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the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Saturday, March
15, 2003 (
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IN PROFILE: Mitchell Chefitz
By James D. Davis
Title: Spiritual leader of Temple Israel of
Greater Miami, a synagogue of 450 families; also founder
of Havurah of South Florida, a network of home-centered
study and prayer groups, for 22 years, ending in 2002.
Other job experience: Author of two novels,
The Seventh Telling and The Thirty-Third Hour, about
Judaic spirituality and synagogue life.
Other community posts: Local board member of
Education: Degree in English, University of
California at Berkeley; master's degree in Hebrew literature,
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in
Personal: Age 61. Born in Boston. South Florida
resident 27 years.
Family: Married to Walli, an occupational practitioner.
Children: Walter, 28; Josh, 25; Adam, 21.
Q. A distinctive feature of your approach to religion?
A. I'm a spiritual coach. I think that's the
best translation of "rabbi." This is not the time for
gurus or rebbes. This is a time for people learning
as much of Jewish spiritual practices as they can, without
becoming dependent on me. That's really the havurah
Q. How did you get into your vocation?
A. I was in MIT; I thought I would be a doctor.
My daddy, bless him, was a physician in family practice.
But when I took a half year off at Boston University
Medical School as a surgical technician, I found other
doctors weren't like my father.
So I decided to become a writer and went to Berkeley.
But when I graduated, didn't have anything to write
about. So I went to sea, on a destroyer.
Then I went back to Berkeley, but everything had changed.
I was confused and decided to go to Israel to study
for two years. I liked what I was learning, so I came
home and enrolled at HUC-JIR.
Q. What's religion for, in 25 words or less?
A. To teach the practice of becoming frictionless,
so you can be aligned with the purpose of creation.
That's where fulfillment and enjoyment come from.
Q. Favorite part of your work?
A. It's an extraordinary challenge to teach from
the full spectrum of Jewish texts, from the Zohar to
the Old Testament. It's also a challenge to convert
the service from pageantry to prayer, an honest expression
Q. Hardest part?
A. The hardest part is remaining Mitch. There
are those who insist on stereotypes - wear a robe, speak
in stentorian tones-and not the man behind the rabbi.
I'd known men like that. They were lonely and unhappy.
Q. What do you do to relax?
A. I have my motorcycle, a Honda STIOO, a large,
fairly old sport touring machine. I've put 70,000 miles
on it. I've been to Maine and back several times.
Q. Favorite vacation spot?
A. Southern California. My boys are there.
Q. Favorite music? Favorite performer(s)?
A. My favorite music is piano by Prokofiev. It's
a nice blend of modem and classical.
Q. Do you have a hero?
A. I don't have a single hero. I've assembled
one from several. In the rabbinic field, it would include
Shlomo Carlebach, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Jack
Riemer. A past master would be Eli Matalon, who was
once the minister of security and justice for Jamaica.
He retired to the U.S. and was a friend for more than
20 years. Through him I learned that there's not much
difference between politics between nations and politics
in a synagogue.
Q. Favorite TV shows?
A. My wife and I have been watching 24
religiously. Maybe we've ceased to like it. But because
we watch it together, we're committed to it.
I also watch the first 10 minutes of The Tonight
Show. I get my real news from Jay Leno. If he's
not making fun of it, its not really important.
Q. Is there one thing you can't stand?
A. Dogmatic positions. I can't stand certainty.
When a person is utterly certain that his or hers is
the only right approach, then there is no argument,
no growth, no opportunity for any meaningful dialogue.
Q. What's the most important thing you've ever learned?
A. Faith, really. I remember being really confused
about my third year of rabbinic training. I told an
adjunct professor that I didn't know what I was doing.
He said, "Keep working at it and it will all come together."
He was right.
Q. What person in history would you like most to
A. Maimonides. He was the epitome of the mystic
and the rationalist together. Also Rabbi Akiva. He was
able to keep a foot in both worlds.
Q. Have you ever doubted your faith?
A. I haven't. It took me quite awhile to acquire
it. I did it through surrender.
Q. Is there a God? You sound rather tentative about
A. Maimonides said he didn't have to prove the
existence of God. He merely had to prove that the universe
had a beginning. If it did, then it had a creator. And
there is no creation without purpose. And Torah spells
out the purpose.
