Around the Jewish World: with Shofar and Honey Cakes, Holidays Come to Dalai Lama Land

Most Jews who find themselves in Dharamsala, India, go to find inspiration in the teachings of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist community.

Now Azriel Cohen, an artist and Orthodox Jew from Toronto, has gone with a shofar tucked under his arm and two large honey cakes (baked by his mother) in his duffel bag.

The purpose of the trip, said Cohen, 32, in e-mailed responses to a reporter’s questions, is to bring Judaism to the Jews there during the High Holidays.

He raised money for the trip from 10 Orthodox synagogues in New York and Canada.

No one knows for sure how many Jews live in Dharamsala, but everyone agrees that many from Israel, Europe and North America have spent time in the village where close to 10,000 Tibetan Buddhists have made their capital-in-exile since fleeing persecution in China in 1960.

A high percentage — perhaps even the majority — of the whites who spend time in Dhararnsala are of Jewish heritage, said Tenzing Chsogak, a spokesman for the Tibet Fund, a New York-based group that raises money to help support the approximately 140,000 Tibetan refugees who live dispersed in India, Nepal, Bhutan, the United States and Canada.

Some Jews, already religious when they go to Dharamsala, integrate some of Buddhism’s mindful and meditative practices into their own observances. Others who go become engaged fully with Buddhism. A few have become Buddhist monks and nuns.

After reading “The Jew in the Lotus,” a book by Roger Kamenetz detailing the 1990 journey to Dharamsala of eight prominent American Jews who went at the invitation of the Dalai Lama, Cohen felt inspired to go himself.

He left about a week before Rosh Hashanah with two large bags full of the materials he thought he’d need to observe and practice Judaism in the remote village. The only clothes he brought were those on his back.

In the bags he carried a tallit, the special candle and spices used to make Havdalah, more than 40 books on Judaism in Hebrew and in English, and some 40 cassette tapes of lectures and music.

Cohen stopped at the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi, where he was given one of the three lulavs and etrogs that diplomatic officials there had been sent from Israel.

According to Kamenetz, Dharamsala is “a very magical kind of place,” like Safed in the 16th century, because of its high concentration of high-level teachers “in one small town in the mountains.”

Jews go because they are “looking for wisdom and many don’t see it in their own back yard,” said Kamenetz, whose experience in Dharamsala inspired him to learn more about similar teachings in Judaism and resulted in the newly published “Stalking Elijah: Adventures With Today’s Jewish Mystical Masters.”

In the week or so since Cohen arrived in the village nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas — a difficult 36-hour journey by car and train from New Delhi — he has been busy.

He and an Israeli he met soon after arriving, who had come to Dharamsala with a similar idea, have been teaching classes mornings and afternoons for about 10 students each in the Khana Nirvana restaurant, a popular local eatery.

Cohen wrote that he is in touch with an American rabbi about certifying the vegetarian restaurant as kosher.

So far, his classes have focused on such topics as Rosh Hashanah and the use of tzitzit.

Students have been a mix of Israeli, Canadian and American Jews, with a few interested non-Jews, said Cohen by e-mail.

He was expecting about 150 people to attend Rosh Hashanah services and dinner in a tent set up on the roof of a local hotel.

Services were not going to be totally traditional, though.

His idea, he wrote, was to introduce “a sweet and meaningful spiritual holiday experience for people, one that is relevant and speaks to them.”

He said a highlight of the New Year service was to be the blowing of the shofar from the hotel’s roof.

Each time the shofar is blown, it will be accompanied by a different meditation, Cohen wrote, each meditation based on the 10 kavanot (Jewish phrases used to focus in on the divine purpose of prayer) developed by the 10th century sage Rav Sa’adia Gaon.

Cohen’s plan is to continue and expand the activities, establish a Jewish library and make Friday night Shabbat programs a permanent, if unusual, part of Dharamsala’s spiritual landscape.

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