What Jewish spiritual practices will help bring my life meaning? What in our Jewish tradition can help me get over life’s hurdles? What can I do to increase engagement with holiness in my community? These questions often prompt a journey that may lead to the discovery of Mussar. The purpose of Mussar is to help one learn about their traits (middot), become aware of their ‘interior life’, their soul, their inclinations, their resistances, and to engage in practices (including meditation) that help cultivate positive change and a deeper connection with God and Judaism.
Of the four propositions that Rabbi Sid enumerates in Megatrends, the three that resonate with The Mussar Institute (TMI) in terms of our history and our future is Wisdom/Chochma, Community/Kehillah and Sacred Purpose/Kedusha. TMI helps seekers form a kehillah in order to gain the chochma that Mussar offers, to help them overcome life challenges in order to gain a sense of kedusha.
The Mussar Institute’s very name belies its unstructured beginning as a grassroots organization interested in spreading Mussar, inspired by the passion of Alan Morinis. He first began facilitating groups and developed a path of courses that would meet the growing hunger to ‘do Mussar’. When he founded TMI in 2004, there was no formal structure in place to disseminate this knowledge other than the dedication of its adherents to bring this awareness to others. Alan trained facilitators with skills to lead Mussar groups. By now, thousands of individuals have been impacted by the study and practice of Mussar including rabbis, lay leaders, heads of Jewish Federations, and spiritual seekers. Yet, despite the national and international reach of the organization, what amazes me is that most people I encounter on a daily basis have never heard of the practice of Mussar, let alone the Institute that is devoted to it. Only very recently has TMI added professional staff to respond to the growing interest in Mussar.
Within TMI, there are multiple avenues to explore Jewish texts in the area of character development, ethical behavior, and spiritual growth —all in the context of today’s cultural sensibilities. People can learn individually, in chevruta (paired learning) or in groups at synagogues, in private homes, at JCC’s or anywhere that there is interest. Some TMI-trained facilitators have adapted what they’ve learned and brought Mussar to twelve-step groups, homeless shelters and prisons. There are also online courses ranging from beginner to advanced that can be taken independently or in groups. Finally, there are real-time groups that convene people all over the world. TMI’s popular program Middah a Month, can be learned as an individual, in chevruta or in a group, and can continue on a monthly basis for several years.
TMI also conducts formalized facilitator training programs for different audiences, including rabbis, clergy, lay leaders, and others who have had Mussar coursework. Soon to be piloted is a Mussar training program for those with little background in Mussar who are interested in learning Mussar facilitation and adapting it for their own specialized interests (Mussar within the context of Yoga or other spiritual practices).
The content of the courses offered by TMI contain modernized translations of original texts. Since Hebrew knowledge is not required, they are accessible. TMI has individualized its courses to meet the needs of early childhood programs; leadership programs at Hillel and Jewish Federations; and programs that reach millennials. A recent grant from The John Templeton Foundation is supporting the scaling-up of our program in supplementary schools, camps, and youth groups.
These areas relate to the proposition of Community/Kehillah. since there are communal ramifications of Mussar practice. Participants who gather at TMI Mussar retreats especially value the pluralistic nature of the kehillah that forms there. While there has not been the funding to document participants’ deepening connection to their respective communities though the practice of Mussar, we know anecdotally that this is happening.
Helping people live a life of sacred purpose/kedusha infuses everything that TMI pursues. Every group (va’ad) meeting, every training, every retreat enables participants to reach a higher level of connection with the One Above. In finding your soul’s center, you tend to connect with the greater purpose for which your life is intended. In a time when there are so many barriers to participation, there are no restrictions on how a person might decide to participate in learning Mussar.
One of TMI’s challenges moving forward is how to increase our capacity to keep pace with the demand for content. We need to train more people in Mussar group facilitation skills, develop training for online facilitation, intensify the support for our congregational facilitators, and provide more real-time online courses. TMI has responded to this need consistent with the Mussar tradition; we focus on the individual’s capacity for renewed awareness, their desire for learning, and their capacity to experience transformation.
 The word “Mussar” derives from biblical sources, Proverbs 1:2, being one, and means “discipline or instruction”, in this case, instruction on how to be a better person, to reach the inner essence, the ‘neshama’ (pure soul).
 Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a modern Mussar master wrote in Alei Shur that spirituality is ‘building the interior world’
 The wisdom of Mussar was brought to life in the yeshiva world by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the 19th century as a response to the gap between one’s knowledge of the law and ethical actions. The Mussar movement developed through Salanter’s disciples and remained in the yeshiva world until modern times, when individuals such as Rabbi Ira Stone and Dr. Alan Morinis began writing about Mussar for wider audiences.
Ruth Schapira is the Director of Leadership and Training of the Mussar Institute. Based in Holland, PA, she blogs about leadership development and outreach strategies related to the Jewish community at www.ruthschapira.com.