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Staten Island's Congregation Om Shalom blends Judaism with yoga, meditation, Buddhism and Hinduism
Joanie Sobsey and Rabbi Samtosha, also known as Sam Steinberg, strike a yoga pose as they stand in front of 320 St. Mark’s Pl., where they plan to open Congregation Om Shalom. (Staten Island Advance/Hilton Flores)
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on August 02, 2013 at 9:00 AM, updated August 02, 2013 at 12:50 PM
Rabbi Samtosha, whose religious name means “contentment” in Sanskrit, is forming Congregation Om Shalom, a name that incorporates a yoga chanting sound; the logo is the Star of David with the symbol of Om in the middle. The first service of what the rabbi describes as “Jewish fusion” is planned for Rosh Hashanah, with the observance beginning the night before, on Sept. 4; the rabbi, who was ordained on June 27, is negotiating to rent space at Brighton Heights Reformed Church.
The synagogue where Joanie Sobsey of Dongan Hills — the rabbi’s significant other, and a yoga instructor and nurse practitioner — will serve as spiritual director, is welcoming to people of all faiths and lifestyles. The rabbi, who is divorced with two adult children, and Ms. Sobsey met on Match.com and have been together for more than eight years. She works for Teen Rap at Staten Island University Hospital.
“My girlfriend once asked me what is my image of G-d,” the rabbi said. “My image is Stevie Nicks onstage in purple robes. Maybe three times a year when I’m praying I get so connected, tears come to my eyes — and that’s when I’m praying to Stevie.”
As part of his course study at the Rabbinical Seminary International in Manhattan, Rabbi Samtosha read the holy books of all the major religions; he feels that incorporating aspects of all faiths helps to reduce or eliminate animosity between various religions and factions within religions.
“I want anyone looking for spirituality to come to us,” said the rabbi, who is a teacher with the Special Education Itinerant Teacher (SEIT) program and the son of Holocaust survivors Alex Steinberg and the former Helen Klaczko Steinberg.
“We are open to everyone, Jews, non-Jews, atheists, agnostics, interfaith couples, LGBT,” added the rabbi, whose brother is Lev Raphael, the author of books about the children of Holocaust survivors and his experiences as a gay Jew.
The rabbi who lives in St. George and has called the Island home since 1998, plans to marry any couple who obtains a valid marriage license.
“We will perform all marriages anywhere, anytime, interfaith and LGBT,” the rabbi said.
The yearly dues at the bargain price of $18 will include tickets for Rosh Hashanah. The rabbi especially hopes to attract the many unaffiliated Jews who live in the borough and don’t go to services or attend only on high holy days because thus far they haven’t been engaged spiritually or they can’t afford to join a synagogue and/or buy high holy day tickets.
“It’s a lot of money to belong to a synagogue,” the rabbi said. “It’s also boring.”
Congregation Om Shalom services will be markedly different from those offered at any other synagogue on the Island. The atmosphere will be comfortable and informal, with participants encouraged to take off their shoes.
“I don’t want them taking the dirt of the outside world into the spiritual place,” the rabbi said.
Ms. Sobsey, who teaches at Integral Yoga in Manhattan and whose spiritual name is Jayasri, which means “victorious and glorious goddess” in Sanskrit, will help members slowly into the service, using breathing exercises to help them banish thoughts of work and weekend to-do lists, so that they may be “in the moment” and thus find contentment based on Buddhist teachings.
“Half of all the Buddhists in America are Jews,” the rabbi said, adding that he was asked to do a service by fellow Jews who happened to attend a recent yoga retreat that he was at in the Berkshires.
Integral Yoga participants of various faiths also have said that they want to attend services. The new synagogue will be located near the ferry terminal in St. George to accommodate potential synagogue members from Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Rabbi Samtosha won’t be droning on for long periods of time in Hebrew as some religious leaders do during the services.
“Ninety percent of my service is going to be English because Hebrew intimidates people,” the rabbi said, stressing that his New Year’s message will take less than three minutes.
Services will have a “lot of singing and dancing” and towards that end the rabbi is contemplating Stevie Nicks tunes and has complied a list from YouTube of interfaith songs such as “Heaven and Earth” by Neshama Carlebach, “What if God Was One of Us” by Joan Osborne and “My God is Real” by Krishna Das.
“I posted our congregation’s playlist in Facebook and Neshama Carlebach, the daughter of the late Shlomo Carlebach, liked it,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Samtosha plans to rent space by the hour until he raises the $100,000 per year needed to operate a permanent location. He will be writing to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other Jewish philanthropists throughout the city asking for donations. But Rabbi Samtosha said that if each of the estimated 34,000 Jews on Staten Island gave $2, Om Shalom would be close to reaching its financial goal. Services are planned for Sept. 4 at 7 p.m. and Sept. 5 from 10 a.m. to noon. To buy tickets or for information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. or call 718-710-0599.
I am not printing this to make fun of this man. He's just another nebach, and it's not news that we have plenty of those. And he is not alone; there are many like him. As King Achish said, חסר משוגעים אני? I want to point out two very important things.
1. It is as if the Staten Island Advance wanted to print an illustration of this week's parsha by providing a perfect and timely illustration of the passuk that warns us not to inquire after the religious behavior of others, lest we imitate them. Parshas Re'ay, 12:30-31:
השמר לך פן תנקש אחריהם אחרי השמדם מפניך ופן תדרש לאלהיהם לאמר איכה יעבדו הגוים האלה את אלהיהם ואעשה כן גם אני. לא תעשה כן לה' אלהיך כי כל תועבת ה' אשר שנא עשו לאלהיהם כי גם את בניהם ואת בנתיהם ישרפו באש לאלהיהם
How embarrassing it is to read “Half of all the Buddhists in America are Jews,” the rabbi said .... Judaism, the mother of so many world religions, the basis of that which elevates Western Civilazation, the fountainhead of ethics and morality, it is the Jews that run after the most absurd alternatives, so long as they are foreign, as if a person would run away from a beautiful and kind and wise woman to consort with some woman he picks up in the street- she may be ugly, she may be dirty, but at least she's a shiksa.
.This never ends well. See the Beis Halevi in the Drashos #12.
2. Here's a question.
Why is this man wearing tztizis? Why is this man wearing a Yarmulkeh? Why is he calling himself a rabbi and calling his spirituality space a Shul by the name of Om Shalom? Why can't he simply make a new religion, or call himself and dress as a Swami or a Lama?
On one level, one might answer that he's trying to take advantage of the brand recognition of Judaism. He needs to fill his Temple with paying customers. There isn't much interest in a Swami or a Lama in Staten Island. So he's looking for followers by saying that he's an exponent of Judaism. By calling himself a Rabbi, he can tap into the market of people that feel a need to go to shul on the High Holidays.
But I don't think that's the pshat. We've seen it with the YCT graduates that say apikorsus and claim to be Orthodox. Why is it so important for them to claim Orthodoxy? The answer is that they love Yiddishkeit. They love what it means to be a Jew, and they refuse to abandon it. They need to convince themselves that they are being loyal to True Judaism. Unfortunately, they never had the teachers that could make Yiddishkiet beautiful and embracing, so they went off לחצוב להם בורות בורות נשברים אשר לא יכילו המים, But they need to think of themselves as Jews, so they say this nonsense about syncretism and eclecticism and modernity. The bottom line is that the Torah warned us about them long, long ago. They want to be Jews. They love Yiddishkeit. Unfortunately, they lack the background to properly appreciate it.
Great unknown, in private communication, pointed out that bastardization often comes from love.