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Lost and Found

Drawing upon his journey from Dharamshala to Kiryat Sefer, popular educator Rabbi Yitzchak Fanger has a message about life’s meaning that speaks to a new generation of searchers

 


Photos: Elchanan Kotler

Forbidding white peaks frame dense green forests that give way to a bustling town in the Himalayan foothills. The narrow streets of Dharamshala throng with close-cropped monks in maroon robes. Curious backpackers turn prayer wheels and take in the religious imagery. They’re drawn to this ancient pilgrimage place in northern India by its most famous resident, the Dalai Lama.

Arriving one day in the early 1990’s is a familiar type: A young secular Israeli, on a rite-of-passage journey to the Far East, eager to relax after the close confines of a tank and the stress of life in a small country. Scarred by a close friend’s death in combat, Yitzchak Fanger has also come to search for enlightenment. The Herzliya surfer and psychology major becomes a Buddhist monk.

But midway through a six-month vow of silence, a series of encounters exposes this secular Israeli to a visceral connection to a Jewish identity that he’s never known. Shaken to the core, he exchanges the Ganges for Kiryat Sefer, his ashram for the beis medrash.

Today Rabbi Yitzchak Fanger is almost a household name — his face gracing ads for outreach seminars that pop up in mailboxes all over the country. His unique blend of psychology, self-awareness, and Torah — plus a showman’s sense of delivery — have given him massive reach across digital media, radio, and as a lecturer.

And while he may have left the Far East, Rabbi Fanger uses meditation to connect with his new spiritual world. Having gone soul-searching in Dharamshala only to discover something better back home, he’s focused on helping others reach the same conclusion — minus the airfare to India.

“Around the time of my bar mitzvah,” says Rabbi Yitzchak Fanger, “my mother predicted, ‘He’s going to become a chozer b’teshuvah.’”

There was no hint of satisfaction in that statement. The Fangers were the 1970s Israel’s equivalent of WASPs — well-to-do, Herzliya-dwelling secular Ashkenazim, very happy with that status, thank you. Yitzchak grew up with all the advantages this offered: windsurfing on Herzliya’s golden beaches, competing in triathlon tournaments — a life of ease in a hardscrabble young country.

But while Yitzchak’s parents were determined to provide him with everything that a good Israeli required, they were equally determined not to provide him with a Jewish education. Like many of his peers, he grew up without even knowing the significance of Shema. “I thought that kosher was something only poor people ate,” recalls Rabbi Fanger.

His first exposure to Judaism came as his bar mitzvah approached. As the eldest grandchild in the Fanger clan, his secular grandfather, originally from Kovno, Lithuania, insisted that he continue the family traditions and learn three things: to speak Yiddish, to play chess, and to read the haftarah. With Yitzchak having discharged the duty to family tradition, the rest of the Fanger siblings were exempt. But in Yitzchak’s case, while Yiddish and chess stayed with him, his Torah reading skills proved life changing.

That was all in the future. At the time of his bar mitzvah, there was only a slight indication of what he was made of — and only to a worried mother’s eagle eye.

“For my lessons I went to Rav Tuvyah — I don’t remember his surname,” says Rabbi Fanger. “He gave me a Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. Although I don’t recall this, my mother saw me put it under the pillow when I went to sleep. That’s when she said that I’d become a baal teshuvah.”

It’s a touching testament to the lasting impression a good teacher can make on a young person, but at the time Yitzchak quickly moved on.

 

His story really began in the army, the one experience that makes Israelis fundamentally unlike their Western peers. “I was a commander of a tank in constant combat both in Lebanon and during the first intifada in Gaza,” says Rabbi Fanger. “If you take a 19-year-old guy and put him through that, it adds ten years to your age.”

The traumas of that experience are deep-seated. “Even today my children know not to suddenly bang a door open when I’m sleeping, because I’ll wake up and reach for my gun,” he says.

But the turning point came one day in Lebanon. Fanger’s tank was ambushed, and the gunner, who was a close friend, was hit while he was exposed outside the armor plating. Rabbi Fanger’s animated speech slows as he recalls: “He fell on me, and his last words were ‘Fanger, live for me.’ Then he died.”

