Hare Krishnas, Passover and a rabbi

April 5, 2017
A youthful Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz (third from left) chatting with Jewish leaders of the Krishna movement at their annual festival in Venice, Calif. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz

As part of my efforts to reach Jews, I often visit unconventional places. I have even visited the annual Festival of the Chariots, held by the Hare Krishna movement in Venice Beach. In 1989, I met a husband and wife at one of those festivals. They were part of a group giving away Krishna books and literature.

I am anything but bashful. So I engaged them in conversation and discovered they were both Jewish. This is not surprising because many nontraditional religious factions have a large percentage of Jewish followers.

Established in 1965, the modern Hare Krishna movement came under criticism during the anti-cult movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Former members accused them of brainwashing and child abuse.

I had many long and meaningful follow-up discussions with this couple, and we became close friends. They were in their early 30s. The husband grew up attending a Reform synagogue in New York, and his wife grew up in a secular Jewish home in Los Angeles. They were disillusioned with Judaism because it did not seem relevant and did not address their longing for something spiritual. Their search took many years until they encountered the Krishna community, which provided a sense of family and spiritual purpose.

As we got closer to Passover, my wife, Dvora, and I decided to invite them to our family seder. They were very reluctant, perhaps frightened because they are used to strangers criticizing their lifestyle. But they accepted our invitation when we assured them they could come as they were, and we would make the meal vegetarian out of respect for them. It did take some effort to convince them that we should compromise and leave the shank bone on the seder plate.
Seders are, far and away, the most widely observed ritual in Jewish life, and it’s no wonder why: the great food and wine, family and friends, amazing storytelling and inspirational themes of liberation. And of course, for the kids, a prize for finding the afikomen.

During our 39 years of working in Jewish outreach, Dvora and I always have looked to the Passover seder as an opportunity to reach out to people who might need a welcoming and unthreatening bridge into Jewish life.
As part of my Jews for Judaism efforts in outreach, I work with people facing a spectrum of spiritual challenges. Some are seeking spiritual guidance because they are battling a life-threatening illness. Others are struggling with family or financial crises. For a long time, the core of my work focused on Jewish families who were heartbroken because a son or daughter had been deceptively enticed into converting to another religion.

More recently, families committed to Jewish tradition come to us for help — not because their children have turned to another religion, but because they have turned away from Judaism, rejecting their upbringing and their family’s values. All are looking for a way back to wholeness for their families.

And the seder is a great place to start.

Because we help people who are seeking, our neighbors are used to unconventional individuals showing up at our home in the very traditional Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Still, when this Jewish Krishna couple who had not attended a seder since they were children and had never visited a rabbi’s home walked to our front door, wearing their long, traditional Hindu saffron robes, many of our neighbors walking home from synagogue did a double take.

The seder turned into an amazing cross-cultural experience. They chanted along when we sang “Dayenu” and were moved by the deeper spiritual meaning of Passover and items on the seder plate.

Commonalities in our rituals became the focus of our discussion. When we discussed the shank bone, they were impressed that I knew that some of the Hindu Brahmans ate meat for sacrificial reasons. They sat mesmerized when we discussed how Abraham ran away from the idolatry of his father, and when we delved into the Chasidic interpretation of an omnipresent God.

Over the next few years, their interest in the spiritual dimension of Judaism grew, and they studied Torah and Chassidic philosophy with me on a regular basis.

To leave a spiritual path to which you have committed your life has unique challenges. They needed a replacement. I introduced them to a Los Angeles vegetarian group, Chavurah. This small community of like-minded Jews, who gathered weekly for fellowship and exploration of Judaism, was exactly what they needed. Eventually, my friends left the ashram and restarted their life with a newfound love of Judaism. Over time, I lost touch with them. However, I did hear that they were raising two Jewish children.

There is an important lesson in this story. Our sages introduced the Passover seder as a tool to help connect our children to their ancient and meaningful heritage. In some way, we are all children who have an inner desire for a deeper connection.

The seder is a special opportunity to nurture the yearning of our soul. The spiritual journey and transformation of this Jewish couple, from Hinduism back to Judaism, can provide us with a wonderful and inspirational lesson. It shows how we can overcome negative experiences and obstacles, and return to a meaningful Jewish life and pass it on to future generations.

And if they could do it, so can we.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the founder of Jews for Judaism, International. He is an author, counselor and speaker who hosts a live broadcast each week on the Jews for Judaism Facebook page.

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