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From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Saturday, March 15, 2003      ( Back to list of articles )

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 Anti-Defamation League.
Education: Degree in English, University of California at Berkeley; master's degree in Hebrew literature, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
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 model.
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 of spirituality.
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 meet?
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 it.
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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From the Austin American-Statesman, Saturday, November 2, 2002      ( Back to list of articles )

Rabbi admitted into fest's lineup of famous authors by demand.

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 speech.

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 fan.

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 at."

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From The Miami Herald: Saturday, February 3, 2001      ( Back to list of articles )


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 spiritual text.

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 text."

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 had questions.

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 come."

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 miraculously."

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 grown.

Chefitz 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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