The common factor in most teshuvah stories is an openness to hearing life’s deeper messages. That seriousness was something the young soldier possessed.

“From that moment, my life changed,” says Rabbi Fanger quietly. “At 19 years old, he’d missed out on life. That’s what I felt then. I decided it was my responsibility to make the most of my life — even though I didn’t know what that meant.”

The mental scars of that battle accompanied Yitzchak out of the army, and his decision to study psychology was a consequence. “I went to Israel’s Open University and then went on to study alternative medicine,” says Rabbi Fanger. “I felt helpless and wanted to help other people, but I didn’t connect to regular medicine. It seemed too mechanical.” But the orientation of Yitzchak’s studies was clearly part of something deeper as well: “I wanted spirituality, but not religion. Especially not Judaism.”

If Israelis in general are drawn to the East, it’s even truer of those searching for meaning they’ve not discovered back home. When an exponent of Reiki, a form of energy healing originating in Japan, came to Israel in 1993, Yitzchak was intrigued. “Reiki is real,” Rabbi Fanger says. “It can cure pain. The teacher told me, ‘Fanger, you have a gift to transfer energy. You can become a master.’ ”

Becoming a Reiki master — and with it the ability to teach others — was something that appealed to Yitzchak. Having studied the first two out of three levels of Reiki in Israel, the next stage was studying abroad. He followed the guru around Europe and upstate New York, but then his ambition made him want more.

“I’m extreme, and I wanted to be the best teacher,” says Rabbi Fanger. “For that you need to go to the Buddhist centers of the Far East. Japan was expensive, Tibet was dangerous, so I found myself in India.”

Today’s Dharamshala, a town of 50,000 in northern India, is a major tourist destination and has become very Westernized. “When I was there it was authentic,” says Rabbi Fanger. “There were real people who worked on themselves — eating one meal a day, sleeping without a mattress or pillow, and waking up at four-thirty each day. For me, it was eye-opening.”

Self-discipline and the spirituality that comes from disconnecting from the material drew him in. But in retrospect, there was more to his interest in Dharamshala. “A Jewish person has a soul that wants something else. I wanted spirituality, but the last place I would have looked for it was in Judaism. I thought all rabbis want is money, but there I found real people — uninterested in material things.”

He began studying Buddhism under the Dalai Lama, together with Tibetan monks and assorted Western celebrities. “He was less famous and more available then,” says Rabbi Fanger, “and I found him to be very wise and gentle.”

In the same way as Napoleon-and-the-Jews stories are a dime a dozen, there seem to be many encounters between the Dalai Lama and spiritually-searching Israelis. Would the Dalai Lama have told an Israeli to go home and study his own wisdom, as a famous story asserts? Rabbi Fanger laughs. “I don’t believe he would tell anyone to go home and not study Buddhism, because they believe there is no contradiction between their teachings and other faiths.”

In those early days of Buddhist devotion, there was only one incident that disturbed him. “The Dalai Lama had just finished lecturing about reincarnation — I have to honor you because you may be my father or mother. We were three hundred monks and coming towards us down the mountain path were two motorcyclists. Trying to avoid the group, they drove off the cliff. I thought the monks would shout ‘Mama!’ and go to help. But no one did — only two Israelis who were passing by. The monks hadn’t internalized what they’d just learned,” concludes Rabbi Fanger.

The Himalayan winter arrived in Dharamshala, and with it, heavy snow. Yitzchak’s mentor advised him to travel to another famous Indian spiritual center called Rishikesh to practice silence and yoga. “Buddhists believe that to heal others you need energy, but you can feel that even by listening you lose energy. So I was told to go and practice silence for six months straight.”

He said goodbye to Dharamshala, called his parents back in Israel, and told them he was going to be silent for half a year. Ever happy to encourage their firstborn in his self-development, their response was: “Amazing — don’t give up.”

