A More Personal and Intimate Approach to Jewish Practice

Imagine a cozy, candle lit room, with a group of participants seated on yoga mats, blankets and meditation cushions in a circle. On the floor in the center of the room is a beautiful wall hanging that has been spread out with a circle of candles in the center, along with flowers and other seasonal and ritual objects as well as art supplies of various kinds. The lights are turned down low so that the faces of each person are illuminated by the soft glow of the candles and so that each person can more easily check in and go inward during meditation. Each person lights a candle at the beginning of the gathering to introduce themselves and to answer a meaningful prompt or spiritual icebreaker. We flow into meditation and sometimes gentle movement, teachings on the month and the season, followed by a creative exercise that allows space for personal reflection and growth, a practice both individual and communal at the same time.

At the end of the gathering, the participants share in partners or with the group, and each offers a closing intention.  I invite them to silently offer gratitude to themselves for taking this time for themselves, nurturing their spiritual practice and learning, and to silently acknowledge the others in the room, offering gratitude to each other for this community. I close by announcing the date and name of the upcoming new moon and invite everyone to join in offering wishes and hopes for the month in a form of spiritual mad libs/fill in the blank/ spontaneous communal prayer. Each person blows out their candle, sending their intentions and blessings into the universe.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been drawn to leading small groups for Jewish spiritual gatherings, workshops for those seeking meaningful, creative ways to experience Jewish learning and connect more deeply to themselves and to others. After years as an experiential Jewish educator for youth group, camp and Hillels, as a young professional I started leading these gatherings for my peers, later for people connected with organizations that I was serving, and, most recently, for participants who attend the offerings my organization, The Tasman Center for Jewish Creativity. Many of our participants are connected with no other Jewish community or organization. Three of the four propositions outlined in Rabbi Sid’s lead essay for Jewish Megatrends go to the heart of what I do, and why I do it:  Wisdom/Chochma, Community/Kehilla, and Sacred Paths/Kedusha.

Wisdom/Chochma – My signature program, “Align: Art & Spirituality Series,” is a monthly gathering that integrates Jewish mindfulness practices,  Jewish spirituality and creative expression. The scene described in the opening paragraph paints a good picture of what happens.  If I had to describe the “content”, it would be Jewish wisdom sources about each month in the calendar, Rosh Chodesh, the upcoming holidays as they each connect to the season and month in which they fall. Sometimes, I include texts from influential rabbinic or hasidic texts in conversation with contemporary writers and poets, some Jewish and some not, including Marcia Falk, Marge Piercy, Mary Oliver and Danna Faulds. Each session includes time for guided meditation, personal reflection, writing or art, and ritual.

Community/Kehilla – There is no attendance requirement, nor prior Jewish knowledge, nor level of observance, nor experience with meditation to attend. Each gathering is a mix of backgrounds and adults ages 22-70. We meet in a meditation center in Washington, DC which we define as a “third space” (e.g. not a religious institution, synagogue or Jewish organization). Some have no prior Jewish education and are curious; some haven’t connected with Judaism in many years; some are looking for something different than the Judaism of their childhood. Some do belong to congregations but are looking for a more personal, interactive, engaging, educational experience in a small supportive group gathering. Some are looking to reconnect with their creative side, or with like-hearted people in a non-judgmental space. Most grew up in an interfaith home or are part of one now and are looking to explore or deepen their own Jewish identity in some way. Some say they attend because they were drawn to my spirit, aura, or my calming energy. Everyone is going through some kind of life transition, be it living on their own for the first time after college, getting married, experiencing a loss, downsizing or retiring. 

Sacred Paths/KedushaI see this as everything coming together: the personal experiences that each participant has; the connections they make with each other; and the connection to something larger than themselves. This is learning for personal development, learning as a spiritual practice, creative expression as a healing modality, and ritual transition for community building. The environment and atmosphere are part of the content. Both, in fact, are a fulfillment of the value of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the mitzvah of what we are doing. We are beautifying learning, spiritual practice and community building.

Personally and professionally, I understand Rabbi Sid’s assertion that the stirrings of revival are taking place on the margins. I myself am right on the cusp of Generation X and the Millennial Generation (we’re called Xenials).  Despite growing up holding leadership positions in many Jewish institutions and in my denomination, I attended a pluralistic trans-denominational, unaffiliated rabbinical program. Professionally, I am often on the margins. I have always been drawn to serving those who weren’t the core constituents of an organization nor the most involved but who were looking for something meaningful on their own terms.  I love working with those who are looking for a way to connect with Judaism and Jewish spirituality in ways not previously available or accessible to them. And, in doing so, I am able to honor my own place on the margins, who I am as a human, and who I am as a rabbi.

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Rabbi Sarah Tasman serves the needs of individuals, couples and families who don’t belong to a synagogue through the Tasman Center for Jewish Creativity. She also works with private clients for spiritual coaching and leads workshops and gatherings that integrate Jewish mindfulness, meditation, creative expression.