Jennifer Kaufman has the perfect pedigree for a "seeker." The San Francisco native grew up in the Haight, received a graduate degree in art, and studied the cosmos while employed at the Exploratorium. Or, as Kaufman referred to it, the pursuit of "nothingness."
But for Kaufman, who was raised in a Reform household, and had always felt a strong connection to her Jewish roots, there was something missing. "A lot of the questions I was asking couldn't be answered in art school or in a museum," recalled Kaufman. "I was asking about God, basically, and that question was completely out of bounds in those forums."
Enter Makor Or, the Jewish meditation center of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom. Under the joint leadership of the Conservative synagogue's Rabbi Alan Lew and Norman Fisher, the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, the center was officially inaugurated on Dec. 31, 1999, after receiving a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York.
In January of this year, Makor Or launched a nine-month intensive program called the Practice Period. Participants commit to attending meditation sessions three days a week and a retreat each month, according to Kaufman, who is now program director for Makor Or. In addition, they meet monthly with both Lew and Fisher to discuss their meditation process.
The 25 participants in the Practice Period recently celebrated the halfway mark of the program with a Shabbat retreat. Many of them offer stories similar to Kaufman's. They were searching for a spiritual connection that other avenues had been unable to provide.
Mitchell Nemeth, a New York native, became a member of Beth Sholom around two years ago — a move that was precipitated by the breakup of a long-term relationship and a concomitant desire to reconnect with Judaism.
The San Francisco information technology specialist, who grew up in a Conservative household, drifted away from Judaism for about two decades and said that he was even more of a novice at Jewish prayer than he was at meditation.
"I like to throw myself in the ocean, which I think is very cathartic," said Nemeth, adding that "there are parallels…between immersing myself in water and what I do at Makor Or. I had been doing meditative acts for a long time, but I just didn't have a name for them."
For Nemeth, the real benefit from meditating at Makor Or is that it serves as a conduit to a deeper understanding of Jewish prayer.
"Sitting and meditating before a Shabbat service on Friday night brings all the garbage and stress level down from the previous week. It really helps me slow things down and focus on the intricacies of Jewish prayers and rituals. And, just as importantly, it really gives me an opportunity to be part of a spiritual community, which is a very high priority on my list."
Practice Period participant Joan Gelfand, a San Francisco resident who grew up in an observant household, also praised the communal aspects of the program. "I used to belong to a synagogue, where I just paid the check and went to the High Holy Day services. I never thought of it as a place of community. Makor Or has changed the way I look at holidays and the way I participate in synagogue life."
Both Gelfand and her fiancé, Adam Hertz, also a Practice Period participant, have prior experience with Zen meditation. Gelfand finds that putting meditation in a Jewish context, inside a synagogue, and often preceding the morning and evening minyans, inspires her to practice Judaism on a daily basis.
Jewish meditation is most successful when placed in a Jewish environment, according to Lew.
"I'm passionately indifferent to the question of what precedent there is in Judaism for meditation," said Lew, who had been a practitioner of Zen before he became a rabbi. "At Makor Or, we freely admit the meditation we learn comes from Buddhist teachings. But then, Judaism has always borrowed techniques from other cultures when it served to make Judaism more vital."
The main benefit to Makor Or's participants — and to Beth Sholom itself, as Lew pointed out — is that it stirs a desire to delve deeper into Jewish prayer, and, in doing so, increases attendance at synagogue services. Makor Or, Kaufman added, is the only Jewish meditation center connected to a synagogue.
"Daily practice is the great missing link in Judaism," said Lew. "We stand around scratching our heads, wondering why Judaism has stopped being spiritual, and it's because we have lost the sense of Judaism as a daily practice. That's why many of our meditation sessions precede services and take place in a synagogue, instead of [just] at a monthly retreat.
"Meditation is really a wonderful tool for opening people up to the power of daily practice."
Makor Or participant Nemeth phrased it slightly differently.
"It's really remarkable that this transformation could be happening at the age of 45. I ask myself why I'm doing all this when I could be staying in bed late Saturday morning. Well, the answer is that the spiritual community at Makor Or is much more meaningful than I could find kicking back beers at a sports bar.
"I feel like I was out wandering the desert for many years, and now I'm home."