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Jews and the afterlife: Tapping in to a winning concept
Charlotte Sun
Posted Thursday, Nov 5th, 2009

VENICE -- Reincarnation? Resurrection?

They're concepts usually associated with religions other than Judaism, so when the Chabad of Venice/North Port offered a 6-week seminar entitled SoulQuest that promised to weigh in on those topics, people called, inquired and signed up in unexpected numbers.

So many signed up that Chabad arranged a second session in addition to the one already planned.

Thirty-two people showed up Tuesday at 11 a.m. for the first in a 6-part series on the journey through life, death and beyond as seen from a Jewish perspective.

Another 28 are expected today at 7 p.m.

The course tackles such issues as where our souls have been before we were born and where they will go when our bodies expire, according to Jewish sages.

The series will run for six weeks with classes on Tuesdays at 11 a.m. and Wednesdays at 7 p.m.

"It seems to be a hot topic on the market," said Rivka Schmerling, who presented the class.

Rivka and her husband, Rabbi Sholom Schmerling, run the Chabad Jewish Center in Venice at at 2169 S. Tamiami Trail.

SoulQuest was developed by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based adult education institute that provides teaching in more than 300 cities around the world.

Up to 22,000 people will take the SoulQuest course simultaneously at Jewish centers around the world.

"This is a classic case of the market creating the demand for this course," said institute board chairman Rabbi Yisrael Rice in a Chabad newsletter. "We have received consistent requests from JLI students all over the world to create a course that addresses these issues head-on. Sooner or later, everybody must reckon with questions of their own immortality."

The institute aims to lead students toward fresh thinking about the world, according to its Web site, myJLI.com.

In three words or less, participants at Tuesday's class were encouraged to define the soul.

Answers included the following: Divine intelligence alive; brain controls us; my inner compass; breath of life; and core of being.

But more important were the questions introduced in the class, which included the following: What's the origin of the soul? What extra thing does the human soul have? Where does the soul go when we die?

The questions kept coming, and to most, Rivka responded with: "That will be covered in session 4," or "That will be covered in session 5. If you're asking questions, you know you're on the right track," she said.

So what is the Jewish perspective on resurrection?

A short version came from Dr. Chana Silberstein, director of curriculum at the institute.

"Resurrection is a fundamental Jewish belief," Silberstein said. "Many Jews are unaware. Judaism sees the end of time as a perfected world. But we also believe this life matters -- that it has profound importance and value. The true reward of our good deeds is here, seeing the effects of our good deeds."

What about reincarnation?

Judaism also believes in that.

"It's not that our souls get recycled," Silberstein said. "We are all thrown together as part of one larger root consciousness and when parts of the root soul are unexpressed, they get expressed in some other lifetime. Children take on genetic material. They are not us although they are related to us. Souls continue and build on parts of previous root souls."

Abby Davis attended the class Tuesday, taking time out from her job as community relations manager for Right at Home, an in-home care company in Sarasota.

The class appealed to her and so many others, she said, because we are living in unprecedented times.

"People are feeling disconnected and fearful," she said. "I think that's why so many people are participating. It's a sign we are looking for answers. It's a sign we are searching for peace, answers and comfort. We're all in this together. If I can come from a place of calmness, it can only benefit those I serve."

Dasi Brent of Venice also attended.

"I thought it was amazing," she said. "It makes you feel good. There is hope. Definitely hope."

Shirley Schwartz said the class helped her recognize things she never knew existed.

And Maria Murphy, who attends a Unitarian church, said she planned to support Chabad.

"It's always been on people's minds, where we came from and where we go," Sholom Schmerling said. "It's not something that's taught in schools. In Judaism, those questions are fundamental and the basis of our entire belief."

For information, contact Chabad at 941-493-2770.

E-mail: dsanchez@sun-herald.com

By DANA SANCHEZ

Assistant Englewood Editor

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