Q. Motto, or favorite Scripture verse?
A. Yirat hashem raysheet hochmah. That
is usually rendered, "The fear of God is the beginning
of wisdom." I prefer, "The recognition of the immediate
relationship with God is the beginning of wisdom."
Q. What would you like most to be remembered for?
A. I'd like to be remembered for my grandchildren.
I don't have any. I'd like to stick around long enough
to play with them.
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the Austin American-Statesman, Saturday, November
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BOOK FAIR INCLUDES NOVEL JEWISH THINKER ON HIS FAN'S
Rabbi admitted into fest's lineup of famous authors
By Sharyn Wizda Vane
No doubt you've heard of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace
Prize winner and Holocaust survivor. If books are even
remotely on your radar screen, you've probably also
heard something about Jonathan Safran Foer, the 25-year-old
whose Everything Is Illuminated has garnered
raves this year for its inventive structure and lush
language. Authors Wiesel and Foer are the bookends for
Austin's 19th annual Jewish Book Fair, two weeks' worth
of events that kick off Sunday with Wiesel's sold-out
In between is one author you probably haven't heard
of -- but he nevertheless is changing the way many Jews
think about their faith. Mitchell Chefitz is a rabbi
who's written two novels laced with storytelling that
explores a more interactive practice of Judaism. Why
is he part of the book fair lineup? He's not the literary
flavor of the month (though his first book, 2001's The
Seventh Telling, was a Los Angeles Times best-seller).
And he's certainly not some Jewish version of New Age
guru Deepak Chopra (although Chefitz's novels do delve
into the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism).
He's coming here, simply, because his stories have spoken
to many Austin fans. An area study group and book clubs
have even sprung up to discuss Chefitz' ideas.
"It's a novel that frankly is not the kind I would normally
read. I'm a mystery fan," says David Goldblatt of The
Seventh Telling (St. Martin's Press). The Austin
radiologist was one of the many who recommended Chefitz
to the group organizing this year's book fair.
A good friend steered Goldblatt to Telling while
they were in a bookstore, so he bought a copy.
"I picked up the book, and it was so striking to me
how different it is from any other book I've ever read,"
he says. "The book just completely captivated me."
Telling uses the narrative framework of a California
couple who hold spiritual retreats in their home to
offer the stories and teachings of the Kabbalah (yes,
the same kind of Judaism that Hollywood types like Madonna
reportedly are studying). Chefitz's second book, The
Thirty-Third Hour, released in January by St. Martin's
Press, uses the same novel-as-teaching-tool approach
to explore re-energizing Jewish education.
"These books get you thinking, and they draw you in,"
says Jeff Millstone, an Austin lawyer and another Chefitz
Chefitz says delivering his message in fictional form
is crucial. When he first sat down to write a nonfiction
book about his ideas for making Judaism more relevant,
the result was . . . well, rather dry.
"I wanted to reach the disenchanted, and they would
never pick up a book like that," Chefitz explains from
his office at Temple Israel of Greater Miami, where
he's been rabbi since April. For the previous 22 years
he led the Havurah of South Florida, a Jewish fellowship
unaffiliated with any of the major denominations.
"I'm taking an old-time, downtown, classical Reform
congregation and seeing if after years of talking the
talk, I could walk the walk," he says. (So far the prognosis
looks good: Temple Israel dropped from 1,700 families
to 400 in recent years; since Chefitz's arrival, 50
new families have become members.)
He'll try to walk the walk here in Austin as well. Chefitz's
"book event" will also be a workshop aimed at putting
the education techniques in The Thirty-Third Hour
into practice. A key element is parents and children
learning together, so families are encouraged to bring
their children ages 12 and older.
"I think if people open up their ideas and heads," Goldblatt
says, "there's an idea here, a kernel, that might be
very wise for us as a community to take a good look
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Miami Herald: Saturday, February 3, 2001
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TELLING TALE A NOVEL METHOD OF TEACHING SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE
By Teresa Mears
For years, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz tried to write a book
about the Jewish spiritual discipline known as Kabbalah.
To him, the discipline and its mysticism enhanced his
life in a way he wanted to share.
He was, after all, a rabbi -- a teacher. A book would
spread the spiritual insight much more widely than he
could teaching classes and contributing to an occasional
But, he couldn't make the book work. It was as much
a failure as the 400-page "something or other" he had
tried to write 30 years ago, when he left college with
the idea of making writing his career.
