Spirituality Center To Breathe Its Last?

By Ruth Andrew Ellenson

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
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LOS ANGELES — Metivta, an educational institute that channeled New Age-style spiritual energies into the study and practice of Judaism, will close its doors and suspend its programming later this month, in a financial meltdown that has shocked many here with its swiftness.

The threatened closure is the latest step in a series of emergency measures, including the termination of Metivta’s president, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, and executive director, Judy Gordon, along with two other staff members, taken by the board of directors after it determined in November that the center had become insolvent. Sources close to the situation pinned Metivta’s financial woes on an overly ambitious program to expand nationally, neglect of fundraising in its home base and financial dependence on grants given to Metivta’s offshoot program, the still-thriving Spirituality Institute.

While board members said they hoped to salvage the institution, members of the community have already begun to mourn the demise of a center that offered an alternative to mainstream Jewish practice, emphasizing both meditation and contemplation rooted in Kabbalah and chasidism along with traditional Jewish thought.

“I think in many ways we participated in the legitimization of Jewish spirituality,” said Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, who founded Metivta in 1991 and led the organization before his retirement about 18 months ago. “The work Metivta did appealed to many people and extended a long way beyond Los Angeles. It was national.” Similar institutions, fusing Jewish practice with techniques learned in Eastern religions, include Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley and Elat Chayyim in upstate New York.

Metivta, which had about 300 active members but has taught thousands through its educational programs, operated on an annual budget of $650,000. Its main financial support came from grants from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation. Annual membership fees of $120 also contributed to the support of a learning center, weekend retreats, classes and High Holy Day services. Members of Metivta gathered for monthly services held at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills.

The Spirituality Institute, which is four years old and has now been spun off into its own entity, offers spirituality-based programs for rabbis and cantors and is headed by Rabbi Nancy Flam. According to Flam and others close to the situation, Shapiro and Gordon were using grant funds reserved for the Spirituality Institute to fund Metivta’s regular operating expenses.

“I was shocked to find that funds which I had raised and were given as restricted funds to the project were apparently used for other purposes leaving me with no way to pay my bills,” Flam told the Forward from her home in Massachusetts. Flam said the board raised an emergency $40,000 to settle the institute’s bills. The Spirituality Institute is now a managed project of the left-leaning Shefa Fund in Philadelphia.

“There was a basis of trust at Metivta that if there were financial problems, the staff would have let the board know,” said another source close to Metivta. “However, there was no checking of the budget’s accuracy until Nancy brought it to the board’s attention that the Spirituality Institute’s funds were being used to support the general work at Metivta.”

Gordon and Shapiro said the board was aware that Metivta was using funds set aside for the Spirituality Institute, and that the practice preceded them.

“This was going on before I was hired. There were no systems in place when I was hired,” said Gordon, who plans to stay in Los Angeles, when reached at her home. “Both Rami and I were hired to take the organization national. It was a lofty ambition and the board truly wanted that to happen. This organization was built to support a man [Omer-Man], and people didn’t want to support the organization without Jonathan.”

“That was the policy before we got there. Metivta always relied on [the Spirituality Institute’s] grants,” Shapiro said. Shapiro, who was in Florida when the Forward spoke to him, also denied accounts that the board did not know the extent of the financial problems. There was “no lack of clarity” on the matter, he said. “You don’t go from solvent to insolvent in just over a year without someone ending up with a yacht and that certainly did not happen in this situation. The reality is, if Metivta had stayed a grassroots Los Angeles program it would have had no problems, but there was not enough support for it on a national level.”

As for Metivta’s continued survival in one form or another, board chairman Lyle Poncher is cautiously optimistic. “The answer is maybe,” said Poncher, who declined to discuss specifics about the closure because of pending legal matters. “I think because Metivta has offered an alternative for Jews interested in contemplative practice it will survive in some form, but I don’t know what form that will be. Students in Metivta are taught that they should take responsibility for themselves and that the community will follow that example. I think that’s possible.”

As for the sudden dismissal of the staff, “we didn’t have any other choices,” Poncher said. “We did what we could, we appealed to the community, the board made emergency donations, but Metivta does not serve a very wealthy community. The truth is the program didn’t support having a staff operation. The financial realities of Metivta were unable to support the national ambitions of the program.”

Metivta, which means “spiritual academy” in Aramaic, was an offshoot of teaching programs Omer-Man led at Hillels in Los Angeles. Omer-Man retired from the organization after suffering two heart attacks and now lives in Berkeley with his wife Nan Geffen, a founder of Tikkun magazine. Shapiro was brought in as Omer-Man’s successor.

The closing of Metivta is not expected to affect the Spirituality Institute, where rabbis from different denominations explore spiritual traditions they may not have been taught in rabbinical school.

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