I have had many opportunities to experience spiritual community: at summer camp, at Buddhist and Jewish retreat centers, in my twenty year old women’s ritual group, and among the close circle of family friends with whom we celebrate Jewish Holidays and life cycle events. What these communities have in common for me is a visceral experience of interconnectedness, commitment, aliveness, and joy.
For many years that feeling was missing for me at my home shul, B’nai Keshet. (BK) Sitting in the sanctuary it often felt as though all us were single light fixtures rather than bulbs in a chandelier; dullness pervaded a sacred space that I knew could feel vital and dynamic. I had energy that I wanted to share and grapple with in community, and I was eager to introduce the practices of chant and meditation that I had learned through years of training to BK.
Luckily, the rabbi agreed with me. Both graduates of the IJS Jewish Meditation Teacher Training Program, we had experienced the ways that Mindfulness Meditation can bring awareness to moment-to-moment experience, free us from habitual patterns of thinking and behavior and cultivate wholesome qualities of mind. I had come to see Mindfulness as a radical practice of non-violence, a way of turning toward our own experiences with acceptance and compassion. Framed in a Jewish context, Mindfulness practice can deepen the experience of prayer and enrich our capacity to connect to our own wisdom and the wisdom of our traditions.
With the rabbi’s support I started a weekly chant circle infused with Mindfulness Meditation. Almost immediately there was interest from the congregation, with a couple dozen people coming week after week. We sat in circle and shared our thoughts. Many were surprised at how connected they felt sitting in silence and how quickly they were able to engage in something larger than themselves. After some weeks, one woman said that she had never been able to connect to Judaism in traditional services and that she had found a genuine spiritual practice.
It was clear to me that this class had tapped into a desire for new spaces for contemplative Jewish practice. I collaborated with a couple of friends (also IJS graduates) who had experienced something similar in their own synagogues and we co-founded the Jewish Meditation Center of Montclair at a local yoga center. We choose that space because we didn’t want to be governed by a synagogue board and wanted to welcome the many Jews in our community who were unaffiliated to synagogues and other Jewish institutions. The classes were drop-in, donation based and with a constantly evolving structure. After some time, a core group of practitioners formed an advisory council that met to encourage their own study and practice, develop new organizational leadership and introduce new teachers to the center.
Around the same time, interest in Mindfulness Meditation exploded across the country. In Montclair, more people began to attend retreats and return home eager to continue their practice. We started filling several iterations of an eight-week introductory course in “Mindfulness in a Jewish Context” in synagogues throughout Northern New Jersey. With a number of different Jewish meditation spaces available in Montclair, the graduates of our introductory course now had regular opportunities to cultivate and support their practice.
Today, the Center and most of the organized Jewish meditation practices in Montclair are housed in synagogues. For one, synagogues offer free space and are often eager to host mediation classes. More broadly, throughout my work I have learned that the synagogue is still a sacred space for so many Jews and that with a little push and sustained leadership, there is a willingness to embrace change and experiment within the confines of the familiar. Likewise, many Jews who have avoided affiliation because they feel disinterested, wounded, or marginalized, are still hungry for spiritual community and the connection of our shared traditions. Framed in Jewish language and wisdom teachings, Mindfulness Meditation can be a portal into authentic, alive, and connected Jewish spiritual practice.
I shared Sid Schwarz’s piece with my son, a current AVODAH corp member in New Orleans, who discussed the chapter with his housemates. Many saw themselves accurately portrayed by the analysis and recognized the ways in which the conversation about “Tribal Jews” and “Covenantal Jews” has recently taken form. He pointed out that one aspect that he found missing in the chapter is a discussion of race. As a student, he learned about the recent shift toward a discourse on race and white privilege in the larger American meditation community, and wondered why a similar discussion has not emerged in Jewish meditation contexts. I have begun to explore how the Jewish meditation community can prioritize such a conversation, and unpack our own privilege, history of oppression, and the racial and ethnic diversity that exists within our own faith. It is fortunate that we have arrived at a moment in time when meditation and psychology have converged in significant ways. One promising entry point into engaging with issues of race and racism is the use of Mindfulness to explore our unconscious and implicit biases.
Beth Sandweiss is a psychotherapist who is fascinated by the intersection of psychology, Jewish spiritual practice, mindfulness meditation and social justice. She co-founded the Jewish Meditation Center of Montclair NJ and serves as Director of Mindfulness Programs at the Jewish Wellness Center of Northern NJ. In that capacity she leads workshops and trainings for hospitals, universities, summer camps, synagogues, the CCAR, Jewish Family Services and the Jewish Federation.