Home was a monastery of 15 people in the jungle, next to Rishikesh and near the Ganges River. It was the perfect location for a vow of silence. There was no electricity, so everyone woke up early and went to bed at dark. The monks ate the vegetables they planted and drank water from the river. They read and wrote. But for much of the day, they meditated.

“Meditation is concentration and involves controlling one’s thoughts, being aware of what’s happening in your mind without being drawn in,” explains Rabbi Fanger. “A person who can do this is the happiest person on earth, because your thoughts determine your mood, and everything flows from there.”

Yoga, which he’d practiced in Israel, had already taught him how to meditate for long periods. To demonstrate, Rabbi Fanger closes his eyes, straightens his back, and slows his breathing. Having done this thousands of times, it’s like watching a master craftsman handle his tools. “I try to meditate each day; to clear my mind and concentrate on what I’m learning or my connection with Hashem,” he says.

But after three and a half months of total silence, things began to get very difficult. “I felt like I had a volcano inside. I wanted to shake the Indians and shout.” And then something strange happened. “One day when I was swimming alone in the river, a tributary of the Ganges, I decided I just had to break my silence. You don’t choose what you will say — it just bursts out.

“Like a machine gun, I yelled out the verses of my bar mitzvah haftarah together with the ta’amim. I felt crazy. What happened to me? Why of all things did this come out? I told myself, ‘Maybe you miss Israel. It’s nothing about religion.’ ”

The second shock to his hardened secularism came three days later. “I was practicing meditation at night in my jungle hut. All the monks went to sleep early, but I love the night, so I was still meditating by candlelight. When I finished I put out the light, but then I had a weird feeling that someone was there in the room. In combat you develop a sixth sense, so I lit the candle again and looked around.”

He couldn’t see anything. Still, the strange feeling wouldn’t go, so he decided to sleep elsewhere. When he lifted his pillow, a deadly yellow scorpion fell to the floor. “If I would have put my head down on the pillow, I would have died,” says Rabbi Fanger. “For the first time I felt someone watching over me. I had no other explanation for how I had that early warning.”

Two days later came the last stage in his odyssey. “I was supposed to start the half-year silence again, and we were waiting for a delivery of things from Rishikesh.” He’d run out of candles. Rummaging around in his bag, he found a Shabbos candle that he’d received from Chabad in Ben Gurion airport on the way out of Israel almost a year before.

With the candle came a card with some prayers written on it. “I thought to myself, ‘Fanger, why not try these words as a mantra?’ I looked at the headline — that was big — Shema. I concentrated on the words, and my body started to shake. I got goosebumps all over. I couldn’t understand why I reacted like this. No meditation ever made me feel like this. I knew I’d found a nuclear bomb, and I wanted to know what it was.”

 

Before the day had begun, the shaken Israeli had left his monastery, forever. “I took a donkey and didn’t even say goodbye.” With a flash of his smile Rabbi Fanger quips, “They probably still have a sign there — Missing: Israeli.”

Flying home to Herzliya, Yitzchak didn’t have to travel far to continue his search. In front of his building there was a big sign from an organization called Arachim advertising a free class on life after death. His curiosity piqued because of his involvement with Eastern teachings, he went and sat in the front row.

Rabbi Moshe Braverman (now a neighbor in Kiryat Sefer) kept focusing on Yitzchak, asking “Do you understand?” At the end, the former Buddhist raised his hand and challenged the lecturer: “All religions say they have the truth. How do I know Judaism is the one?”

The lecturer was unfazed. He answered that the best way to answer was a four-day Arachim seminar. “I didn’t think it would change my life, although I was prepared to do so if what he said was true. I thought I was university-trained, and I would prove them all wrong. Anyway, it was free.”

He spent a long, intense weekend in the hotel with Arachim. By the end of the seminar, he was convinced he had to change. “I had always been sure that life wasn’t a game. I came from a world of discipline, from yoga and the triathlon — so I was prepared to follow through. I got up there on stage and told everyone I now believed that G-d exists and that He gave the Torah.”

