“If you are looking for mystical Judaism, I have to send you to Chabad,” said Robert Frazin, rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., to Paul Sussman. He then shoved his bulging Rolodex to the side of his desk and pressed the intercom button requesting that his secretary bring him the latest edition of the local Jewish newspaper. His face had taken on a sort of pea-soup cast and there seemed to be sweat dotting his upper lip before jotting down the contact information he located in an ad for Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus, Chabad of Hallandale.

It was 1988, and Paul had just participated in the bar mitzvah of his son at the temple. He had stopped by the rabbi’s office to explain to him that he could not be a regular, as the services had nothing to offer him. Paul said that he would, however, appreciate a referral in his quest for genuine Jewish meditation that would translate into action and engender perfecting his traits and character.

Although his father had grown up in a strictly religious household, Paul was raised in Washington Heights, N.Y., in a home practically devoid of religion and traditions. He was required to attend Hebrew school in preparation for his bar mitzvah, and his father continued to run the Passover Seder at his grandmother’s home until she passed away, but these efforts were perfunctory at best. Too naive to understand the taunts of the Irish kids in the neighborhood who called him a “Dirty Jew,” he did not comprehend that it was not dirt that inspired the insult. But it was precisely this sense of distance and failure to comprehend religion that marked Judaism as some kind of alien force to him that he wanted no part of.

Paul’s best friend, Harold Zimmerberg, in high school in White Plains, N.Y., was a genius who could ace anything he put his mind to. While Paul was in business school at Boston University, Zim went to Harvard and then left for India to find his guru. Upon returning, he connected with a Tibetan monk. Paul considered himself an atheist at that point; he had explored yoga and existentialism in high school, but he did not want to miss out on something Zim considered important, and for the next decade or so, he studied Buddhism and meditation. Philosophically, the idea of transcending self through meditation and clearing the mind of all chatter appealed to Paul. The books he read voraciously about the illusion of ego struck a chord with him. At one point, he meditated daily for seven years, though never won the battle of transcending himself although during quiet moments when the chatter quieted he did get a sense of something—perhaps G‑dly—beyond his comprehension. It was the sweetest feeling but before he could begin to process what was happening, it was gone.

A village in Tibet (photo: Ping Lin)
A village in Tibet (photo: Ping Lin)

Searching for a Higher Truth

In 1985, Zim passed away from Huntington’s disease. At this point, Paul was divorced with two children and living in Florida. He did not have the benefit of a supportive spouse or a community to help him process the profound losses in his life. He did not consider himself a Buddhist and did not attend meetings or ceremonies, but something a monk had said stuck in his mind: “If looking for spiritual truth, you cannot dig a little here and there; you have to decide intellectually where the highest truth is and dig there very deep.”

Searching for that higher truth and understanding of what existence is all about so he could achieve a level of peace and serenity, Paul resolved to spend three-and-a-half weeks in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Nepal. He was not seeking phenomena—not even necessarily religion or G‑d. The meditations and instructions made him feel that perhaps he had found a system that might bring him peace by enabling him to control his mind and overcome bad habits. He had come for exactly that reason to transcend self and ego.

When it appeared that his time there was coming to an end, Paul’s teacher told him that the monastery was too filled with distractions for him. He gave Paul an individualized assignment to go to a nearby motel and meditate for 10 hours a day with his eyes wide open, not thinking about anything at all while sitting on a floor cushion with no backrest. After a few days of this routine, Paul’s teacher called him and told him to return home, but to continue to meditate and to designate one day a month in which he would sit and meditate for 10 hours straight.

Leaving the monastery, Paul joined a cousin who flew into Kathmandu to meet him for a Nepalese jungle safari, complete with treehouse living and raw encounters with exotic animals like one-horned rhinos and Bengal tigers. They stayed in Tiger Tops camps ringed by the Himalayan foothills at times roughing it in tents, riding elephants and paddling dugout canoes down rivers filled with crocodiles, exploring the landscape intimately from different perspectives. One night, as they were enjoying the campfire after a long adventure-filled day, Paul’s cousin said, “Hey there is the renowned author, Kushner!” Glancing in the direction his cousin had pointed, Paul realized that sitting across from him was Harold Kushner, author of the bestselling book and memoir, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Harold Kushner was on vacation with his wife to clear his head before he began his next book. Upon hearing about Paul’s stay in the monastery, Harold said, “What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing spending a month in a Tibetan monastery?” Paul explained his quest to transcend and dissolve his thoughts through meditation so that he can evolve into a better person with more empathy and kindness. Harold responded, “Why don’t you study Jewish meditation?” Paul was dumbfounded. He had no clue that anything like that existed.

“Why are you surprised?” asked Rabbi Kushner. “We did this first. Jewish meditation was an integral part of mainstream Judaism—the oldest religion in the world. The Buddhists have nothing on us.”

Rabbi Kushner told Paul that when he got back to the United States, he should buy Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s books on authentic Jewish meditation.

Paul did exactly that. He studied Rabbi Kaplan’s books like textbooks. Although Rabbi Kaplan’s books did not work for Paul since he had his heart set on peace in this world and not in higher Kabbalistic realms, they did have an intense impact on him. They had awakened his Jewish pride. For the first time in his life, he realized that “a Jew is a Jew,” and he can’t deny it or run away from that. Judaism and Kabbalah were a far cry from the monastery. The Dalai Lama’s opinion that spiritual seekers should first aim to preserve the religion of their ancestors started to make sense to him. He knew he would have to explore Judaism in earnest.

