In the rural, laid back Himalayan villages of Dharamkot and Bhagsu, renowned for tarot, reiki, meditation, crystal healing and yoga, are two Chabad houses providing a spiritual Jewish alternative.
The pair of Jewish outreach outposts are a magnet for the 20,000 Jews — mainly Israelis — wishing to experience Kabbalah, Jewish psychology and meditation, or simply enjoy a kosher meal on their travels.
The centers are the brainchild of 47-year-old Rabbi Dror Shaul, who returned to India’s Himalayan hills only a few years after he turned his back on becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk.
Raised in a left wing, secular family in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood, Shaul grew up resenting the ultra-Orthodox protests and their repeated chanting against the opening of cinemas on Shabbat.
After his army service as a paratrooper, Shaul left Israel on a one-way ticket to India. His idea was to travel as far away as he could from both Jerusalem and Judaism in search of the spiritual meaning of life.
“I didn’t know where I was going, for how long, or for what I was looking,” says Shaul. “I felt emptiness in my life because I had tried everything that I was educated to believe brings pleasure and happiness, but had not attained it. I didn’t want to belong to a religion, but I was very spiritual.”
Shaul is a trained Israel and Sinai tour-guide, as well as a medic and survival trainer. He has always enjoyed traveling — before his army service he hiked on his own to Everest Base Camp where he nearly died from altitude sickness. He was saved by two German fellow adventure seekers.
After the army Shaul trekked alone around the Himalayas for three months before arriving in Northern India’s Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama. He was drawn to the meditation retreats and the Sanskrit spiritual texts of Tibetan Buddhism.
During his eight months at a Buddhist monastery, Shaul spent 10 days in silence. The rest of the time he spent practicing meditation and learning.
“For the first time in my life I felt that I had found a system which gives a person the challenge to overcome habits like anger and desire, and enable him to control the mind,” says Shaul.
The teachings also preached separation from one’s family and the worship of idols — principles with which he did not agree. Nonetheless, overall it was the first system that provided answers to many of his numerous questions.
But soon after, a series of personal experiences had a profound effect on Shaul, causing him to question the spiritual journey on which he was heading.
In 1994, after six months learning Sanskrit under his teacher Ruth, a British Jew who lived at the Tibetan monastery in Dharamsala, she asked Shaul to wish her a “Good Shabbos” in Yiddish. Despite his discomfort with a language that to his thinking belonged to the Jewish exile, Shaul felt compelled to oblige.
“Ruth started to cry,” recalls Shaul. “I asked her if everything was okay and with tears she said, ‘A Jew is a Jew.’
“I thought to myself, ‘She is here 25 years, and in spite of her teachings of the Buddhist texts, she says, ‘A Jew is a Jew.’ It made me realize that I can’t deny it and run away from it.”
Not long after, a German classmate spotted Shaul writing in his notebook from right to left. Upon discovering that Shaul was Jewish and Israeli, the classmate said that Judaism and Kabbalah were the deepest spiritual path, and that it was only after struggling with Hebrew that he made the switch to Tibetan Buddhism.
“You are from Jerusalem, you know Hebrew,” the classmate said. “You should go back to Jerusalem and learn Kabbalah there.”
The final turning point for Shaul was a near-death experience, getting lost in the Himalayan jungle after 26 days of solo trekking.
“It was the first time that my ego was broken enough, and I was able to speak to God and to ask for his help,” says Shaul.
Shaul made a commitment that if he survived, he would go to the Western Wall and say thank you to God. Soon after, he spotted smoke in the distance and traced his way to the fire, finding a group of locals who led him out of the jungle.
He immediately caught a 12-hour bus ride to Delhi and boarded the first plane back to Israel.
It was the festival of Shavuot when Shaul arrived at the Western Wall. Thousands of Orthodox men in their white prayer shawls were tightly congregated for the priestly blessing, an impressive sight that touched his heart.
He began to explore Judaism in earnest, albeit with “a lot of [inner] resistance.”
First, Shaul studied Kabbalah, then started to keep Shabbat. He soon became a Hasid of the Bratslov sect. When he learned about the work of the Chabad Hasidim and how he could be an emissary for Jews who had lost their spiritual path, Shaul knew he had found his calling.
In 2000 he returned back to Dharamsala — this time as a Chabad rabbi, to open its first Jewish Himalayan center. Eighteen-and-a-half years later, Shaul, together with his wife and 11 children, are the heartbeat of the Jewish community that now has two Chabad centers and a ritual bath.
It is a far cry from the monastery, which ironically sowed the seeds of his Jewish journey. These days Shaul’s teachings include Jewish psychology, Kabbalistic meditations and a martial art corresponding to the divine energy of the Hebrew letters.
Several years ago Shaul went back to that monastery to visit his Jewish teacher Ruth. For the woman who taught him that “a Jew is a Jew,” he posted a mezuza scroll on her door entrance, which she proudly displayed.
Many Israelis who consider post-army travel a “rite of passage” gravitate to the centers for a taste of spirituality, kosher food, and harmony.
“Inside all the balagan [chaos] and confusion of the Far East, suddenly you find yourself in a quiet place, in a place you feel most complete with yourself,” said one Israeli traveler.
Shaul’s vision is to change the mindset of the younger generations, to help them understand that their identity is a Jewish one, no matter how much they fight it.
“What they are fighting is an external understanding, a wrong view of Judaism — not the real one,” says Shaul. “Real Judaism is being connected to your soul. It is to understand that the wisdom of the Torah is the cure of humankind. This uniqueness is what preserves the purity of the Jewish people.”