His parents, who hadn’t batted an eyelash at his Buddhism and six-month silence, couldn’t cope with his new path. “My parents cried. My mother said, ‘Successful people don’t become baalei teshuvah.’ It took a few years — and the arrival of grandchildren and nachas — to reconcile the Fangers to their son’s choice. By the time son number two followed his elder sibling into the teshuvah world, there was nary a protest.

Devastated she may have been at the time, but Mama Fanger knew a business prospect when she saw one. “Rumor spread that here in Israel was a Reiki master, a student of the Dalai Lama,” says Rabbi Fanger. “I started to do two-day courses, for a minimum of 15 people and charging $300 per person. My mother was my secretary, and one day she looked at the bookings, full for months ahead, and exclaimed, “Itzik, you’re a millionaire!”

But the sunlit uplands which his mother had envisioned never materialized. One day two religious women came to his course in Tel Aviv from Bnei Brak. One woman asked, “Is Reiki kosher?”

“I was only lightly religious then,” says Rabbi Fanger. “I was just learning the contents of the siddur, so I didn’t understand the question. You don’t eat Reiki. How could it be non-kosher?”

But they said that to start a religious group, he’d have to get a rabbi’s approval. The two introduced Yitzchak Fanger to Rav Zilberstein, a leading posek in Bnei Brak and Rav Elyashiv’s son-in-law, who questioned him closely about Reiki practices. After a few minutes he gave his decision: “It’s kishuf.”

“I was devastated — my whole world had gone,” says Rabbi Fanger. “Not just my life until then, but my mission. It was like a glass building collapsed. I went home and cried.”

But the new baal teshuvah wasn’t finished. “I said to Hashem, ‘I know you don’t give me something too hard to handle. I’m not asking for money or honor, only that You don’t leave me.’ ”

Rabbi Fanger smiles, but there’s a serious look in his eye as he says: “I told my mother to cancel everything — and then it was like World War III. She went crazy.”

For the first time in his life, the Fanger firstborn was at a loose end. Someone advised him to talk to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who told him: “Go to yeshivah.” He went to the Israeli branch of Ohr Samayach.

Bringing his normal intensity to his new life, Yitzchak did well in his learning. After nine months there, he was introduced to his wife, a religious Israeli with experience of life in South Africa and Canada.

The new Mrs. Fanger knew what she wanted from her husband. “She wanted me to be an avreich. So for 14 years I did nothing but learn, in Ofakim and then in Kiryat Sefer, while she supported the family.”

 

Looking at today’s long-jacketed Rabbi Fanger, it’s difficult to envision him in the flowing robes of his Buddhist past. It’s equally hard to guess that this man is a Jewish education star, reaching tens of thousands of people every day through lectures and TV, radio and digital media.

I first see Rabbi Fanger in action in a setting that highlights both his skills and the challenges facing today’s kiruv world.

Speaking in front of an audience of about 50 in central Tel Aviv, he captivates with his story and his quick humor — even though English is a second language (not counting childhood Yiddish). But what’s interesting are the questions that follow.

A Turkish 20-something challenges him. “Your story is very interesting, but can you explain to me why you thought that after Buddhism, Judaism was the next step — why not Christianity or Islam?”

Rabbi Fanger’s response is a passionate and fluent analysis of how other religions draw on Judaism — all very well-known outreach seminar material. What’s clear as the young man walks away is that while it’s been an interesting discussion, he’s not about to reach for a pair of tzitzis.

But an intriguing middle-aged couple who have joined the lecture are the other side of the coin. They have a mixed marriage, in the best possible sense. She is a full baalas teshuvah who appreciates Rabbi Fanger’s lecture. Her husband is bare-headed — a still-secular Israeli. Their three teenage children range from secular to religious. As a touching birthday gift to their wife and mother, the family has taken her to a Tel Aviv shul to hear someone who inspires her.

These two encounters are a snapshot of what’s happening today in Israel: classic outreach isn’t working, but people are changing organically. Yesterday’s divisions are being erased; the lines are more blurred than they used to be.

