Healing the Spirit, the Torah Way


Hinda Leah Scharfstein sees the Torah as more than just the original source of halachah, Jewish law, and the earliest telling of our nation’s birth.

“The Torah takes a holistic look at the individual, and it does tend to have a sort of healing effect on people,” said Scharfstein, the executive director of Bais Chana Women’s International, a New York-based nonprofit. “I attended my first holistic Torah retreat 20 years ago, and I have been involved on a professional and personal level with it ever since, and since then I have definitely felt better. My thinking has become healthier, and I feel more whole.”

It is this view of the Torah as holistic medicine in a book, a personal well-being road map for Jewish individuals, that is the impetus behind Bais Chana’s February Palm Spring’s retreat “A Spa for Mind, Body and Soul.” In between the glatt kosher spa meals and the hikes in the Indian canyons, speakers like Rabbi Manis Friedman, a Minnesota-based Orthodox rabbi who dabbles in homeopathic and holistic healing, and Shimona Tzukernik, a teacher and art therapist, will lecture on topics like “Sharpening the Senses: Changing the Way We Look and Listen” and “Seven Foods for Emotional Well-Being.”

But Bais Chana is only one of several groups that are part of a movement to integrate ideas of Eastern medicine and emotional healing with Torah learning and kabbalah to produce a kosher alternative to new-age philosophies.

Many members of the California Orthodox community take care of their families’ health by seeing acupuncturists and homeopaths, viewing these therapies as part of the way that bodies can be kept whole to serve God. Last Sunday, the Fairfax’s Torah Ohr Synagogue sponsored a daylong seminar on “Medicine and Kabbalah” by Rabbi Yuval Hacohen Asherov, an Israeli kabbalist and acupuncturist who discussed the halachic approach to healing, and the way that a healthy person has a “flow” going through the nefesh (one’s physicality), the ruach (one’s emotions) and the neshama (one’s spirituality).

Afterward participants were able to approach Asherov for counseling about the problems or blockages in their life.

In the Pacific Palisades, a Chabad-sponsored group, The Jewish Women’s Circle of Discovery, has sessions where participants explore “renewal and rebirth on a spiritual path of personal discovery.”

Popular Australian Orthodox mystic Rabbi Laibl Wolf comes to California several times a year to lecture about how kabbalah can help people overcome stress in their lives. More Orthodox Jews are clicking on Web sites, like www.jewishhealing.com and www.paradiseprinciple.com, where they can find out about how “Jewish medicine” — the advice that our sages have written over the years about how physical and spiritual health can actually help them become aware of, to quote Jewish Healing, “the soul’s role in healing.”

“Our main goal is to inform you that there is a higher medicine for Jews, one that is replete with diagnostic methods, treatment strategies, ethical teachings and spiritual profundities,” states the mission statement on the site.

“The whole idea of many of these holistic therapies is getting to the root of the problem,” said Dr. Ya’akov Gerlitz, an observant Jew who is the Jerusalem-based founder of Jewishhealing.com and a doctor of Chinese medicine. “For a Jew, the root of his condition is the soul — it is his connection to Hashem, and therefore all healing must include the soul. If a Jew is suffering, it is not enough to heal the body, even though the physical body is very precious to God, but you need to get through to the soul to get to the core of the issue.”

Gerlitz lectures and counsels people, writes articles on Jewish healing and runs a worldwide network of Jewish healers. He developed the Sefirotic Alignment Therapy (SAT), which uses the 10 kabbalistic sefirot (spheres of divine energy) to counsel people through emotional problems. His approach is part doctor, part counselor. While he will provide homeopathic remedies to children who have chronic colds or ear infections, he will also dispense Torah advice to people who have emotional problems, like an inability to see things through or fearing death (the Torah solution to that is to write a will).

“According to Jewish law, you are required to get the best healing you can get for an illness, so it doesn’t matter if you go to a Jewish doctor or not,” Gerlitz said. “But if you are already exploring going to the core of the matter then you should go only to a Jew. Healers bring their energy into the practice, and if you go to someone who has pagan ideology, it could affect the person by bringing in tumah (impurities) or kelipot (dark forces) into the patient. For holistic therapies, you definitely want a Jewish model.”

While these therapies might not appeal to everyone, even more conservative Orthodox rabbis think that they can’t hurt.

“It should not replace normative medicine,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. “But anything that can help one find a balance in life is good, and as long as it does not violate halachah, then what would be wrong with using different methods?”

“A Spa for Mind, Body and Soul” will take place Feb
16-19 for women and Feb 19-22 for couples at the Le Parker Meridian Hotel in
Palm Springs. For more information, visit www.baischana.org/couples.html  or call (800) 473-4801.

New Mikvah Ain’t Your Bubbes Bath


Some say Fanit Panofsky was destined to build a mikvah. In
her native Morocco, her great-grandmother operated a mikvah. So, too, did her
grandmother.

So it came as no surprise to Panofsky’s friends and family
when she opened a mikvah in a Fort Lauderdale suburb, her hometown. But, the
Mikveh Shulamit is anything but your grandmother’s ritual bath.

Sure, the mikvah is filled with rainwater, as dictated by
Jewish law. Yes, women immerse themselves in the water at least three times in
order to be ritually pure after their menstrual periods, reciting the same
blessings that have been said for thousands of years.

However, at a time when the new age, mind-body-spirit mantra
has entered the psyche of almost every multitasking American, Mikveh Shulamit
has a twist: In addition to tevila, the ritual dunking, the same building also
includes the Contour Day Spa, which offers such services as reflexology, hot
stone massage and hydrotherapy.

Since it opened at the beginning of last year, Mikveh
Shulamit has been the talk of the Florida town. Immense and ornate, with high
ceilings and a faux domed skylight, the adjoining spa is equipped with no less
than 28 hair stations and 28 manicure stations.

The “wet area” is home to the spa’s signature treatment,
Journey to Eden, which features four heart-shaped jacuzzis. Various wings house
a pilates center, a suite for couples’ massages and a physician offering Botox
consultations.

The mikvah, reached by a separate entrance, has the same Old
World-meets-Las Vegas decor as the spa, along with hand-painted murals with
views of Jerusalem. Contour also incorporates a boutique and a cafe.

The overall effect is a little like cruising about the
Starship Enterprise, albeit with a largely Hebrew-speaking crew. This morning,
a constant stream of SUVs pull into the makeshift “drive-thru” in order to
purchase gift certificates in time for, yes, Christmas.

Some might raise eyebrows at the juxtaposition of a Jewish
ritual associated with modesty and a center dedicated to the pursuit of
physical beauty and comfort. At the mikvah, though, makeup, jewelry and even
press-on nails must be removed so that no part of the body is left untouched by
the pool waters. The ritual is so private that women, once inside the mikvah,
don’t meet one another.

At the spa, on the other hand, endless products, even
permanent makeup, are applied to clients’ bodies, while the common areas are
abuzz with ladies trading the latest gossip.

Devotees of Mikveh Shulamit, equally comfortable in the
salon and the shul, see no contradiction. According to Rabbi Mendy Posner, from
the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement who oversees the mikvah, the
mikvah-cum-spa helps provide a rare “combination of internal and external
beauty.”

As Chanie Posner, the rabbi’s wife and the day-to-day
operator of the mikvah, pointed out, Jewish law dictates that “a woman should
feel and look beautiful at all times.”

There are no mikvah-and-manicure specials at Contour — at
least not yet. “Most women who use the mikvah use the spa,” Panofsky said.
“We’re thinking about next quarter doing something to encourage more people to
do both. Chanie’s idea was for women who frequent the mikvah, give them certain
discounts in the spa.”

Amid the buzz of customers recently was 23-year-old Joy
Quittner, trailed by a camera crew. She first came to Contour to have her hair
done for her bat mitzvah; on this day she was preparing for her wedding. The
week before she had participated in her first dip in the mikvah.

“I came in on Thursday and had everything off” for the
mikvah, she said. “On Friday, I had my nails done, a massage and a facial.
Today I’m doing hair and makeup.”

“We heard Fanit was doing [a mikvah], and we loved the
idea,” she said. “I went on two trips to Israel; I saw the mikvah on top of
Masada. It was something I always wanted to do. I’m truly honored.”

Panofsky, a 20-year veteran of the spa business, received a
grant from the Small Business Administration in order to relocate Contour to a
larger, custom-built building. Rabbi Posner — knowing the history of mikvah in
Panofsky’s family — suggested a mikvah and the idea took off from there.

Chanie Posner estimated that 15 to 20 women partake in the
ritual monthly. In the last three months, she said, 20 women have immersed
themselves in the waters for the first time. Sixty curious women recently
attended a mikvah class taught by Posner at the spa. Of course, the numbers
pale compared to the business generated by Contour, which, according to
Panofsky, sees between 2,300 and 3,000 clients each week.

“The mikvah is a gift to the community — it is not a profit
center,” Panofsky said, noting that the next closest mikvah was at least 40
minutes away. “The city needed it.”

“Fanit is considered the high priestess of fashion,” Rabbi
Posner said. “If Fanit did the mikvah, it’s the right thing to do.”

Despite her admirable track record in the business, Panofsky
credits the mikvah for her success. “The economy is not good. A lot of
businesses are not doing well,” she said. “The spa business is becoming a big
thing, but, you know, not everybody makes it.”

“Here, the overhead is immense, and we’re doing fine,”
Panofsy said. “I credit the mikvah, the mikvah is watching over us.” Â