Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
Director, Executive Learning Program of Ohr Somayach
Washington D.C., Jerusalem, Givat Ada, Zichron Ya’akov, NY
Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett, based in New York, is currently involved with Ohr Somayach’s Executive Learning Program which combines outreach and fund-raising in the homes and offices of businessmen and women and professionals looking to enhance their Jewish knowledge. Rabbi Kasnett was one of the first ten Ohr Somayach students, arriving in the summer of 1972. On his way to Harvard Graduate School to study Developmental Psychology, he took what he thought would be a brief detour to explore his Jewish roots. What started out as a detour became the main highway as he progressed from a beginning student to a senior Ohr Somayach staff member in Israel. One of the many signposts on his road to Judaism was an unusual experience while he was an undergraduate at Pomona College in California.
In the turbulent 1960’s the study of Eastern Religions was very much in vogue. Pomona College invited Alan Watts, a well-known American Buddhist and author of ‘The Way of Zen’ to speak on campus. Rabbi Kasnett describes what transpired that evening:
“Mr. Watts stepped up to the podium and without any words of greeting asked. “Are there any Catholics in the audience?” There was a confused murmur of uncertainty, but eventually some hands were raised. He proceeded to ask them a few questions about Catholic dogma and when it was apparent that no one could answer satisfactorily, he told them to sit down. He then asked all the Protestants to stand and regroup themselves according to denomination. He then asked each group how it was distinguished from the others. The result was similar. At this point I knew what was coming next. We Jews stood up, revealed our ignorance of basic Judaism observance and belief and sheepishly sat down. His point was obvious. We were looking for spiritual enlightenment elsewhere, ignoring our own “backyards”. Raised a Catholic in San Francisco, Mr. Watts told us that he had traveled to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. He was told to go back home and enroll for a minimum of one year in the most intensive Catholic seminary available. Only then, if he was still interested, would the Buddhist monastery accept him. I don’t remember a word about the lecture on Buddhism which he then reluctantly delivered, but I focused instead on his advice which was clearly the main point of the lecture. No, the story does not have a fairy tale ending. I did not pick up immediately and fly to Israel. But the seeds had been planted, and two years later I found myself at Ohr Somayach.”