Rabbi Ahud Sela had planned his life. He was going to get a biochemistry degree from UC Santa Barbara and work as a scientist. But during the winter of his senior year, his life suddenly came to a halt: he was diagnosed with cancer.
“The physical toll was one thing, but the mental and emotional toll was another,” he said.
His first reaction was, of course, why have bad things happened to good people?
“I didn’t get a good answer,” he said. “I have asked for help from a number of different people I have spoken to, such as Rabbi Hillel in Santa Barbara and an Episcopal priest.”
The latter was the mother of one of her high school friends who died of cancer in their sophomore year. Even though Sela, who grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, was not particularly close to her classmate, he visited her in the hospital, writing her notes up to two days before her death.
“To this day, I don’t know what prompted me to write this, but I wrote her a note about how difficult it is to have cancer and that if I could swap places with her, I would. would, ”he said. “I didn’t know what that meant at the time. I thought I could take a turn and face the cancer for a little while to give it a break because I was young and strong.
When he was in his first year at university and studying in Israel, Sela decided to call the priest on the day his daughter died. At the time, the priest was facing a crisis of faith. She had spoken to her own priest about how she prayed for a sign from God so that she would not lose her connection with her daughter. However, the sign did not come.
“She then told her priest that a classmate who was not so close to her daughter had called her from Israel,” he said. “His priest said, ‘Wait. Got a call in the middle of the night in the holy city of Jerusalem from someone who wasn’t even close to your daughter because they were thinking of her? Did you want a sign from God? It’s a sign.
Sela and the Episcopal priest kept in touch and when he fell ill he asked for help.
“She was a wonderful pastor to me as I received treatment for seven months,” he said. “When I was about to go back to college, she asked me what this experience meant to me. I said I thought I wanted to be a scientist, but I didn’t know if I was meant for this lifestyle. She asked me if I was thinking of becoming a rabbi because she knew how attached I was to my Jewish identity. It was then that it first occurred to me.
Sela will continue her education and receive her rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York while earning her Masters in Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania. He then served as Assistant Rabbi at the Sinai Temple under Rabbi David Wolpe before starting his current role as Rabbi at Ramat Zion Temple in Northridge in 2010.
While interviewing for the job, Sela was once again confronted with his own mortality. At 33, he learned he was suffering from heart disease. This time, however, it was a different challenge since he was Alisha’s husband and father to Yael, Gavi and Eitan at this point.
“It was a lot scarier because I had people who depended on me,” he said. “But I did it and I’m healthy again, thank goodness.”
He wrote [in his book] that being sick “has helped me to clarify the direction my life should take, but only with the help of other people, my angels in the shadow of death.”
In 2019, he wrote a book about his near death experiences titled “Seeing Angels in the Shadow of Death: A Rabbi’s Journey Through Sickness and Health”. He wrote that being sick “has helped me to clarify the direction my life should take, but only with the help of other people, my angels in the shadow of death. They helped me show myself the light when all I saw was darkness. And now I’m trying to be an angel myself, to help those who feel like they’re living in the dark shadow of death.
In her work, Sela finds it gratifying to help her devotees and members of the community who are also struggling. One thing he learned was how important it is to meet people at their level.
“I was very offended when someone said, ‘It will be a wonderful experience for you’ when I was first diagnosed,” he said. “I can’t assume that someone will have a certain reaction or that there is one right away to react. I try to help them figure out what they need at this time. It is about compassion, love and care. I’m trying to help them make sense of it and a way forward. “
In addition to working with the faithful in a pastoral capacity, Sela enjoys teaching and giving people pride in their Jewish identity. Opening their eyes to something in Jewish life that they have never experienced is extremely gratifying.
“I love to see the joy on someone’s face when they find that connection,” he said. “I can’t believe people pay me to help give them purpose, meaning and connection. It is such a joy to be able to have this as the job of my life. m
Quick catches with Ahud Sela
Jewish Diary: What do you love most about living in Granada Hills?
Not with Sela You have the impression of being in a neighborhood. We love to walk around places, like our local Menchie for a frozen yogurt.
JJ: What is your favorite Jewish food?
LIKE: Matzo ball soup.
JJ: What TV show are you watching right now?
LIKE: I just finished “Medici”, which is an interesting look at the Medici family in the 1400s in Florence.
JJ: Do you miss fall in New England?
LIKE: All I need is the change of the leaves. When I go back to visit my parents, I try to visit in November or May.
JJ: If you could have a vacation home anywhere, where would it be and why?
LIKE: An island off the coast of Israel so that I can easily get to Israel. I would like a nice Mediterranean getaway. And in Santa Barbara, where I went to college and where I met my wife.