"I found that my nonfiction writing was dry, that it
did not bring the Kabbalah to life. . . . It was preachy."
Six years ago, as he drove home alone from dropping
his son off at college and saying goodbye to his dying
father in Boston, he realized how to write the book
-- as a novel.
In fiction, he discovered, he could make the Kabbalah
real. The Seventh Telling: The Kabbalah of Moshe
Katan (St. Martin, $24.95) is a novel within a novel,
about a rabbi and his spiritual journey, his relationship
with his wife and his struggles with the limitations
of traditional religious practice, told by a middle-age
couple whose lives they touch. The spiritual lessons
are interspersed, in the struggles of the characters
and the stories they tell.
"You can read it as a love story," Chefitz said. "You
can read it as an allegory. You can read it as a spiritual
The book isn't autobiographical, though Chefitz shares
some qualities with protagonist Moshe Katan. Like the
fictional Katan, Chefitz was reared in a traditional
but not religious Jewish home. He studied at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and served in the Navy in the
Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. Confused by his wartime experiences
and by the radically changed country to which he returned,
he went to Israel.
"I had a sense that I might find some balance studying
in Israel, and I was right," Chefitz said. He continued
his studies for the rabbinate in New York. But he still
He began studying the Jewish mystics and discovered
the Kabbalah, whose study was for many years forbidden
to most Jews. The Hebrew root of Kabbalah is from the
verb "to receive," and Chefitz explains the concept
using the metaphor of a radio or TV receiver.
"Everybody is a receiver," he said. "The training of
a kabbalist is to get one's head on straight so you're
at least pointed in the right direction when the signals
To do that requires quieting oneself through meditation
to reduce distortion and static.
The result, he says, is an amplified life and a partnership
with the creator. "One can receive greater and greater
ecstasy from smaller and smaller stimuli," he says.
"The down side is the guilt and remorse that one feels
for smaller and smaller transgressions. It makes you
much more sensitive in your daily contact."
His practice of the Kabbalah, of spiritual discipline,
suffuses his work, he says. ``When you surrender to
the art, when you surrender to the craft, you have a
partnership with the divine,'' he said. "It's as if
I put the bricks together but the building appeared
While study of the Kabbalah has gained some adherents
among New Age seekers, Chefitz doesn't consider it a
New Age practice, pointing out that it originated with
Jewish scholars centuries ago.
Like Moshe, his protagonist, Chefitz also found something
missing in traditional Jewish worship. He wanted to
create opportunities for people to experience a more
intense and more personal relationship with God, not
merely to listen to teachers but to take responsibility
for their own Jewish lives.
In 1980, he founded Havurah of South Florida. Havurah
means fellowship, and many such small fellowships meet
throughout South Florida, mostly in people's homes.
Havurahs run the range from traditional to liberal,
Chefitz said, but treat men and women equally. Participants
study in pairs, each one learning and teaching. The
rabbi is more a coach than a preacher.
"There is an intensity in such a grouping that one doesn't
find in an auditorium-type setting," Chefitz said. "I
saw more Jewish growth in those small groupings . .
. than in anything else I was doing."
For most adults, spiritual growth starts with examining
the roots of their own beliefs, often formed as children
and never updated. "There are all sorts of hurts and
resentments that one holds against religion and therefore
against God. . . . But they are very different things,
religion and God."
The Seventh Telling is the first of a trilogy.
Chefitz has finished the second, The 33rd Hour: The
Torah of Moshe Katan, which will be published in
2002. He is working now on the third book.
Learning to write fiction was a struggle, he said. His
agent referred him to a writing coach, Lesley Kellas
Payne. "She tore me apart to my very core and showed
me what I was afraid of facing," Chefitz said.
This summer, he and his wife, Walli, an occupational
therapist and practitioner of the mind-body Feldenkrais
therapy, plan to take a year's sabbatical to get to
know each other better now that their three sons are
sees his book as more about questions than answers,
questions about the Jewish spirituality, questions about
the role of the rabbi in the community, questions about
God in the world today. He wants people to disagree,
to debate and discuss the issues he has raised.
"Arguing is a form of Jewish growth. But the arguing
has to be done for the sake of heaven, not for the sake
of ego," he said. "If my book can provoke such an argument,
I'll consider my book successful."
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