NEW YORK – Each morning, as Rabbi Burt Siegel winds the soft leather straps of the tefillin around his arm, he marvels at how perfectly comfortable and at peace he feels.
What’s surprising is that Siegel is a Reform rabbi who never prayed with the phylacteries donned by Orthodox Jews. That is, until a year ago.
“It was a powerful experience,” the 76-year-old rabbi said. “It was like bolts of electricity were going through me. It was one of these ‘Yes, now I know’ kinds of experiences.”
Now he knows. In many ways those three words are like the “You Are Here” notation on a department store directory. Although instead of shopping for clothes and furnishings, Siegel has spent the better part of seven decades searching for spirituality.
Siegel is the adored Rabbi Emeritus of The Shul of New York, a Reform congregation in Manhattan’s Lower East Side he founded 14 years ago. But he recently started praying with Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement. It’s a sign of how far he’s come on his quest to live a more full-bodied Jewish life — a trek that includes stops at rabbinical school in Cincinnati, ashrams in India and two yeshivas in Jerusalem.
Recently back from spending more than two months in Israel studying Torah, Siegel sat down with The Times of Israel to talk about his journey. What has remained constant, however, is that Siegel still calls himself a rabbi, and has kept one foot in the Reform world. He remains close to congregants in his shul and has warm feelings towards non-halachic Judaism even if he has now become more observant.
His eclectic acceptance is reflected in Siegel’s cozy walk-up apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which has photos of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menacham Mendel Schneerson alongside photos of Indian deities. His extensive library is a place where Shel Silverstein’s “Falling Up” shares shelf space with Hasidic texts. Joyful about his voyage to self-discovery, he passes no judgment on the way others practice the faith.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Siegel was the son of immigrants. His mother came to the United States from Poland, his father from Lithuania. They read Yiddish papers and listened to Yiddish radio; his first language was Yiddish. Siegel remembers his childhood home being very Jewish, but not very religious. Indeed, he didn’t first step inside a synagogue until he was six years old. It was Yom Kippur and his father decided the two would go to services.
Not five minutes into the service, Siegel had an epiphany. “I wanted to be a rabbi. I just knew it then and I have never deviated from that path,” he said.
And while some children play school or house, he played synagogue.
“I was about seven, my brother was five and my sister was four. I remember making them sit down and play shul. They were my congregation and I would take a bed sheet and make it my tallit. I’d make up words, and pretend I was speaking Hebrew,” Siegel recalled.
Soon he started attending Hebrew school where he learned the language. Siegel remembers the teachers as being socialist Zionists.
Some children play school or house, Siegel played synagogue
“It was the late 1950s and Israel was talked about a lot. Making aliyah was encouraged,” he said.
Although Siegel wasn’t keen on moving to Israel, he has fond recollections of attending Jewish summer camp where he said the idea was for campers and counselors to live like they were on a kibbutz.
Siegel graduated from the University of Wisconsin where he majored in Jewish Studies. He joined Hillel to meet other Jewish students and occasionally led services.
“I was leading services, but it wasn’t penetrating in as a deep spiritual truth. I was looking for what it meant to really love God and it just wasn’t doing it justice,” he said.
After graduation he enrolled in rabbinical school. There he hoped to find the meaning he craved.
‘I wasn’t Orthodox. I wasn’t Conservative. I figured I must be Reform’
“I wasn’t Orthodox. I wasn’t Conservative. I figured I must be Reform, so I went to Hebrew Union College,” he said. “I thought I would finally find the spirituality I was looking for. It was an academic institution though. I studied the Bible as a historical book. But there was no sense of spirituality whatsoever.”
Even so, Siegel stayed the course. Abandoning his dream to become a rabbi was never an option.
At the age of 27, Siegel accepted a position as an assistant rabbi in Riverdale in New York’s borough of the Bronx. A year later the senior rabbi left and he found himself leading a congregation of thousands.
“I was terrified. The synagogue looked and looked for a rabbi and after five years they asked if I would take on the position of senior rabbi,” he said.
Ten years later Siegel decided to live and work in Manhattan. After several years of working as a sort of freelance rabbi — he officiated at weddings, filled in for vacationing rabbis and tutored in Hebrew — he landed at the Village Temple in Greenwich Village.
He enjoyed his congregation; he enjoyed leading services. But he still hadn’t found what he was looking for: a deeper meaning to it all.
In another eureka moment he decided to start his own synagogue.
“I thought I’d start a new synagogue and call it The Shul of New York, The Synagogue for Spirituality,” he said, taking a sip of Perrier. “I had a feeling, a hope and an aspiration that it would allow me to be the spiritual person I wanted to be. I thought by starting a synagogue it would somehow automatically come.”
He started it, but again, he didn’t find the connection he wanted.
Still Siegel plugged ahead. He studied the Buddhist thinkers. He read texts about the Dali Lama. He started going to India.
“I figured people have been going there for hundreds of years to get enlightened,” Siegel said. “I started exploring Hinduism. I went to ashrams. I went to gurus and yogis. It was interesting; it was valuable. But it didn’t work. I started wondering what was wrong with me. So thought that if I just keep going back it will happen.”
Finally, on his 13th visit to India it did happen. Just not in the way Siegel, by now in his late 60s, thought it would happen.
‘I heard a deep voice within myself, a sort of realization’
Siegel said he remembers telling himself he would never, under any circumstances, again step foot in India unless – and it was a big unless – he found enlightenment.
“Then a voice came,” Siegel said, sitting up straight in his armchair. “Don’t worry, I don’t have auditory hallucinations. I mean that I heard a deep voice within myself, a sort of realization. It said. ‘What are you doing here? You’re Jewish. You have to go to Jerusalem. You have to go to yeshiva and you’ll find what you’re looking for there.’”
And so he went to Jerusalem and found what he was looking for at the Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo, started by a disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
That was about four years ago. Since then he’s returned to Jerusalem once a year to study. He started keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and wearing a kippa.
About a year ago Siegel had another of what he calls an “unexpected experience.” This time he felt an urge to go to Chabad. He was shocked that he’d even had the thought.
“I’m going to be honest with you, I didn’t like Chabad. I felt that Hasidim were weird. I remember crossing the street to avoid the boys who were putting tefillin on people. I know some people think Chabad is a cult and I half believed it,” Siegel said.
‘I’m going to be honest with you, I didn’t like Chabad’
In spite of his misgivings Siegel decided he’d go to a Shabbat service at the Chabad of the Upper East Side. He was transfixed.
“There was something about the enthusiasm, the sincerity that I’d never seen before. I felt finally, after all this time, here was the genuine, true Jewish spirituality I’d been looking for,” he said, a broad grin spreading across his face.
Now he goes every morning to lead services, and wearing tefillin has become second nature. Indeed, Siegel said he feels more tethered to Judaism now that he’s started wearing it.
Afterwards he stays and studies Talmud and other religious texts with Chabad rabbinical students. The twentysomethings may be young enough to be his grandsons, but Siegel fits right in.
“I’m spiritually home now,” he said. “My Jewish soul has found its place.”