Mindfulness and Judaism

Of all his rabbinic functions, visiting the cemetery almost always has had a profound effect on Rabbi Jonathan Slater.

Officiating at funerals or unveilings was “one of the practices of my spiritual life that kept me most grounded and clear about what was true and real about my life,” Slater said. “It’s very difficult to be dishonest at the cemetery. It takes a lot of work to hide from the truth of mortality there.”

The former Bay Area rabbi was talking about this practice as one that keeps him mindful in the context of his new book, “Mindful Jewish Living: Compassionate Practice.”

Slater began meditating in high school. A bit later, he attended a yoga class with a friend that turned into a formative experience.

His meditation practice continued to deepen. He attended rabbinical school, and he began to notice how one complemented the other.

Meditation and Jewish prayer “do speak to each other,” Slater said in a recent telephone interview. “The experience that I have with meditation helps me to stay awake when I’m davening and maintain a more consistent awareness of what I’m doing and be able to recognize when I’ve wandered more quickly.”

Conversely, he said, his meditation practice has made his experience in synagogue that much richer.

Slater, a Conservative rabbi who left the Bay Area in 2001, now lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., and is on the faculty of the Massachusetts-based Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which runs programs for Jewish professionals and lay leaders to support them in developing their spiritual life.

For 19 years, he was the spiritual leader of Santa Rosa’s Congregation Beth Ami. For two years before that, he was at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom, working with Rabbi Saul White. His experiences in the Bay Area and the people he encountered are largely responsible for the book.

“How far back should I look to find the point in my life from which this book emerges?” Slater writes in his preface. “Where do its origins lie? How have I moved from ‘Who knows?’ to ‘Here I am?’ Now, having concluded the process of writing it, I sense that there is nothing else I could have done instead.”

Slater said that his work at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center was instrumental in introducing him to Chassidic texts, which made him aware of the centrality of meditation to mystical Judaism. And he cites his friendship with his congregant Sylvia Boorstein as highly influential. The Buddhist meditation teacher, observant Jew and author writes the foreword to his book.

Slater spends much of the book on the concept of mindfulness, the practice of being completely in the moment, aware and finely attuned to one’s thoughts and actions.

“Mindfulness is a practice that we do all the time,” he said. “It is supported by meditation, but is not what happens in meditation.”

And in applying that concept to Judaism, he said, “The study of Chassidic texts with the orientation of mindfulness opened me up toward experiencing God in my life and really making clear what the nature of relationships with other people are supposed to be.”

Slater said he wrote the book for the Jewish seeker, or “somebody who has a fluency in their own experience with a seeking for God and a desire to live a life that is informed with a spiritual awareness, to offer to them a Jewish language for that.”

He also hopes clergy and lay people will be interested, as a way “to expand what they’re doing in their Jewish lives.”

He concluded, “Spirituality isn’t accomplished by doing certain things, but by connection and awareness.”

“Mindful Jewish Living: Compassionate Practice” by Jonathan P. Slater (378 pages, Aviv Press, $24.95).

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."