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In Tropical Hawaiian Setting, Jews Embark on Spiritual Quest by Heather Morgan

May 6, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Kim Azizy, founder of Kol Echad, admits that Maui’s world famous surf and breathtaking mountains made the island an optimal destination for the organization’s inaugural event — a weeklong Torah study retreat in Hawaii.

Nevertheless, she insists that the real draw was Beit Shalom — The Jewish Congregation of Maui, the island’s only synagogue.

“This place is magical,” Azizy said of the non-denominational congregation led by Rabbi David Glickman. “There’s an open-door policy here which makes it ideal for learning.”

Some 30 people from across North America and around the world came to the powder-blue beach house-turned-synagogue for a week of spiritual exploration at the retreat, held several weeks ago.

The call for those with a “seriously curious Jewish mind” yielded an eclectic group, ranging from 20-something singles to couples in their mid-60s. They came from all kinds of educational backgrounds and degrees of Jewish observance.

Kol Echad, which in Hebrew means both “everyone” and “in one voice,” has a post-denominational philosophy. With the latest National Jewish Population Survey showing a sharp rise in Jews who decline to identify with any denomination — from 13 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2000-01 — Kol Echad aims for an inclusive philosophy of Judaism in which affiliation and denominational labels are unimportant.

“We should take advantage of all knowledgeable sources on our tradition, choose what works for us and challenge that which doesn’t,” Azizy said. “Kol Echad aims to present Judaism in a way that is relevant and meaningful, so that it transcends denominational and geographical boundaries.”

With Maui as a backdrop, it certainly seemed that Azizy’s message managed to span geographical boundaries.

Laurel Levy, a retiree from the Army National Guard who now works as a massage therapist, came from Guam to hear Rabbi Jonathan Feldman, associate director of a Manhattan outreach organization, talk about “The Soul and the Afterlife.”

“I was interested in learning Judaism’s view on reincarnation and the transcendence of the soul,” Levy said, explaining why she flew nearly 4,000 miles to attend the retreat.

Yvonne Kucher, senior technical editor for Cisco Systems, also went to Feldman’s talk. As a student of Kabbalah, Kucher said she has become increasingly connected both to Judaism and the island since burying her mother in Maui two years ago.

Azizy wants to make Kol Echad’s Web site — — a clearinghouse for Jewish educational events. She envisions a community education calendar that notes and enables access to events happening all over the United States and across the Jewish denominational spectrum.

“Eventually, if people from Ann Arbor, Michigan; Charlotte, North Carolina; or L.A. are all interested in hearing what a rabbi in Minneapolis has to say about the Zohar, lighting Shabbat candles or any other topic, they will be able to phone and be conferenced in to a lecture that appeals to them,” she said. “That’s optimizing our spiritual resources.”

In Maui, getting spiritual was helped by the azure skies, crystal waters and lush tropical rainforest. Retreat participants combined Torah study and discussion with whale-watching, biking down the island’s magnificent 10,000-foot shield volcano, surfing and visiting the theater.

The chef at the Marriott hotel in Ka’anapali was amenable to preparing strictly kosher meals — as long as advance notice was given — and certain restaurants were willing to accommodate special cooking requests to allow for kosher observance.

Azizy said the Kol Echad retreat will be an annual event, though the location probably will be different next time.

An attitude of cultural acceptance seems as indigenous to Maui as tropical flora and banyan trees, but Maui is home to many Jews who aren’t interested in their own culture, Glickman said. There are between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews on the island, but only 75 local families — about 200 people — are members of Beit Shalom.

“Everyone needs to find their own personal comfort level with Judaism, and I don’t believe in imposing my level of observance on my congregants,” said Glickman, rabbi of the Jewish Congregation of Maui since 1999. “I take an open-arms approach and look for the things that connect us as Jews rather than those lines of demarcation that separate us. Our religion truly has something for everyone.”

Several retreat participants said they came simply because of Glickman’s open approach to Judaism.

Joan Levin, a lawyer from Chicago who has been a non-resident member of the Jewish Congregation of Maui for five years, said she immediately booked a plane ticket when she heard about the retreat.

“I knew I had to attend,” she said. “Everything this place does is wonderful.”

Levin carried an acoustic guitar to use at a kumzitz, a Jewish sing-along, which Kol Echad organized for the group at Ohm Sweet Ohm, a yoga studio in Kula.

“The fact that this Torah study is ecumenical places the emphasis on the learning, which is the whole point,” Levin said, strumming a Yiddish tune. “This has turned into one of the best Jewish learning experiences I’ve ever had.”

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