It was precisely at this crossroads in his life that Rabbi Frazin directed Paul to Chabad. Paul called and made an appointment. Paul was taken aback when he stepped into the small storefront that was Chabad of Hallandale and encountered the bearded, black-hatted Rabbi Tennenhaus in his black coat. The last time he had seen anyone in similar garb was in his youth in Washington Heights. He had no contact with religious people since then but his suspicion remained.

“I don’t know if you people will even consider me Jewish, and what’s more, I don’t care because I was born from a Jewish mother, I was circumcised and bar mitzvahed, and the G‑d of Israel knows I am Jewish,” Paul blurted out.

Without batting an eye, Rabbi Tennenhaus asked, “Are you here for what you want or what you need?” Paul responded, “I’m here for what I want, but I have a pretty good idea of what I need in this 43rd year of my life.” Rabbi Tennenhaus and Paul struck a deal. The rabbi would connect Paul with Jewish mediation experts, starting with Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, a renowned authority on Jewish philosophy and mysticism, and Paul would keep an open mind and begin learning Chassidus.

Finding a Deeper Connection to Life

Paul felt he had finally come home spiritually in authentic Judaism. Finding the highest truth and a deeper connection to life, he started down the path to own his Judaism.

He instantly felt at home studying Tanya, enjoying the novelty of conquering new territory and internalizing it. “As you evolve and relearn what you learned before, you achieve new insights. You can keep turning it over and over and discover new treasures,” said Paul about his years of learning. On the other hand, his relationship with prayer—saying the same words over and over again with concentration and renewed fervor each day—was contentious.

Paul explained that he was not into prayer when Rabbi Tennenhaus asked him to attend services each day. “We don’t need you to pray, just to show up. We need your soul to be present so that we can have a minyan,” said Rabbi Tennenhaus.

Paul recounted that for a few years, he sat and read The New York Times during morning prayers. The rabbi would jokingly tell the congregation that he was “living with the times,” as the Alter Rebbe instructed that one should experience in one’s own life the Torah portion of the week, specifically connected with that day. After a while, he figured that he was there anyway, so why not do what the other Jews were doing? Paul started to pray and put on tefillin. “It’s our tradition, what we are supposed to do, and it became a mainstay in my life renewing my vigor and strength to this very day,” he said.

In 1990, Paul was shocked when the Lubavitcher Rebbe told him that he had no need for a response to the two-page letter he had written asking the Rebbe for guidance in refining his character traits. The Rebbe said the answer is clear and quoted a section from Leviticus beginning, “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them … ,” then all the blessings will follow (Leviticus 26 3-13). “I was being told that the bottom line is do not get caught up in esoteric philosophies. Just do it. Just observe. This is a world of action. The deed is the essence and mitzvot are the only path to selflessness and transcending the ego.

“I stamped my foot and said to Rabbi Tennenhaus, ‘I don’t like this answer.’ He just hit me on the back and said, ‘That’s your evil impulse. Don’t worry! You will overcome it.’ And in time, I did,” said Paul. “The right belief may lead to right action, but right action is ultimately more important. It’s the accumulation of those right actions that can transform what we believe and feel.

“I didn’t know what I expected when I saw the Rebbe for the first time, but the reality far exceeded anything I could have imagined. The Rebbe’s exceptionally powerful intensity and all-encompassing soul defied description, but it was clear that he was the heartbeat of Chabad, capable of superhuman inspiration.

“My meeting with the Rebbe did not just increase the love and respect that I already had for Rabbi Tennenhaus, but it solidified our relationship. I understood who gave him his marching orders. The Rebbe powerfully and passionately urged me to get involved in Rabbi Tennehaus’s ambassadorship and I did. I knew that by supporting his efforts that I, too, could play an integral role in furthering the Rebbe’s vision of making the entire world a better place, a home for G‑d. I became a member of the Machne Israel Development Fund established by the Rebbe dedicated to the growth of Jewish life and Jewish continuity. In 1992, I presented the Rebbe with the renderings for the new Hallandale Chabad Center.

“I would be remiss not to mention my boundless praise for Rebbetzin Goldie, the foundation of the Tennenhaus household. The warm, welcoming hospitality she extended to my children and myself over more than two decades of weekly Shabbat meals infused with the beauty and vitality of Judaism impacted my life tremendously.

“Today, my daughter is an involved Jewish adult with a home steeped in Jewish traditions; she supports Jewish causes and is a member in a synagogue. My grandchildren—the lights of my life, named Miryam and Moshe for our biblical forbearers—attend a Jewish day school and receive a holistic Jewish education.

“I am 75 years old. I am so grateful to be so richly blessed. I am thankful for today and hopeful about tomorrow. I credit Chabad, the Rebbe and his emissary, Rabbi Tennenhaus, with my direction and purpose, and all the good fortune that I never fathomed I would have. Without a shadow of a doubt, I know that authentic Judaism is the secret to survival, and the wisdom of the Torah is the cure of humankind.”