A few years ago, Doris Snyder got the feeling that she had something more to learn about her Jewish faith. She needed answers to questions about things like the Jewish concept of life after death, she said. She had attended programs at Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia, a Jewish outreach organization with a campus in Fairfax, and chanced to see adult education classes offered through the organization.
"I almost tripped over Chabad," said Snyder. Before long, she and daughter Beth Axelrod were attending every one. Through Chabad, Snyder said, she has studied subjects such as the spiritual issues of right and wrong surrounding the Holocaust, and the stories of Biblical characters in everyday life.
"You come away with knowledge about things on a level you never knew existed before," said Snyder, comparing the classes to studying philosophy. "It's that feeling of never getting there, but the pursuit is extremely exciting."
Next on Snyder's plate is a Kabbalah course: "The Kabbalah of Time," which uses Jewish mysticism to explain the passage of time in people’s lives.
The classes at Chabad Fairfax are offered through the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, a New York-based organization that prepares material and teacher training for adult education classes worldwide. Rabbi Leibel Fajnland teaches one Kabbalah course each year, each time focusing on another aspect of it. Past years have focused on gender in Kabbalah and mysticism in prayer, he said.
"The point is, instead of bouncing through a whole bunch of issues and going through them not as deep as possible, taking one subject and really tearing it apart," he said.
ALTHOUGH JEWISH mysticism has been made fashionable by celebrities like Madonna, Fajnland said, the popular version of Kabbalah is not quite authentic.
"Anything can be watered down to make it modern or hip," he said.
Snyder agreed. "You have to take Kabbalah from someone who knows it," she said.
Fajnland has a great deal of experience teaching mysticism, and explains Kabbalah simply as the "soul" of Jewish traditions. The study of Kabbalah examines the meaning behind the directives of Jewish life and the words in the Torah, he said.
Take the Sabbath, he said: "The Torah says to keep it holy. Fine, that works, but there’s a depth beyond that. Why the seventh day? What’s so special about God resting? … All of these things are issues that Kabbalists have been dealing with for generations."
The word Kabbalah stems from a Hebrew word meaning "to receive." In the Jewish faith, the mystical teachings are as old as the Torah itself, having been passed down from Moses to generations of scholars and prophets.
"In Kabbalah, what you do is climb different planes and on different levels based on what you can read," said Snyder. "Everything has meaning behind the words."
The new Kabbalah course uses the mystical teachings and the Jewish calendar to offer a new way of looking at time, said Rabbi Efraim Mintz, director of the Jewish Learning Institute.
"Time is taken for granted, by and large," said Mintz. Time is meaningful and flowing, he said, but modern life measures it by hours and days, giving way to phrases such as "wasting time" or "killing time."
"Do we attach the same intensity to time when we have it as when we don't have it?" said Mintz. Instead, a person can measure time by the moments of their life, he said, and look at each moment as an opportunity to move toward a deeper spiritual understanding.
Using the mystical view of time, said Fajnland, a person can have lived for 75 years, but can be much younger if their age was measured by the moments in their life.
The eight-week course begins Monday, Feb. 6. It looks at the reason behind the Jewish calendar, the seven-day week and the meaning of time in the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The best part of a class like this, said Mintz, is that in 160 cities worldwide, courses begin and end on the same date. People have traveled between continents on business and still managed to attend every one of the Jewish Learning Institute classes, he said. Teachers receive the same training, and the process creates a community of teachers and learners, he said.
"There is no particular teacher to one particular city, but each is piggybacking on the wisdom and scholarship of 200 of their colleagues," said Mintz. "It's the same thing for the students."
"Teaching has always been something I love doing," said Mintz. "When you teach a concept like this you have to dig within yourself."
Fajnland hopes the class will provide deeper insight into the Jewish religion and that people, even if they do not always attend synagogue, will have a chance to come together around a common aspect of the faith.
"You come away feeling like a more complete person living in a more complete world," said Snyder.