You’ve probably never heard of the Ideal Hotel, a small two-story building just a block from Horton Plaza. A designated Historical Resource site, it first opened for business in 1913, anticipating the upcoming California-Panama Exposition in newly built Balboa Park that was sure to bring thousands of visitors to downtown San Diego.
The building’s colorful multicultural past includes Chinese and black owners and residents. At various times it housed billiard halls, Chinese restaurants and the Harlem Locker Club, where World War II Navy men could store their civvies while on shore leave.
Today, it’s home to the Red Lotus Society, a nonprofit educational organization promoting peace through meditation. At the end of 2007, the Society took over the vacant hotel, which was slated for condemnation, and began bringing it back to life, hoping to continue and expand its multicultural legacy.
Over the past two years, this all-volunteer group has amassed more than 100 helpers, and together they’ve spent an estimated 40,000 hours turning a wreck into a marvel of restoration. There’s now a large studio for meditation classes, another space for community gatherings and 16 rooms for staff and long-term residents upstairs. The décor is vaguely Eastern but eclectic: it may be the only place you’ll ever see a Buddha smiling down at a pool table — a reminder of the hotel’s billiard-hall past.
The Society’s mission is to provide an environment for teaching meditation and mindfulness practice in everyday life and to create a community center that welcomes people from all cultural traditions and spiritual practices — including, of course, Jews.
“We want to have something that’s as open and flexible as possible, without the rigidity of a narrow institutional path,” says Dave Macek, who recently took over the post of executive director just short of completing his master’s degree in public health. He was drawn to the Ideal’s goal of encouraging closer connections among diverse people by teaching and sharing a variety of meditation techniques.
Is there such a thing as a Jewish meditation tradition?
Absolutely, according to Rabbi Wayne Dosick, author of “Living Judaism” and “The 20-minute Kabbalah” and spiritual leader of the Elijah Minyan, which has been holding services in members’ homes for the last 18 years.
“There’s a long tradition of Jewish meditation,” Rabbi Dosick says, “but like all wisdom and mystery schools, it was generally restricted to those in the know.”
He mentions the work of the late Aryeh Kaplan, a Bronx-born Orthodox rabbi, physicist and Kabbalist who wrote about the ancient use of mantras and visualization, suggesting meditation techniques were practiced by patriarchs and prophets to reach higher realms but were considered too esoteric and dangerous to teach to the masses.
So the writings of rabbis and scholars — like 13th century Abraham Abulafia, founder of prophetic Kabbalism, and the 18th century Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, and his grandson, Nachman of Breslau, who encouraged Chassidim to search for their inner tzaddik (righteous person) — were largely suppressed.
In our more egalitarian times, Jewish meditation is no longer restricted but still not widely known. Most of us aren’t aware that it isn’t necessary to go out of our own traditions to find a practice that quiets the mind and soothes the soul.
“The whole point of meditation is to find a quiet place within yourself so you can connect and communicate with God, so we use the words and forms of Jewish prayer as a framework to create a personal relationship,” Rabbi Dosick says. “Moses did it when he saw the burning bush and stood in silence before it. The key is not only talking to God, but listening when God talks to us.”
Jeff Zlotnick, Director of the San Diego Meditation Initiative, has a somewhat different approach.
“The goal is just to get people to sit and breathe, to get peaceful and to be able to carry that peace back into their lives,” he says. “You don’t have to be a ‘spiritual’ person. Anyone can do it.”
Which brings us back to the Ideal Hotel.
On Sunday, May 23, The Red Lotus Society will offer their Second Annual Sit-A-Thon, a day-long meditation retreat for peace that brings together teachers from eight different meditation traditions, each presenting a one-hour session. Each session will include a brief introduction, a 30-minute guided meditation and time for questions. Representatives will be present from Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Sufi, Zen and Native American traditions, and Dr. Burt Bialik, a North County psychotherapist and member of the Elijah Minyan, will lead the Jewish session.
Dr. Bialik, who has been teaching Jewish meditation for more than 20 years, uses chanting to focus the mind and open the heart.
“In Buddhism and Hinduism, you have a mantra,” he says. “In Judaism, you have a mishna, which means the same thing: repetition. I sing lines from Jewish prayers and have everyone join me. The idea is to deepen our connection to God, ourselves and the world.”
Dr. Bialik, who has studied Buddhist and Sufi teachings, maintains his connection to the roots of his “tribe.”
“In Judaism, we have a twofold purpose,” he says. “tikkun hanefesh — healing the soul — and tikkun olam — healing the world. This is what I try to do, and I love it!”
All Sit-A-Thon sessions are free and open to the public, though donations are welcome. Attendees interested in Jewish meditation can spice up the day by attending other sessions, experiencing for the differences and similarities. It’s all in the cause of peace.
And for those who enjoy the experience, it doesn’t have to be a one-time thing.
Dr. Bialik leads monthly programs, and Jeff Zlotnick offers hour-long meditations at Jewish Family Service and half-hour meditations before Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel and Temple Emanu-El.
Why not start out right now by softly chanting shalom?
As Rabbi Dosick says, “Shalom also means whole, complete and it includes the universal sound found in home, om, mom… even dot.com!”
Shalom, everyone. See you at the Sit-A-Thon.
Where to find Jewish meditation:
Burt Bialik will lead a one-hour session at 9:15 a.m. at the Sit-A-Thon, Sunday, May 23, at Ideal Hotel, 540 Third Ave. (619) 246-1407, www.redlotussociety.org. For information on monthly meditations, contact Dr. Bialik at (760) 435-9355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Zlotnick leads mindfulness meditations around the county:
Alternate Sundays, 10 a.m., at Jewish Family Service, 8804 Balboa Ave. (858) 637-3070, www.jfssd.org. Alternate Fridays, 5:15 p.m. at Temple Emanu-El, 6299 Capri Dr. (619) 286-2555, www.templeemanuelsd.org. Alternate Fridays, 7 p.m. at Congregation Beth Israel, 9001 Towne Centre Dr. (858) 535-1111, www.cbisd.org. For additional locations, contact Zlotnick at email@example.com.