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In an email exchange with Eran Yoels, International School of Temple Arts (ISTA)‘s spokesperson for Israel, I inquired about ISTA’s connection to a shamanic “love camp” at Auschwitz that was posted on their website. He sent me the following response.

“We, in ISTA, believe that love is the power that can heal the wounds of humanity.”

If this statement is true, one might wonder why this global transformational movement chose to address multiple concerns pertaining to ISTA by employing both a Safe Mediation process and Yoels, who is Head of the Business Communications Department for the crisis PR firm Rimon Cohen & Co.

Is ISTA a sacred sexuality movement or a cult, or both?

After I published an OnlySky article exploring this question, I received numerous messages from some who participated in ISTA and have been asking similar questions. In particular, they expressed concerns about ISTA’s role in a six-day ceremony titled “WILD LOVE: Love from the Ashes” originally scheduled for July 13-19, 2020 in Poland. Portions of this event were slated to take place at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, the site of the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers where over 1.1 million men, women, and children lost their lives during World War II. 

This ceremony did not take place due to the global pause, and this event is no longer hosted on ISTA’s website. However, a screenshot obtained via the Wayback Machine provides an overview of this proposed “sexual shamanic journey that deals with death.” 

The first day of the journey will take place in the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow and the Krakow’s mythological dragon’s den. Then we will travel to the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The retreat will be split between visiting and holding rituals at the camps and time in our hotel group room near by for processes we cannot do in the camp itself.

Unpacking the event details

While this event description makes it clear this is not a formal ISTA event, the facilitators Pele (Ohad) (last name Ezrahi), Bruce Lyon, Janine Ma-Ree (last name McDonald), Dawn Cherie Ezrahi, and Rex Rafiq (last name McCann) are lead ISTA faculty. Also, the event organizer has a professional profile listed on ISTA’s website. In addition, the event description recommends that participants have completed ISTA’s advanced Level 2 course.

Along those lines, the hashtags used in promoting this event (#WildLove2020 #WildLoveMovement) correspond with Lyon’s promotion of a Wild Love Movement.

Emails sent to the four facilitators and event organizer inquring about this event were answered by Yoels. When asked about this event description, he issued the following statement: “The flyer being distributed now to shock people was not (emphasis his) used to promote the retreat. It was one of the draft suggestions made by a graphic person, a draft the organizers chose NOT to use.” (FYI-I have chosen not to referenece any draft materials sent to me, though they are far more graphic than the final copy posted to ISTA’s website. An inquiry asking about the final copy posted on the website remain unanswered.)

While this love camp is described as a “sexual shamanic journey,” Yoels insists this retreat is not about sex but love. 

The retreat was not about “having sex at the death camps,” as the letter tries to suggest, but about coming to the death camps with LOVE, respect and honor. They were planning to have vigils of silent meditation there in order to learn about the atrocities that happened there and feeling them deeply. There would do much of the work at the hostel out of the camp to move those heavy emotions using shamanic practices, heart sharings and rituals. The intention was to observe shadows, going deeply into the human conditioning of perpetrators versus victims. The intention was to work with the dehumanization of the other, that is happening in the perpetrators minds, allowing them to act cruelly.

Can a shamanic love camp be hosted at Auschwitz?

The press office for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial issued this statement via email with regards to Ohad’s connection to this notorious concentration camp 

First of all it’s important to note that only licensed guides are permitted to guide visitors at the site of the Auschwitz Memorial. Mr. Pele is not one of them. We had no information about this program before and we have no relation with Mr. Pele.

Yet, any group can book a guided tour at the Auschwitz Memorial and we have no knowledge of other activities of groups that take place outside the Memorial. Each person when visiting the historical site must follow the regulations

As per these regulations, any group with more than ten people must utilized the services of one of the memorial’s approved guides. Even though Ohad has promoted himself leading tours of Auschwitz, he has no formal connection to this memorial. Hence, he cannot guide a group of the size needed to make an event of this nature economically feasible. 

Yoels offers a different perspective pertaining to Ohad’s involvement with Auschwitz. 

Ohad Pele who was set to head this retreat along with others is a Jewish Kabbalist Rabbi, who for 14 years (2001-2014) served as the Rabbi of the interfaith Bearing Witness’ retreat in the death camps, organized by the “Zen Peacemakers'” order. Together with the other “spirit holders” of that retreat he has guided hundreds of people in weeklong bearing witness meditations in the camps. These powerful experiences led participants to access compassion and humane love across national boundaries and  collective trauma. Even though the unthinkable meeting of diverse nationalities converged upon these events composed of Poles, Jews, Germans, Israeli, and Palestinians. 

The “Zen Peacemakers” order referenced by Yoels is Zen Peacemakers International, an organization that sponsors an annual Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing witness retreat as part of their mission to “realize our oneness and relieve suffering through contemplative social action.” In a posting Ohad did on their website in 2010, he is listed as having “represented the Jewish tradition at Auschwitz Bearing witness retreats for many years.” However, this relationship is not referenced on Ohad’s Amazon author page. An email was sent to Zen Peacemakers International on January 12, 2023 inquiring about Ohad’s current status within this organization.  

While Ohad is an Israeli Jew, the other facilitators come from Australia and New Zealand. Hence, how all these nationalities referenced by Yoels will come together at this particular event remains unclear.  

Furthermore, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz points to claims of abuse within Israel’s sacred sexuality community that cite Ohad by name. Reporting by Radio New Zealand (RNZ) picked up this story, adding that Ohad is not currently teaching, reportedly having taken time for “reflection. ”The RNZ reporting included additional incidents of concerns raised at Highden Temple, a site described on their website as a modern manifestation of the ancient mystery schools founded by Lyon. 

ISTA responds to the community and the public

In response to the rise of allegations made against ISTA facilitators, ISTA posted a letter on its website indicating a number of changes including the introduction of a mediation process. 

Along these lines, a small volunteer group of survivors, allies and activists from within the sacred sexuality, sex-positive, and neo-tantra communities came together to form Safer Sex-Positive & Spiritual Communities (SSSC). As per their mission, they plan to encourage and support organizations and leaders in these fields to radically update their structures, curriculum, policies, and practices in regard to harms caused by: trauma activation and reactivation, sexual assault and harassment, student/teacher power dynamics, lack of informed consent, racism and cultural appropriation, and most significantly, the risks of high-demand group culture and coercive communication norms. 

More information can be found at their website SaferSpiritualCommunities.org, slated to launch shortly, with additional reporting to follow as this story unfolds.

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As a freelance writer with dual MDiv/MSW degree from Yale Divinity School and Columbia University, I focus on the rise of secular spirituality, religious satire, spiritual health & wellness, faith...