Dov Ber looked to East for inspiration

RABBI Dov Ber Bradley Cohen was brought up in what he still calls "a very beautiful, traditional" Reform home in London to South African-born parents.

But as much as he enjoyed the festivals and mixed with Jewish friends, his religion did not seem to offer him "a viable spiritual path".

So after studying philosophy at Manchester University, Dov Ber did what many other Jewish youngsters have done since the Hippy 1960s - he travelled widely in the East to gain wisdom at the feet of Buddhist masters.

Now newly-qualified as a rabbi and living in Jerusalem, he combines the wisdom of the East with that of Judaism and sends young Jews on social welfare programmes in poor countries to help those in need.

"I had a wonderful childhood," he said. "I grew up in a very traditional Reform background and had a strong Jewish identity. My Jewish identity was cultural.

"I enjoyed the festivals. Most of my friends were Jewish. I learned Torah stories, but the spiritual realisation wasn't there. Nobody ever talked about God.

"I went to Manchester University and was a music DJ, doing a warm-up act at Cambridge University's end of term ball for Judge Jules, who was then very popular.

"I engaged in the extracurricular activities that go along with being a DJ, none of them very healthy. My friends were going into jobs they didn't like very much, working 50 weeks a year for a two-week holiday in Eilat. It was not very healthy.

"Life in England seemed dead. I came home, put food in the microwave and turned on the TV.

"I decided that once I had finished studying philosophy in Manchester, I was going to search for the truth. I was looking for a viable spiritual path, which I never thought Judaism was."

Dov Ber began his spiritual search by watching martial arts films like The Karate Kid and Seven Years in Tibet, and decided, like the author of the latter, to take seven years seeking Eastern wisdom. His first stop was Sri Lanka.

Dov Ber said: "I went to a place with no running water and electricity for an hour a day. People washed and beat their clothes on a rock. They had never seen an English man before."

He taught in an orphanage where the children ate one bowl of rice and vegetables a day.

He said: "They were such beautiful children. Once you have something, you have to give. The key to happiness is sharing. I worked in India with kids with polio."

Dov Ber spent a lot of time in temples, absorbing Buddhist wisdom. In Thailand, he went on a 10-day silent retreat in a meditation cell with a wooden bed and wooden pillow, getting up at 4am and having one meal a day, with no reading or writing.

He said: "I just had to be with my mind. It was quite scary, but very powerful."

On other occasions he fasted for seven days and endured physical torture.

He went on to teach Buddhism in English at a Thai university.

In a small island off Korea for a year, Dov Ber trained in taekwondo, gaining a black belt.

But he still made a Pesach meal for one other Jew on the island. His Jewish soul was still there, hiding under his new-found Buddhist beliefs.

From India, Dov Ber flew to South Africa for a wedding. It was there that he met Rabbi Mordechai Nissim with whom he talked for hours.

This made him realise that Judaism did contain spiritual truths.

But he returned to his Eastern search, this time in Nepal - armed with Jewish books.

But he was beginning to realise that he was not really finding truth in any of these Far Eastern places.

Back in London, he met up with Manchester-born Rabbi Daniel Rowe, who also made an impression on him.

The next step was Jerusalem for a three-week Aish course.

He was impressed, but suspected that he was being brainwashed. So he went to Africa, where his sister, Dr Danielle Cohen, was working with children with infectious diseases in Malawi.

He helped out in a children's home there for two months and then returned to Israel.

He said: "I decided that if it was brainwashing, it was really good brainwashing. I couldn't stop learning. I had a whole different view of what Judaism was."

But the martial arts master couldn't stay still for long and he sought further physical activity.

Applying for a bike ride in Cambodia, Dov Ber realised that three quarters of sponsorship money went on expenses.

So he devised an Aish All for the Kids walk of 950km from the Lebanese border to Eilat.

Proceeds were divided between children's homes in Israel and Malawi.

Dov Ber said: "Jews need to be a light unto the nations. Christians are doing a great job in Malawi. But where was our presence?

"It often seems that Jewish organisations are focused only on helping Jewish people or just non-Jews. I decided that my organisation would help everyone."

Dov Ber now runs Justifi, Jewish Social Justice Trips for Jewish Students and Young Professionals.

"Around 60,000 Israeli backpackers go to India every year after the army," he explained.

"They need to explode after army service. But they cause a big cultural problem. They go to small villages where they play loud music.

"Many villages don't accept Israelis. Hundreds of Israelis need treatment for drugs. These Israelis are going to the East to look for spiritual wisdom. Now I get Israeli backpackers to volunteer to use their own skills for the Third World."

Justifi's next trips are to prevent human trafficking in Thailand and to save the forests in Nicaragua.

Dov Ber also holds body, mind and soul master classes which combine Jewish and Eastern wisdom.

He says: "The way Judaism is presented is often rubbish. People are looking for oneness, compassion, love.

"You have to dig deeper into Judaism, not just on the surface. There is a path of personal realisation and growth and spiritual understanding in Judaism."

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph