When Sarah settled into the new apartment on Bush Street, she became master of her own space and began to move in new directions. “She wanted to be a different person, wanted a new life,” Emily recalls. “She loved living by herself, without roommates; it gave her a new independence. Whatever she did now didn’t involve socially who she was living with, and this allowed her to really define herself and in particular to embark on her religious path.”
The year after the move a friend introduced her to Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco’s Richmond District, and not long afterwards she joined. It was the first time she had attended a shul regularly since her Bat Mitzvah twenty years before. Emily had recently undergone a conversion to Judaism and had seen Sarah’s engagement coming for a long time. When they were roommates, they had prepared Passover dinners regularly, and Emily felt that “Sarah always craved some connection with Judiasm that was appropriate for her and in line with her beliefs.” Judaism provided an added attraction in the fact that “it is the only religion where being a good writer and a good reader are important and that’s what Sarah was about. So it was a perfect marriage.”
The congregation she had found was progressive, allowing women to be full participants in the services, but was also conservative in its attitude towards the liturgy. In it she encountered individuals who were socially open-minded and intellectual, and who were serious about their faith. The group also had an unusual spiritual guide who seemed perfectly suited to Sarah’s needs.
Rabbi Alan Lew was nearly my age and had been brought up in a liberal household in Brooklyn. His parents were secular Jews who identified with the recently created state of Israel, but his grandfather was a rabbi whom he often accompanied as a young boy to shul. After his graduation from college, Lew moved to California where he became part of the “New Age” movement, which was embracing eastern religions. He settled in Berkeley, became a poet and a Zen Buddhist and embarked on a path to become an ordained monk. One day, however, in the course of his spiritual training, he realized that he could not complete the conversion because he was unable to bring himself to say the words required — I take refuge in the Buddha.
“I couldn’t say it,” he explained in a memoir he wrote, “because I was a Jew. The problem wasn’t that I felt I was betraying God. In fact when I was sitting in zazen [meditation], I often felt more in contact with God than I ever had before. But I felt I was betraying my soul. Mine was a Jewish soul. I was betraying myself.” Lew went back to New York and enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary to become a rabbi like his grandfather. In pursuing Judaism, he decided to incorporate the meditation techniques and insights he had absorbed from his Buddhist practice. By the time Sarah joined his congregation, he was widely known as the Zen Rabbi.
Initially, the relationship between them wasn’t as close as it eventually became. “At first, Rabbi Lew didn’t ‘get’ her,” says Henry Hollander, a member of the congregation who along with his wife Katherine was to become one of Sarah’s closest friends. “He would answer a question she posed and she wouldn’t come back at him with a response immediately, the way other people did. But as time passed, he came to respect her so much that he was probably afraid to disappoint her. Sarah was a person who walked the walk and became frustrated with people who did not. She believed very strongly in traditional Judaism and in egalitarian Judaism, both of which Rabbi Lew pushed against some resistance in the congregation. As the community’s leader, he was inevitably subject to pressures from both sides. If Rabbi Lew yielded too much ground on the principles he espoused, there were people with whom it might go unnoticed. But Sarah would notice. He came to appreciate Sarah quite deeply after awhile. He was aware that she was as good a critical reader of what he had to say and what he had to do as he was likely to get, and as a result he paid attention.”
Sarah embraced Rabbi Lew’s fusion of two spiritual worlds, which was clearly in keeping with her lifelong quest to build bridges that brought people together. “She liked the two of them,” observes Emily, “Halacha in Judaism and Right Mindfulness in Buddhism. Halacha is the Jewish law, the path or the process of negotiating justice in the world. There’s a natural affinity between Halacha and the Buddhist idea of Right Mindfulness.” Sarah also liked the concept and practice of meditation. “She liked the idea that there was something bigger than the self. She liked not being materialistic, not being attached to things, and being mindful about everything she did. She liked there to be a reason for what she did.”
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