Shabbat meal at a friend's house changed life for interfaith Akasha

AN extremely moving experience at a Shabbat meal as a teenager was one of the first positive religious ceremonies to which inter-faith minister Rev Akasha Lonsdale-Deighton was exposed.

Rev Lonsdale has just published Do I Kneel or Do I Bow?, which instructs non-Jews what to do when they enter a synagogue and are invited to Jewish homes on Shabbat or festivals or to Jewish celebrations or funerals and shiva houses, as well as similar details about all the major faiths.

Yet she was purposely brought up without religious influences by a passionately agnostic mother.

She told me: "My great grandparents had the terrible experience of losing four children in a week from a fever.

"At the funeral at London's Highgate cemetery, my great grandfather denounced God. This must have influenced my mother.

"Living in Central London I went to St Marylebone School, which was Church of England. But my mother refused to allow me to attend religious education lessons.

"The school did not know what to do with me so they stuck me at the back of Hebrew classes, as there were many Jewish pupils.

"My friends asked me if I was bored but I found it fascinating."

Akasha - she was originally called Perry but later gave herself a Sanskrit name when she embraced Hindu yoga - struck up friendship with a Jewish girl from a family originating from Greece.

She recalls: "She invited me to her home for a Shabbat meal. It was an absolutely wonderful experience.

"They were so warm and welcoming. There was gorgeous food and a freeze-framed moment in the candlelight of the candelabra which was almost mystical."

Brought up by a sometimes-violent single mother, Akasha particularly welcomed the wonderful feeling of family she felt at her Jewish friend's home.

Looking back from her present in-depth knowledge of Judaism, which she gained in her training as an interfaith minister, Akasha now says: "Judaism is a very family-orientated, devout religion which has continued for thousands of years.

"Its ceremonies and rituals are anchor points which deepen the individual's spiritual relationship."

But that Shabbat in her friend's house was not the first time that Akasha, who later trained and practised as a psychotherapist, had felt loved in her troubled childhood.

She recalled: "From the age of four I always knew there was something more than my mother's agnosticism.

"During my very difficult childhood I would sometimes be overwhelmed by love and felt as though I were being cradled by giant wings."

It was these transcendental experiences which led Akasha to embark on her decades-long spiritual quest that led her to become an interfaith minister, appreciating the truth and beauty of all faiths, including Judaism.

Parallel with her spiritual and personal therapeutic development, in order to heal her own childhood wounds so she could help others, Akasha also built herself an extremely successful career.

Her family situation meant she had to leave school early to work, her first job being as a receptionist for a soap manufacturer in Bromley. At the age of 19 she was the Performing Rights Society's youngest licensing officer, entrusted with a lot of responsibility.

She said: "By the age of 25 I knew I wanted a career working with people."

She climbed to the top of the human resources ladder, beginning as a personnel and training officer for Harvey Nichols, then as personnel manager for the Piccadilly branch of Lillywhites and then rising to personnel manager for specialist services at Forte Hotels' head office, while studying psychotherapy and hypnotherapy part-time.

Once qualified, she set up a private psychotherapy practice as well as her own company, Lonsdale Associates, which offered training, counselling, psychotherapy and relaxation cassettes to the corporate world.

She also qualified in therapeutic massage and has volunteered for a mental health charity.

The "light bulb moment" which inspired her along her present interfaith path came at the beginning of the Iraq War.

She recalled: "I was watching a TV programme in which a Dominican priest was discussing why the major faiths were fighting each other.

"In the background was a large banner with the words 'Interfaith Alliance'. They spoke to me."

From 2004, she underwent an intensive two-year training course at the London Interfaith Seminary, after which she was ordained as an interfaith minister. She set up Simply Divine Ceremonies, which offers interfaith religious ceremonies, tailored to individual needs.

She said: "There are humanists and people who have lapsed from their own faith who still want spiritual ceremonies but don't want to go to a holy building."

It was after she published her first book, How to do Life - Powerful Pointers for Powerful Living that Akasha was commissioned by Kuperard to write Do I Kneel or Bow?

Although Akasha's principal Jewish mentor is Reform rabbi Rodney Mariner, her book is sensitively accurate in its description of Orthodox life and customs.

Mindful of the halachic problem of non-Jews drinking unboiled wine, Akasha tells gentiles attending a Shabbat morning synagogue kiddush: "Guests are not required to taste the wine, but some cake or biscuit is eaten before socialising begins."

After removing their money, mobile, pens and other muktzah items before the onset of Shabbat, non-Jewish house guests are advised: "Conversations about movies, world affairs or sports are not generally appropriate to Shabbat, unless your host starts them."

Akasha believes: "Anything which raises awareness of another faith might contribute to breaking down barriers.

"There is such richness in all faiths which share the same core values of being decent human beings.

"We need to understand and respect each other's religions. I dislike the word tolerance because it infers an edgy putting up with something which is probably wrong."

Akasha, who lives in Wiltshire with her second husband, John, because she considers it "very sacred ground", is currently writing her autobiography based on her own and her mother's lives.

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph