April 17, 2014

Alan Morinis was an accomplished film producer running a large, publicly traded communications company in Canada, when, one day, his house of cards crumbled.

“I was selling too many stories,” Morinis told me when we met in a cozy corner of a Hollywood Starbucks not long ago. 

Selling too many stories might sound like an oxymoron in the entertainment business, except that Morinis got a little carried away packaging ideas without developing them. For a producer, that is selling deception.

“It’s like saying, ‘Yeah we’ve got somebody committed’ — not really committed. [Just] so it was a good package to sell.”

At 47, with a wife, two children and a mortgage to support, Morinis’ business collapsed. “There was no way I could look at that except to see that I had a lot of responsibility for that, and the result was it kinda blew me open.” 

It was a shock, he said, because he had always been used to such soaring successes. “For a guy who had been a Rhodes scholar, who had a Ph.D. from Oxford, who had taken his film company public, who had won all kinds of awards etc., etc., etc.,” Morinis recalled fondly, “all of a sudden I was flat. I had hit the wall.” 

He decided to turn — or return — to the life of the spirit, something he had pursued in his 20s when he spent three years in India. “I was going to India for the same reason everybody was going to India,” he said. “Yoga.” 

After earning a master’s degree from Oxford, he spent two years studying Iyengar yoga with its founder. He later returned for a third year, as a doctoral student, to do dissertation research on Hindi pilgrimage. “I was interested in people making journeys to God,” he said.

Even though Morinis was Jewish, he had never found any spiritual sustenance in it. He said he grew up in a “non-observant, anti-religious home,” where the closest thing his parents had to a religion was communism. “You know the term ‘red-diaper baby’?” he asked. “I grew up with a red diaper.” 

It never occurred to him that Judaism had anything to offer his seeking soul — or anyone else’s, for that matter. “Who would have thought to go to a rabbi or a synagogue?” he wondered. “You do that, and you expect to get a bagel — like the answer to your spiritual crisis is gonna be lox and cream cheese. That is not what I was looking for,” he said. 

“I was seeking deep wisdom and guidance about how to be a human being on a higher plane.”

But after his business crashed in 1997, he fell very low, and found that Judaism was there for him. “I thought, ‘Shmuck, you’ve blown it in the modern world,’ ” Morinis said of himself. “ ‘What have you got to build on? Well … you are Jewish.’ 

“It was my pintele yid,” he said. “This idea that within each Jew there’s a little seed — even though it may go 50 years and just stay dormant.”

Morinis started searching for something in the Jewish universe that would address his inner struggle. “We’re all neshamahs in special circumstances,” he joked.

He found his answer in the ancient Jewish spiritual practice known as Mussar, which emphasizes ethical behavior and the refinement of character through study and self-examination.  

Although Mussar’s roots are in medieval Jewish literature, it became a popular movement in 19th-century Eastern Europe, when Rabbi Yisroel Salanter sought to deepen Jewish connection in the face of assimilation. Though today it is well integrated into Orthodox practice, it never made it into wider streams of Judaism, since many of its most passionate practitioners were killed during the Holocaust. “It looked real, but it looked dead,” Morinis said of his first impression.

Following two years of intensive individual study, Morinis connected with Rabbi Yechiel Perr, founder of the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, a Charedi yeshiva in Queens, N.Y., who became his teacher. “I would teach Mussar to a gentile!” Morinis declaimed, quoting Perr. 

Five years later, in 2004, Morinis created the Mussar Institute from his home in Vancouver,   British Columbia, establishing nonprofit status in both the United States and Canada. The institute exists mainly as a Web site, and offers various Mussar curricula designed for long-distance learning. There are assorted formats available, for both individuals and groups, and the institute trains local leaders to help facilitate study within communities. Several Los Angeles synagogues now have Mussar groups, and there is even a secular one at the California Institution for Women — a Corona prison 50 miles east of Los Angeles. 

Mussar is now Morinis’ full-time job, offering plenty of personalized wisdom but not exactly movie business paychecks. “We have no overhead, and we have no office,” he boasted, telling me he only pays himself $45,000 per year. “No bricks, no mortar, no plaques.” 

And that is just how he likes it, he said, because it allows the institute to focus on programming, unencumbered by demanding donors. “We’re very light,” he explained, even as he offered heavy criticism of more prosperous institutions. “I think it’s outrageous that there are people in the Jewish nonprofit world getting paid $800,000 a year to run their organizations. I think it’s corrupt. I think it’s a reason not to support their organizations.”

Despite his critique of big institutions, the Mussar Institute recently partnered with the Union for Reform Judaism to create in-house curricula for synagogues across the country. “Where’s the context in a synagogue to talk about what’s really going on with you?” Morinis asked. Before 2000, “The inner life was not on the agenda. It didn’t matter where you were — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform — the Jewish world paid no attention to what was going on inside the individual. It was so concerned with building an outside world, building institutions — assimilation had a lot to do with it — [such that] the purpose of living a Jewish life was to fit in.” 

Morinis is more interested in a personalized path toward purifying the soul. And just as the study of kabbalah enjoyed a mainstream explosion in the 1990s, the new guru of Mussar hopes to revive another old movement for the modern day. 

With its focus on individual journeys and personal middot —measures of character — it seems the perfect spirituality for the age of the selfie, as focused on the self as psychotherapy but with an eye toward a holy goal: “mastery of self interest,” Morinis said. 

He should know. “My whole entry into this was my own personal search. I didn’t mean to become a teacher. I was trying to put a life back together. It was almost about survival.”

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