High Holidays

From Ramadan to Elul: a California Chasid’s spiritual journey

For Lee Weissman, a Breslov Chasid in Irvine, Calif., the recent onset of Elul caps a spiritual journey he began a month earlier with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.Weissman, a teacher at the Tarbut v’Torah Community Day School in Irvine and a scholar of Southeast Asian religions, says similar themes run through Ramadan and Elul, the Hebrew month of repentance, charity and extra prayers leading up to Rosh Hahanah and the High Holidays.

And he says his close ties with local Muslims has helped to put him in the “correct” frame of mind to begin his own month of penitence and prayer.

He recalls attending a talk about Ramadan given a few years ago by an imam in Orange County.

“It was a very bizarre experience — he talked about different levels of the soul, about the animal soul. It was classic chassidus. He could have been talking about Elul,” Weissman said.

Weissman, 56, says that in the past several years, as Ramadan has coincided with the Jewish High Holidays (two years ago) and with Elul itself (last year), the similar themes have added richness and depth to his own spiritual quest.

“Everybody knows about the fasting part of Ramadan, but there is so much more to it than that,” he said. “It’s an all-encompassing experience — people try to give additional charity [the Arabic word ‘zaikai’ is similar to the Hebrew ‘tzedakah’], they try to add extra prayers and they try to concentrate on them, and they try to think about God’s plan for the world and how they can serve Him more completely. That is exactly what Elul is supposed to be for us.”

Weissman says he was attracted as well to the Ramadan ideal of community — an entire society of people working together on their character traits and focusing on repentance. He quotes a Koran verse about Ramadan that refers to a month of repentance.

“So my Elul has absolutely become Ramadan-ized. I now take Elul as a much more complete experience, not just as a lead-up to Tishrei [the month of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur],” he said. “That could even include fasting; I’m not sure yet. Fasting is certainly a legitimate Jewish part of the teshuvah process.”

Weissman says that although his first exposure to religious Islam came while conducting graduate research in southern India in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until he became Orthodox in his Jewishness that he developed a personal appreciation of Islam. Especially attracted to Judaism’s concern with peace, tzedakah and peaceful relations with others, he forged relationships with Muslim students at the University of California-Irvine, during the difficult years of the second intifada in the early to mid-2000s.

Two occurrences in the past 10 years started him on the path to appreciating Islam, he says.

“The Ashkenazi style of Selichot always left me feeling a bit dry spiritually speaking,” Weissman said. “So when a Sephardic community developed here in Irvine, I took an interest in their customs, and especially in the full month of Selichot prayers, which were much more powerful to me.”

Also, Weissman became involved with the Muslim Student Union at UC-Irvine. In much of the Jewish community, the group is known for its members’ verbal disruptions and heckling during a speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, at a campus event in February 2010. Several students involved in the outbursts were arrested and are on trial for conspiracy to disturb a meeting. The Muslim Student Union subsequently was suspended temporarily by the university.

For Weissman it was a learning opportunity.

“There was a lot of tension between them and the Jewish students on campus, and I wanted to see what it was all about,” Weissman told JTA. “I’m a generation older than most of the students, which already made me a bit less threatening, and I’m religious, so I could really empathize with some of the challenges and struggles with drinking and sex that religious Muslim students face in an American university setting.”

Weissman blanches when asked if he is a Zionist — though he is not anti-Zionist, he says he is uncomfortable with the triumphalism and nationalism of modern-day Israel. He stresses that his relationship with Muslim students does not touch on politics — “it’s not where my head is,” he says. But like most things related to Arabs and Jews, politics worked its way in.

Weissman recalls a Muslim student at his house on Shabbat picking up a bencher on the table and noticing in the English translation that the Grace After Meals includes giving thanks for the Land of Israel.

“He asked me why that is and we talked about it,” Weissman said, “then all of a sudden the student got it. ‘Wait a second. Israel’s like a holy place!’” he remembers the Muslim student saying. “That was a concept he could understand. He couldn’t understand why Jews had to [in his opinion] take a country away from other people in order to make really great cell phones, but he could relate to the idea of a holy land.”

Weissman says his relationships with the students also has had a positive effect on campus.

“Once they felt they had a friend in the Jewish community who wasn’t interested in politics or fighting, they were able to hear some of my concerns,” he said. “For instance, they decided last year not to host Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an openly anti-Semitic Islamic preacher, at UCI this year because it wasn’t the image they wanted to spread of Islam and of Muslims. That was their decision. I had nothing to do with it, but it wouldn’t have happened were it not for the true relationship we’ve formed.”

With the start of the 2011-12 academic year at Irvine, Weissman says he will continue to befriend Muslim and Jewish students on campus, but for the next month he will concentrate on transposing the values of Ramadan — charity, prayer, penitence and introspection — onto the Jewish scorecard.

“I think the Jewish community is terrific, but I also think we’ve got a lot to learn from the Muslim community here,” Weissman said. “Many people take their religion very seriously, they go to mosque every day, they pray more and are more careful about how they speak to people. That ethical dimension is very inspiring to me.

“If I can be encouraging to others, I certainly try to be. And I take encouragement from them, too.”