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July 24, 2014 / 26 Tammuz, 5774
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Empowering Jewish Women

Sara Yocheved Rigler

Sara Yocheved Rigler

The day after graduating Brandeis University, Sara Yocheved Rigler joined a Vedanta ashram in the woods of eastern Massachusetts. She would never have guessed that the fifteen years she spent there were going to be stepping stones on her path to becoming a world-renowned writer and lecturer on Jewish topics and the initiator behind three programs designed to impact the lives of Jewish women all over the world.

Life in the Ashram

For Sara Rigler, life in the ashram presented a series of paradoxes that never quite disappeared. While Eastern spirituality and meditation fulfilled a need in her soul, she was uncomfortable with its subtle scorn for the physical world. Meditation, like drugs, provided a spiritual high, but when that high was lost, the demands of physical life barreled in annoyingly leaving her to deal with the accompanying frustration. It seemed that there was no way to reconcile spirituality with physicality. In addition, her need to give, what she calls her “Jewish social activism,” found little way to express itself.

On a trip to India, after nine years in the ashram, at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying, where nuns gave the mortally ill a respectable place to die, she saw selfless giving. This contrasted with life at the ashram where lofty spiritual ideals took precedence over taking care of another’s physical needs. When a fierce winter blizzard hit New England leaving hundreds homeless, Sara longed to offer the ashram’s retreat cottages as temporary shelter. Mataji, the guru, however, refused, saying “housing strangers of questionable spiritual vibrations would damage the rarified atmosphere of the ashram.”

Finally, while she had plenty of scope to exercise her impressive writing and organizational skills as ashram administrator, head of the ashram’s publishing department and personal secretary to the guru, she was expected to squash other aspects of her intellect. Mataji guided her followers by using her intuition and insights she received while meditating. Sara, whose middle-class Jewish upbringing had taught her to revere the intellect and academic achievement, was dubbed the “Question Box” and any questions about Eastern philosophy that she posed to Mataji were derisively tossed aside. The intellect had no place in the ashram; devotees were expected to subjugate themselves entirely to the will of the guru and in this way achieve true spirituality. Mataji went to great lengths to ensure that her disciples learnt to subjugate themselves. After Sara had spent dozens of hours following Mataji’s behest to prepare a book on reincarnation for republication, Mataji claimed she had never asked for that to be done.

Then in 1984, Sara began to find answers to these paradoxes. Since ashram philosophy held that all religions are equally valid paths to the same goal, speakers from various world religions were regularly invited to speak there. The Jewish speaker was always the same Renewal rabbi. That year, however, Rabbi Joseph Polak, an Orthodox rabbi, was invited. After hearing his speech on love of God, Sara Rigler began going to the Polaks’ for Shabbos. At the same time, her 640-page biography on the ashram founder was published. Turmoil is a probably too mild a word to describe the upheaval Sara experienced as Vedanta philosophy crashed into her new-found Jewish knowledge. Concluding that she was suffering from burnout over the publishing of the book, Mataji gave her $2,000 to go anywhere in the world for two months. Sara chose to go to New York to study Jewish mysticism. Here she learnt that God had given the world Torah as an instruction manual. A month later, she was at Neve Yerushalayim, a learning institution for women with little or no Jewish background. Here she learnt that the physical and the spiritual don’t need to be in conflict because the physical world can be elevated to spiritual heights. She learnt that selfless giving isn’t found only in the Home for the Dying. Finally, her intellect was encouraged to probe and ask question after question. One night at the Kotel, Sara Rigler made her choice: “I will live my life the way You want me to.” A year and a half later, she married. Her daughter was born just after her fortieth birthday,birthday, and her son six years later.

True Spiritual Growth

Rebbetzin Rigler is too smart to toss out the baby with the bath water. There’s one lesson she learnt in the ashram that is still her guiding light today. “I learned to be consistently working on myself,” she says. For fifteen years she lived under the tutelage of Mataji who was constantly stirring up inter-personal frictions aimed at making one person jealous of the other. “She called this putting fire under the pot in order to get the impurities to rise to the surface, where they could be skimmed off,” Rebbetzin Rigler says. “She would push us to the edge of the cliff and then push once more.” This approach taught her that whatever challenges are sent one’s way should be used to grow spiritually. “Life isn’t stationary,” she says. “It’s dynamic and we’re meant to be constantly growing spiritually by fixing our middos [character traits].”

