After hearing Zev Auerbach a few times on the radio -- introducing himself as an Aventura city commissioner and promising to reveal the wonders of Kabbalah in "29 amazing minutes" -- I was curious. I had no idea what Kabbalah was, except for something about Jews and Madonna. I called Auerbach and arranged to meet him and attend one of his 29-minute sessions at the Hyatt Regency Bonaventure in Weston.
Essentially, it's an ancient esoteric method of interpreting religious texts. But when Auerbach arrived at the hotel lobby a few minutes early, wearing a suit and tie, his explanation was more concise. "It's not a religion," he said. Instead, he believes there are "two energies, positive and negative, in the world. We all have positive energy inside of us."
Auerbach has a day job as executive creative director at Zimmerman Advertising and the part-time political gig in Aventura, in addition to his nonstop effort to market awareness of universal energy to people who need a higher purpose in their lives. Talking to me, hunched over his well-creased slacks on the edge of a couch, smiling and gesticulating in close confidence with a thick head of well-coifed hair, he could have passed for a best-selling preacher, if one with a New York accent.
"We're trying to close the gap between people," he told me. All that positive energy flows through all of us, and we're not really separate at all. "The people here today -- they're not bad people," said Auerbach. "But are they good outside of their comfort zone?"
I told him that the focus on approaching all situations and relationships with clear consciousness and a sense of empathy sounded remarkably similar to basic Buddhist concepts. But there's a lot more to Kabbalah beneath the surface. The practice hinges on the use of the Zohar, a humongous set of dozens of ancient volumes that are used to "decode" the Torah and the Bible. Auerbach was carrying one volume along with him.
Around 50 people, a diverse group that seemed slightly skewed toward middle-aged professionals, filed into a hotel ballroom and sat down at tables of five or six, each helmed by an unpaid "mentor," an advanced Kabbalah student. The event was designed for people with no knowledge of the practice and would culminate in a pitch for the introductory classes. Auerbach was the featured speaker, and he had as much practiced ability at the podium as he had in our private conversation.
The centerpiece of his speech was his own story, built around a family tragedy. When he was younger, he said, "I moved to Miami, wrote a commercial, and became popular," he said. But when his son was born, the child had an "undiagnosable immune disorder." His son had to be kept away from other children, so he didn't learn to speak properly. He didn't develop strength in his thumbs, so he couldn't button his own shirt. Schools wouldn't accept him. This, says Auerbach, is when he wandered in to the Kabbalah Center.
Kabbalah may not be a religion, but in the drive toward a "higher purpose" and the last-minute clarity in a time of crisis that Auerbach recalls are hallmarks of any spiritual epiphany. Most born-again Christians will tell a story of when they hit bottom, then happened upon salvation in strange quarters, just by chance. "I was so desperate, I shut down my ego," said Auerbach. "I knew I was out of control, and I had nobody close. So I made the decision to listen."
He called 2012 "a critical time" for spiritual transformation. "The world is not going to end," he said. "But the Zohar says that around the year 2000, there will be an intensification of both energies, positive and negative." That, he said, would explain the terrible natural disasters we've suffered this year as well as higher highs in science, technology, or other areas.
The Kabbalah teacher who will be opening up classes in an office park in Weston, Yael Yardeni, got up to talk for a while. "This is actually an instruction manual" for life, she said. Yardeni was introduced as being "known around the world for her astrological abilities."
At the end, Auerbach said that "on the way over here, I was thinking: We all have pain. But we don't have to. We can live better lives."
The mentor at my table, Rachel, said she was raised Catholic and went through a tumultuous period in her relationship with her ex-husband and daughter and her work situation. She said she tried meditation but didn't like sitting around thinking about nothing, so she turned to study of the Zohar. Eventually, she married another Kabbalah student.
I noticed a pattern among the others at the table. One couple was talking about scheduling Kabbalah classes around an upcoming surgery. The man to my left, who said that his Orthodox-Jewish upbringing had frowned on any layman trying to interpret holy texts and that he was curious what laid beyond those restrictions, talked about an upcoming "recuperation" with his wife. All around the room, people were sick or frightened or nursing their own private problems, the pain that everybody has to some extent.
I asked Auerbach how he balances the Kabbalah study with his work as a city commissioner. "One of my roles is politician," he said. "I'm totally conscious when I'm in that environment. The entire time, I'm thinking about what's the right energy, what's the right consciousness." That, he says, keeps him from making political decisions out of greed or spite: "Politicians can become a victim of the uncomfortable. If you're not driven by a higher purpose, sooner or later, you're going to succumb to temptation."
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