughter, Lew decided he wanted to study to become a rabbi. He went east to New York to visit seminaries. His first and last stop was the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, where a conversation with the dean convinced him to enroll in the six-year ordination program.
Meditation for Jews
Lew was certified as a rabbi in 1988, and after a short tenure at a synagogue in Monroe, New York, he and his family, which now included a second daughter (he also had an older son from a first marriage), moved back to San Francisco, where he became rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom. Under his leadership, the veteran synagogue, founded in 1904, doubled its membership and opened Makor Or, a Jewish meditation center.
He was also involved in social activism, which included attending protest vigils at San Quentin prison when executions were underway, and sleeping regularly on park benches to demonstrate his solidarity with homeless people.
During his years as a congregational rabbi, Lew led annual visits to Israel, never canceling because of security concerns, but also not being shy about expressing his left-of-center political perspective on the country.
Lew died while in Baltimore, where he was teaching at a JTS-sponsored rabbinical institute. After rising, saying his morning prayers and leading a meditation workshop, he went out for a walk and suffered a fatal heart attack. One of his former congregants, Marilyn Heiss, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “He taught us that the meditation was part of our heritage. He learned his meditation from Zen, but made it an integral part of Jewish practice.”