That new reality is something Rabbi Fanger caught onto after finishing his years of full-time learning. He started to share his story through Arachim, the organization where he’d taken his own first steps, and realized that most people weren’t going to undergo an epiphany like his own. “Proving the existence of Hashem doesn’t change people nowadays,” he says. “With the rise of the Internet, people are used to exploring options. When I studied psychology, one lecturer would speak convincingly about Freud’s psychoanalysis, and an hour later another professor could be speaking about Viktor Frankl’s approach, which is very different. Then I’d say, you know what, those are just different approaches; it’s not black and white. That’s how people see classic kiruv approaches now.”

This means that when change does come, it’s more incremental. “Today people change very slowly. They may start putting on tefillin or keeping Shabbat without wearing a kippah.”

He therefore began to capitalize on his life experiences and his natural showman’s talents. “ ‘Fanger’ is a fisherman in Yiddish,” he says. “Rav Steinman told me once that you have to know how to ‘fish’ souls. My method of fishing is to put jokes on the fishing line.”

Further down the line, comes the substance. “I speak about what we have in common: relationships, anger, raising kids. Today’s secular Israelis relate to that,” he says.

They also relate to some of what he learned in the Far East. “Twelve years ago, when I started to tell my story, people asked, ‘Can’t you convert Reiki into something Jewish people can use?’ Knowing from meditation what the mind can help the body achieve, I started a journey to look for Jewish teachings that can help people to change.”

This thinking crystallized into FHT (the Fanger Healing Technique) — a popular series of books and digital media which combine the halachically-permissible aspects of energy work (minus the Reiki symbology), guided imagery, and personal development.

During a recent speaking tour of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia, Rabbi Fanger spoke about three themes. His personal story was first, because it breaks down the barrier created by his rabbinic appearance. That was followed by themes in personal development. “In the audience were a mixture of Israelis and those married to locals; giving people motivational tools is universal. I had some non-Jews come along because this speaks to everyone.” Having established his “street-cred,” he next spoke on Jewish themes, including the parshah and Elul.

The transformation into master-of-digital-era kiruv was part of the realization that today’s world needs different tools. When we meet, Rabbi Fanger has just finished his morning radio show — Hashraah Yomit (Daily Inspiration) — on Kol Hai, Israel’s leading religious station. Later, he’ll be on Hidabroot TV, a widely watched Israeli cable channel dedicated to Torah classes and outreach. At some stage he’ll be writing or recording videos for his website, many of which are watched by thousands of people. Come evening, he’ll head out to speak to audiences drawn by his combination of Torah, coaching and psychology.

The flood of digital content is pumped out from a tiny basement studio underneath the Fangers’ verandah. The green screen and professional video and sound equipment are squeezed into a few square meters.

“I do daily WhatsApp videos, each a minute and a half for different groups numbering thousands of members,” says Rabbi Fanger.

Our conversation takes place during the final agonies of Israel’s second election — an ugly battle in which the chareidi world of which he’s now part has been vilified. Is Israeli society not too divided to be receptive to a bearded rabbi?

“My opinion is that the split is not as bad as it was even ten years ago,” he says. “Each family has someone who has become a chozer b’teshuvah, or they know someone like that. They might have watched Hidabroot TV or watched lectures on the Internet. So there is a barrier, but I don’t experience a sense of resentment.”

Breaking down that secular-religious barrier is where ordinary religious people can have the greatest effect, he comments, both in Israel and around the world. “We do shabbatons for an Israeli student outreach organization called Nefesh Yehudi,” says Rabbi Fanger. “At the end of the shabbaton, the students point to the Shabbos dinner with frum families as the highlight. Seeing the humanity of a happy wife and kids, dressing up and staying home to eat together is very powerful.”

Reflecting on his Hong Kong trip, Rabbi Yitzchak Fanger says the next frontier is Israelis in the Diaspora. “It’s so important to reach the second generation. They’re so disconnected.”

Happiness, motivation, parshah, meditation, mussar — Rabbi Fanger has many messages and mediums. But they all share one Torah idea in common. Having left behind a lucrative career to follow his faith, this former Buddhist monk says, “I’m a millionaire today, because happiness comes from knowing your purpose in life.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 779)

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