Ed Croman, a small-framed man with chiseled features and a close-cut gray beard, was teaching Kabala in West Orange long before Madonna and her ilk burst onto the scene with their red strings and devotion to Philip Berg.
Croman will likely still be teaching when the fad passes and Berg’s Kabbalah Centres close.
There are no celebrities among the students in his free classes at Congregation Ohr Torah, just local residents interested in some adult education at the Orthodox synagogue.
A recent Sunday evening class drew seven middle-aged students. Focusing on parashat Yitro, it included everything from the mystical numerology known as gematria and stories of the hasidic master Baal Shem Tov to lessons on the different energy levels in the world.
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the class, NJJN caught up with Croman, a Verona resident, shopping mall developer, and president of Ohr Torah, for an interview. A native of Newark, Croman is a member of the Weequahic High School Class of 1956. He grew up at Oheb Shalom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue that has since moved to South Orange.
NJJN: So what’s your class all about?
Croman: It’s about the hidden Torah. Think of the Torah like a poem. When you have a really good poem, you can understand it on different levels. The Torah has four levels: the literal level; the hint of things not so obvious; the homiletic level; and finally the hidden, deeper kabalistic meaning, or “sod,” as it is known. The literal level works better if you understand the kabalistic, the hidden level. That’s what my class is about.
NJJN: What impact did Madonna have on Kabala, in your opinion?
Croman: It made Kabala into a household word, but it was becoming so anyway. She followed a trend rather than pioneered it, I think. But what she’s doing is not Kabala. It’s a farce. Anyone who studies Kabala and then goes to mass media and talks about all the off-color stuff she speaks about can’t be taking what she’s studying seriously.
NJJN: How did you get involved with Kabala in the first place?
Croman: As a kid, I was an atheist. I was a good student at Oheb Shalom’s religious school, but I never believed anything. I was very logical and doubted anything I couldn’t taste, touch, smell, or hear. It took a number of experiences for me to realize there might be something to look for. A few of these happened in a meditation group I was in and I decided there was more to reality.
I began a search for what else there is and found the Metaphysical Center of New Jersey, where I took courses and became a teacher. I went to India twice in the 1980s. I finally realized I believe things I had rejected as a kid about God. I thought, now that I believe, I should look into my own religion instead of the Far Eastern stuff, and that’s when I decided to study Kabala. I was into the metaphysical stuff and it was fairly easy to connect with a Lubavitcher rabbi in Crown Heights — Rabbi Nissan Mangel — to study with. That was 28 years ago.
NJJN: Why did you decide to teach?
Croman: After seven to eight years of studying twice a week, two-and-a-half hours at a time, Mangel said to me, ‘You should spread the word, go out and teach other people.’”
[By then a member of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange, Croman started the class there in 1990 and moved it to Ohr Torah, when he moved to that synagogue a few years later.]
NJJN: What was the highlight of teaching over the years?
Croman: I can’t specifically think of a particular moment, but I would say that you can sit alone and think about a subject; you can contemplate, you can meditate, you can reflect, you can think. But when you begin to talk about it, new ideas come. Talking and teaching allows us to draw down from a higher level than ordinary thought, and new explanations come into my mind — new insights come.
NJJN: What’s the most popular topic in your class?
Croman: People never tire of learning and talking about teshuva [repentance]. We go into all kinds of levels and ways and aspects of doing this. People always want to talk about the Omer [the period of counting between Passover and Shavuot]. And before any yom tov, we usually talk about more esoteric kabalistic ideas — the hidden significance of the holiday coming up.
This year’s classes continue on Sundays at 7:30 p.m. through June 13 at Congregation Ohr Torah. There is no class on June 23.