When Rabbi Laibl Wolf was younger, he used to drop into an ashram from time to time. Not that he ever thought of giving up davening for yoga: he simply wanted to know why so many young Jews had fled the suburban Judaism of their childhood to seek spiritual gratification elsewhere.
He was convinced there was a way to reach them if only he could find the right approach. The result was a unique career as a peripatetic teacher and writer who marries the psychological insights of Jewish mystical teachings to the contemporary literature of personal growth and well-being — a kind of Chasidic Deepak Chopra, if you like.
His first book, Practical Kabbalah, published in 1999, offered a course of meditation designed to achieve greater emotional harmony. His new publication, Kavana Mindfulness, is a set of self-help CDs which similarly draw on kabbalistic and Chasidic ideas as a way to retrain the mind. “I teach that you can change anything about yourself,” he said. “You are not a slave to your genes or your formative childhood experiences.”
He was born in 1947 in Poland to parents who survived the Holocaust. When he was two, they moved to Melbourne: his father was a Radomsker Chasid, but as there were no Radomsker Chasidim in Australia, the family instead moved into the orbit of Lubavitch. Rabbi Wolf enrolled in yeshivah but also gained a law degree and a master’s in psychology.
“I was intending to practise law but the Lubavitcher Rebbe asked me whether my wife and I would not mind taking a year off to do work with university students,” he said. He found a position with Hillel in the United States and instead of one year of campus service, ended up doing 12.
It was in America that he became aware of the large number of unaffiliated Jews spiritually attracted to the East. “Jewish people who go to ashrams by and large are honest, questing, pure in intent but could not, and do not, find the equivalents in the Jewish community arena, and especially in United Synagogue type-settings,” he said. “The idea of chattering, socialising, clubbing is not their sense of what their quest in life is.”
Back home, he was asked to teach a course in Jewish spirituality at Melbourne University. “That’s how I met the Dalai Lama. At that point, it clicked,” he said. The meditation and other spiritual practices that appealed to many Jews had parallels within Judaism.
“I had to use the right language to bridge people’s sensibilities and recognise there is a Jewish background component they can also investigate,” he said. “Not to thrust it upon them, or speak prescriptively of right and wrong, but to be able to put on the table an attractive package of spiritual food they might be interested in.”
He spends two and half months on the road every year, speaking and teaching in 65 cities around the world. He paid a rare visit to the UK recently after being invited to a Shabbaton held by the Ukrainian born, London-based Lubavitch supporter, Gennady Bogolyubov.
“It is not difficult for people to improve their lives by having a structure, a vantage-point on things in their life that can be analysed very simply through the crucible of Jewish perceptions on the nature of self,” he said. “That’s what I provide people, a structure.”
For example, while some psychotherapeutic systems say that it is healthy to vent one’s anger, Judaism, he explains, “teaches that you are not allowed to express anger”. A person can learn to react differently by shifting from a preoccupation with themselves to considering the needs of other people.
His Kavana Mindfulness is a 12-week programme which takes a spiritual concept, kavanah, usually used to denote concentration in prayer, and applies it to everyday life. Mindfulness, a “buzzword” in personal growth circles, comes from a Buddhist term, meaning a capacity to live each moment to the full.
The first step of his programme is how to induce a state of inner calm when so much of the time “we are tossed around at work, at home — we are always in a state of anxiety,” he said. “I teach people how to train for that over 30 minutes per day for one week; the next week I reduce that to five minutes; the third week five minutes is reduced to 10 seconds; and after that, for three seconds.”
The second stage is how to better understand what our senses are telling us; and the third how to learn to react in a more measured way to events.
Six years ago, wanting to put his ideas into practice, he launched a holistic Jewish centre in Melbourne called Spiritgrow. “I took an old warehouse and redesigned it in a spa-like feel — curved walls, use of colour, soft meditational music, nice fragrance, lighting effects,” he said. “It works like magic. When people come in, they ask, ‘Is this a Jewish place?’”
After a couple of years, he introduced Shabbat services, now attended by more than 100 people every week which, while fully compliant with halachah, use meditation, chanting and other spiritual techniques.
As well as its ambience, also important is its ethos. While some institutions operate on the model that the rabbi “knows it all”, he prefers to cultivate “the power of every Jewish individual to be a teacher and facilitator”. And instead of talking “religiously” in terms of do’s and don’ts, Spiritgrow is about sharing and exploring together. “Don’t try to impose,” he says, “create a bridge… If you don’t develop the warmth and trust of relationship, you can’t get the information flowing through. That’s where I think a lot of synagogues and rabbis fail today.”