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Hear the word "prophet" and the names Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jesus or Mohammed may come to mind. While these are figures from the distant past, Rabbi Shmuel Fortman Hapartzi is training a new generation of prophets for a new age.
Fortman runs the Cain and Abel School for Prophets in Tel Aviv. It's named for the sons of Adam and Eve who, in the Bible, were the first human beings born of woman to speak directly to God and therefore, Fortman says, the first prophets.
"The Jewish people always in all generations had holy people who are inspired by the holy spirit and see above reality," says Fortman.
Anyone, Fortman says, can learn to speak to God and be a prophet. All are welcome.
"There are people with a religious background and without, women as well as men. And at the basic level, even non-Jewish people can come," he says.
Fortman says he draws his curriculum from rabbinic texts and other "kosher" or traditionally accepted sources. Coursework includes learning to interpret dreams and divination. More then a dozen students have already signed up, and Fortman says many show promise.
Warming up by heaters before class starts, several students said they'd come because something was missing in their lives. They refused to speak on tape, but a recently widowed Orthodox woman with four children said she wanted to speak to God and get some answers. A secular male student had tried astrology and numerology but was now looking for something new. Fortman, citing the need for spiritual concentration, would not let NPR record the class, which included a discussion of how a 15th century rabbi tried to speak to God.
Fortman acknowledged he's breaking new ground.
"Maybe the name, the School of Prophecy, is a little provocative," he says.
It certainly runs counter to rabbinic tradition, which holds that the age of prophecy ended some 2,500 years ago.
The Russian-born Fortman looks traditional enough. The 40-something rabbi first experienced Orthodox Judaism as a teenager, but he now wears the long beard and black clothing of his ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch sect.
Other religious leaders, though, have denounced him — among them Jerusalem Rabbi Israel Gelis.
"There is no such thing as someone who can teach you to be a prophet," Gelis says in Hebrew. "There are just individuals who are trying to line their pockets by luring in gullible people. This completely goes against Judaism and our belief system."
Fortman denies he's trying to profit from the prophet business. He says he charges less than $50 for his course materials. But even the larger Chabad movement has distanced itself from him, although he runs the school out of a Chabad-owned building.
Fortman belongs to Chabad's messianic wing. They believe, controversially, that their late leader was, or could return as, the messiah. The current generation, they say, will take part in the redemption.
Fortman says everyone in his class, himself included, is in the beginning stages of reaching enlightenment. Becoming a prophet, he says, can take decades of work.
"I am not a prophet. I wish to be a prophet also," says Fortman.
But he'll keep working to make sure enough prophets are on hand to guide humanity when the new age arrives.