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To the Lighthouse

Rabbi Applies Ancient Teaching to Modern Ills

By Jill Yesko | Posted 2/9/2000

On a frigid January afternoon, a dozen men in oversized parkas and layers of sweaters sit slumped into cracked red vinyl chairs in a stuffy room. An unopened bag of pretzels sits on a scratched coffee table. All eyes are cast toward the floor. Nobody speaks—until Rabbi Martin Siegel breaks the silence with a cheery question.

"What are your nicknames today?"

"I'm the Peacemaker," replies a voice from the corner. "I want a decent job."

"You're the Peacemaker, you bring light," Siegel affirms. "You're perfect, man."

The ice is broken, and the men—some homeless, some with substance-abuse problems—chime in with the monikers they've chosen for the day: Red Dog, Joker, the Black Man, the Poet. After several minutes of prompting from Siegel, the conversation turns from monosyllabic answers to a lively conversation about how to politely tell someone he has bad breath.

No conversation topic is too trivial for Siegel. Since last fall, the 67-year-old rabbi has been leading weekly discussion groups at Project Plase, a Charles Village-based nonprofit that offers transitional housing and support services to homeless men and women with HIV/AIDS, addictions, and other problems. Such gatherings are a regular feature of homeless and substance-abuse support services, but Siegel takes a very different approach: His weekly talks are based on the Seven Principles, a system of life study grounded in the Kabala, a 1,000-year-old school of mystical Jewish philosophy.

"When I started this group in November my nickname was 'The Jew.' Now I'm 'The Healer,'" says Siegel, the rabbi emeritus of the Columbia Jewish Congregation in Howard County and chairman of the Institute for Behavioral Health and Spirituality, a 4-year-old group that promotes spiritual healing practices for people suffering from life- threatening diseases.

Kabala study has become more widespread in recent years, popularized by famous adherents such as Madonna and Roseanne. First postulated by rabbis in 11th-century Spain, the Kabala reformulates the story in Genesis in terms of sefiroth—10 mystical numbers or emanations of light said to stream forth from the en sof, a divine energy source that preceded God in the Bible.

For Siegel, who favors baseball caps (he has a collection of 20) and sneakers to business suits and yarmulkes, the Kabala is less a mystical affair than a down-to-earth way of treating the city's urban ills and steering the homeless into self-sustaining communities. He rarely mentions God in his weekly sessions, and says he has no intention of trying to convert participants to Judaism. Rather, he focuses on what he terms the applied aspects of Kabala—a self-help system built on seven concepts (based on interpretations of the attributes of holy energy fields) that range from humility to tikkun olum, the Jewish injunction that all people have a responsibility to serve others in order to heal the world.

"I wanted to apply Kabala to the system to help people stay off drugs, but also to create communities and to help people return to their communities," Siegel says. "This isn't religious or theologic, it's values-based."

In practical terms, that means getting the men and women in his groups to understand their self-worth and respect the rights of others. Kabala's esoteric symbols and numerology are less important in Siegel's groups than teaching men and women how to love themselves and their neighbors—a basic Biblical directive, he adds.

"The Kabala is the rules of the universe. It's a map of how to live life," says Dick Huge, a Siegel protégé who uses his mentor's Seven Principles to counsel men recently released from prison. "If you are homeless and you get that map to work for you, you won't be homeless anymore."

The practical end of the spiritual practice is Lighthouse, a nonprofit organization Siegel founded with the goal of buying homes where formerly homeless people can live together in what he jokingly describes as a kind of "frat" house—minus the beer parties.

The goal of the Lighthouses is "re- creating community around a spiritual basis"— which Siegel defines as residents viewing each other as brothers and sisters, rather than just people thrown together by common circumstance, and acknowledging holiness within themselves—and filling a gap in the homeless-services continuum. After leaving transitional shelters, Siegel says, the homeless are often left with nowhere to go. "The problem with existing programs is they give services while people are in residence, but they lack follow-through," he says. "People fall through the cracks."

At Project Plase, for example, residents receive free room and board, counseling, and some job-training services, but typically stay only three to six months. "There is a lot of short-term, transitional housing," says Mary Slicher, executive director of Project Plase and a partner in the Lighthouse project. "The gap is in longer-term permanent housing."

Siegel and Slicher are planning a spring fund-raising campaign and looking for homes in the lower Charles Village and Penn North neighborhoods near Project Plase. Siegel is also hoping to take advantage of tax credits and city-based home-ownership programs. Their goal is to have at least one Lighthouse established by the end of the year and, eventually, to export the concept to Washington, D.C., New York, and beyond. (Siegel says says he has already received inquiries about starting similar programs in other cities.)

Each Lighthouse would be home to eight to 10 men or a similar number of women or families. Residents will have pay their own way, both financially and spiritually. In the latter case, Siegel says, that means adhering to the Seven Principles and attending daily house meetings. In the former, it means residents must have jobs or another source of income at the time they move in, so as to pay rent or contribute to mortgage payments. He also aims to integrate services, such as substance-abuse and job counseling, into Lighthouse-run houses so residents won't have to travel to other parts of the city for support services. Offices could be located on the bottom floor of houses, with private apartments upstairs. )"Like a stairway to heaven," the rabbi jokes.)

Standing outside of Project Plase after his weekly Lighthouse meeting, Gregory Frank, whose nickname is 'Helpful,' is cautiously optimistic about living in a Lighthouse home.

"You've got to start somewhere," muses Frank, who has been homeless for three years. "You've got to be accepted among strangers. . . . It's like saying, 'Open your arms out to people who want to be helped.' "

That sense of opening up and accepting change is encapsulated in the project's name. "A lot of times when people are caught in the dark, they fear the light," Siegel says. "God said, 'Let there be light.' "

For more information about Lighthouse or Project Plase call (410) 837-1400.

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