With this in mind, Rebbetzin Rigler has created two innovative programs, The Ladder and Kesher Wife, to reach out to women and teach them that challenges are stepping stones and not stumbling blocks.

The Ladder is a teleconference club for single Jewish women aged 23-49. The group meets once a week via a one-hour teleconference that consists of a workshop-style lesson and the assignment of a daily exercise to practice. Participants learn to acquire the traits of gratitude, joy and self-esteem.

“Once a person stops complaining about a challenge and instead thanks Hashem for it, the challenge often disappears. It’s a spiritual principle,” she says, adding the caveat that although a principle isn’t a guarantee, it often works. Turning complaints into gratitude is a four-step process that includes “deculpritizing” the perpetrator. She gives one of the simplest examples: “One woman who had participated in The Ladder was angry when her scheduled appointment at the hairdresser was given over to another client because she was a few minutes late. Instead of letting her resentment build up, she remained calm by using the ‘Four Step Method to Turn Complaints into Gratitude to Hashem.’ She was subsequently given an alternate hairdresser who did a better job than her usual hairdresser.” Overcoming even what appears to be the simplest of challenges inspires personal and spiritual growth, makes a person feel more fulfilled and prepares her for marriage. [For more information on The Ladder, see www.sararigler.com.]

Through Kesher Wife, a three-and-a-half hour workshop that uses scripted drama, guided visualizations, and innovative exercises, a woman learns to foster her spiritual growth, connect with her husband, and rekindle the ardor of her marriage. Rebbetzin Rigler presented the workshop live to over 1,000 women on four continents. Now Jewish E-Books offers the workshop as a computer-based webinar, which she can give from her living room in the Old City of Jerusalem. “Respect,” she says, “is the vital component in any marriage. But a woman can easily lose respect for her husband, either because he did something or didn’t do something else, or because his shirt is pulling open at the buttons from the extra weight he’s gained, or due to a myriad of other reasons.” Rebbetzin Rigler teaches women a variety of practical tools to raise the level of respect and connection in any marriage. BBut she doesn’t stop here. Participants can go on to join The Kesher Wife Club. Women are encouraged to implement the tools they learnt by using downloadable charts to track the exercises, receiving weekly audios and calling in to monthly live teleconferences.

While The Ladder and Kesher Wife actualize the goal of working on oneself that Rebbetzin Rigler initially learnt in the ashram, The Holy Woman Foundation is the answer to her sense of “Jewish social activism.” The foundation provides hot lunches and an afternoon enrichment program for 102 little girls (from first to eighth grade) in Ohr Batya, an elementary school in Jerusalem for girls from impoverished and dysfunctional families. Sara tells of one little girl whose mother became depressed and took to her bed after a fire killed the baby in the family. “Eventually the mother walked out of the home, leaving behind two older brothers and this little girl. Aside from the pasta that her father sometimes boils up, the meals that the Holy Woman Foundation provides for this girl are the only hot meals that she gets.”

Rebbetzin Rigler’s connection to the principal of the school, Rebbetzin Esther Ben Chaim, goes back to the years that she was involved with Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer, the subject of her best-selling book, Holy Woman. As co-founder, president and sole fundraiser of the foundation, Sara is intimately involved in the running of the program: “Eighty percent of your donation goes to the hot lunches that the girls get three times a week. Eighteen percent goes to shoes, glasses and an afternoon program that includes tutoring and, if needed, music or art therapy. Less than two percent goes to overhead,” she says, “because our three-woman staff are all volunteers.”

“I’m a person who is always working on myself,” says Rebbetzin Rigler as our conversation draws to an end. “I try to use whatever is sent my way to grow spiritually.” This personal constant striving is perhaps the secret behind her ability to inspire so many.

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