For American Buddhism, few dates have more significance than Sept. 26, 1893. It was on that day in Chicago that Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist priest from Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), administered a Sanskrit oath to Charles T. Strauss to formally convert him to Buddhism--making Strauss the first non-Asian to do so on American soil. Rick Fields, who in 1981 published a seminal history of Buddhism's development in America, described Strauss' background as follows: "...of 466 Broadway, a New York City businessman, born of Jewish parents, not yet 30 years old, long a student of comparative religion and philosophy."
Fields was also a Buddhist who came from Jewish stock. His book, "How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America," was published by Shambhala Publications, the Western world's leading publisher of books about Buddhism. Sam Bercholz and Michael Fagan--also Jews--started Shambhala in 1969 in Berkeley, California, where they owned a metaphysical bookstore.
Clearly, there's something about Buddhism that's attractive to a sizeable number of Jews, who by some estimates account for as many as a third of all non-Asian Buddhists in North America.
Nor is the phenomenon restricted to American Jews. Young Israeli backpackers by the thousands are known for making their way to Asia's Buddhist centers (which is why Chabad-Lubavitch stages large Passover seders in Katmandu and Bangkok), and no less a Zionist icon than David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, was a serious student of Buddhist meditation techniques. In 2001, The Jerusalem Report magazine noted that Israelis are drawn to Buddhism because they believe it offers a serene respite from the tension and violence they have known in Israel.
For traditionally religious Jews, engaging in Buddhist practices is a violation of the prohibition against avodah Zarah, idol worship, and Jews who become Buddhists are apostates. Jewish groups--ranging from Jews for Judaism to Chabad-Lubavitch and Hillel--spend considerable time and energy trying to convince Jews attracted to Buddhism (and other non-Jewish paths) that whatever they are seeking can be found within Judaism. The current popularity of kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) as a Jewish alternative to Eastern spiritual thought and practices may be traced in part to this counter offensive. The same may be said for the acceptance in some Jewish circles--notably among Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, and liberal Conservative groups--of Buddhist meditation techniques introduced by Jews who learned them in the Buddhist world.
Of course, traditional prohibitions are generally of little concern to those Jews attracted to Buddhism, because most come from secular or liberal religious backgrounds in which the power of traditional sanctions has largely lost its authority. It's fair to say that many who feel the pull toward Buddhism are profoundly alienated from Judaism and in search of a new spiritual home purposely far from whatever patina of Jewish culture they have know. But why Buddhism?
One major reason is Buddhism's non-theistic nature. Buddhism says there is no God in any Judaic sense of the word, thereby making it easier for Jewish agnostics and atheists to embrace it without having to undergo a fundamental shift in their theological worldview.
Also making it easier is that Jews and Buddhists have no history of communal conflict, and that the charge of ingrained anti-Semitism has never been leveled against Buddhism.
Moreover, one does not have to formally convert to Buddhism to accept Buddhist thought or engage in the most common Buddhist practices, such as sitting or walking meditation. This allows those suspicious of any religious affiliation to in a sense have their cake and eat it too. It also allows those who remain connected to Judaism and Jewish culture to avoid the taboo of conversion while satisfying a desire for exotic spiritual exploration.
Additionally, comparative religion scholars note that Buddhism is perhaps the most psychologically attuned of the major religions. (Some even argue that Buddhism is more a philosophy or set of techniques for achieving psychological stability than a religious expression). For those contemporary Jews raised more in the company of Freud than Moses, this is yet another attraction to Buddhism.
Some observers also note that Judaism and Buddhism share an understanding of the nature of suffering. For Jews, suffering has been an unfortunate constant throughout their history, culminating in the Holocaust and infusing contemporary Jewish culture with a theology of suffering to the extent that even alienated Jews have imbibed it. Buddhism, meanwhile, anchors its vision of religious salvation in the question of suffering--both its cause and cure--teaching that putting aside expectations of desired outcomes alleviates spiritual suffering. The Jerusalem Report quoted one Israeli living in Dharamsala--the town in north India now home to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist political and spiritual leader--as saying: "It's so Jewish, you see, to always talk about suffering, as Buddhists do."