Martin Buber’s philosophy and Hasidic spiritual revival, along with my attraction to intensive small group experiences, brought me to rabbinical school. Five years later, as a senior at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, I had my life mapped out: I accepted a Fellowship to the Social Psychology Department at the University of Michigan, along with an appointment to the part-time congregation there. But Richard Levy, an upper-class mentor at HUC, urged me to meet with his senior rabbi, Leonard Beerman, z”l, even though I insisted I was not available to be his next assistant.
Nevertheless, Leonard offered me the job, and then brought me to Los Angeles to meet some members of Leo Baeck Temple, a congregation famous for its social activism and non-theological teachings. Just before I was to return to Cincinnati, having once again declined his offer, Leonard said something like, “When I was beginning my career, I wish I had been able to be with someone who could help me with things like weddings and funerals.” Suddenly feeling how very unprepared I was, I said, “Okay. I’m coming.”
Not everyone was happy with my sudden change of direction, but, months later, when I met with a father and three children who brought with them the suicide note of their 41-year-old wife and mother, I gratefully marched into my senior rabbi’s office and laid out the situation. “What do I do?” I asked. He thought for a moment, then said, “I have no idea. Let me know what you do.”
It took me a long time to get past my sense of betrayal and realize what a gift Leonard had given me. In many ways, that moment pushed me onto my own path, needing to trust my own instincts and access a deeper Wisdom.
Pursuing my interest in small-group process, I became a Sensitivity Group leader. In the context of that intense training, some of the shells around my heart broke open, and things began to change both personally and professionally. Returning from a week at Esalen Institute in December 1969, a rockslide on Highway One shattered my basic sense of reality with what I later learned was called an OOBE, an out-of-body experience. Although it was some time before I would share that with others, I awakened to an identity beyond the limits of my physical self. Because of the profound clarity of that realization, I began learning and practicing meditation, hoping to revisit that sacred space less dramatically. I was no longer the same person who had been hired by Leo Baeck Temple a year and a half earlier, and I declined an offer of a third year.
This time, I followed Richard Levy into the Hillel environment, and at Cal State University, Northridge, I worked with Rabbi Michael Roth, a yeshiva classmate of Shlomo Carlebach, who would become my primary teacher, mentor, and friend, until his death in early 2017.
Because spirituality and meditation had become primary for me, but were not core agendas of synagogue life, I entered a graduate program at the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles, where I could more openly pursue my spiritual and psychological interests. Away from the professional rabbinate, I found a surprisingly natural way of being rabbi, counseling and officiating at life-cycle moments for faculty and fellow students. Since that time, I have focused on sharing the spiritual authenticity at the heart of Jewish tradition, developing a psycho-spiritual approach to Torah. My work has included the founding of two meditative synagogues (Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles in 1978, and Bet Alef in Seattle in 1993); practicing as a therapist and spiritual counselor; becoming, along with Pastor Don Mackenzie and Imam Jamal Rahman, an Interfaith Amigo; and authoring or co-authoring a number of books.
While I retired from congregational life at the end of 2009, I continue to write, do counseling, travel with my Amigos, and work as an independent teacher of a universal spirituality based in Jewish text and tradition, seeking universal teachings from other great spiritual paths in order to support the healing of person and planet that needs to be. I am deeply grateful for the road less traveled on which I have found myself.
Rabbi Ted Falcon is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate at the upcoming 2018 CCAR Convention.