We mourn the loss of our dear friend and teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, who died earlier this month.
We honor Jonathan as a key founder and founding faculty member of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. However, before reflecting on his role with the Institute, please know this:
“For 26 years Jonathan lived in Israel, where he worked as a farmer, until he contracted polio, and subsequently embarked on a career in publishing. He served as deputy chief editor of the Israel Program for Scientific Translations, revising editor at the Encyclopedia Judaica, chief editor of Israel Universities Press, and editor of the Shefa Quarterly. In 1981 he moved to Los Angeles, where he founded Metivta: a center for contemplative Judaism, an academy dedicated to the renewal of the Jewish wisdom tradition and to the deepening of personal religious quest.
He has lectured at universities, colleges, seminaries and monasteries throughout the United States. His publications include numerous essays, some short fiction and verse. In 1990 he visited the Dalai Lama in India, a journey that was described in Rodger Kamenetz’ The Jew in the Lotus.”
Jonathan was a true contemplative and a bold pioneer. When he came to Los Angeles, after years of exploring Jewish mystical texts and practices himself, he made outreach to disaffected young Jews on college campuses, many of whom were exploring Eastern traditions, and showed them authentic Jewish paths to meditation and the inner life. But in addition to outreach, he also was dedicated to in-reach. Judaism, he felt, needed to grow. When he founded Metivta, he told me in his wonderfully wry way, he hoped his efforts would “help make Judaism safe for contemplatives.” I remember one story he told about a meeting he had with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, explaining to him in a dejected manner that he felt he was failing as a Jewish renewal person; try as he might, he just couldn’t get into all the singing and extroverted emotion. Reb Zalman took his hand, looked him in the eye and said, “Oh Jonathan! You have it all wrong. You’re not a failed ecstatic; you’re a brilliantly successful contemplative.” Relating that story made Jonathan’s bright eyes twinkle yet more brightly.
I met Jonathan in the mid ‘90s through Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who was supporting Jonathan’s work through the Nathan Cummings Foundation (of which Rachel was the Jewish Life Program Officer). Jonathan had a dream to take the mission of Metivta to a national stage. The three of us began talking. And then Rachel invited us, along with Arthur Green, Sheila Weinberg, Larry Kushner, and Charlie Halpern to meet at the Nathan Cummings Foundation office on November 5, 1996 for a day-long brainstorming session. That was the beginning of what eventually became a new national project, incubated at Metivta, called, “The Spirituality Institute at Metivta.” We ran our first rabbinic cohort retreat program under Metivta’s auspices, where Jonathan was one of the three founding teachers (along with Arthur Green and Sylvia Boorstein). We grew the project at Metivta for several years, before becoming incorporated as our own 501(c)(3): The Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
Jonathan was very proud of what became The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and happy with the role he played in setting it all in motion. He blessed us all with his brilliant vision, humor, honesty and humility. May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.
For those who would like a taste of Jonathan’s unique wit and sensibility, here is one of his wonderful poems:
fabian rappaport´s other dinner party
his problem with praying he began to explain
but they silenced him
with guffaws and insolent scoffing
no they said
tell us first why you don´t eat
pork or prawns or lobsters or shrimps
or german blood sausage and do you really think
god hates people who eat oysters and frogs´ legs
and creamy beef stroganoff
no they said
tell us first about the origin of evil
about who made hitler and pol pot
and were there quarks in the garden
my problem with praying he tried once again
but still they scoffed
my problem with praying
he finally shouted
is that there is too much noise
Jonathan Omer-Man ©