Blessed silence: Jewish meditation retreat in San Rafael will last for seven days

For seven days and six nights at the end of November, a group of Jews will sit mostly in silence, meditating in a quiet wooded neighborhood in San Rafael.

Jews in silence? Really?

“We are a very intellectually centered people, but it’s nice to drop into silence, to feel more, to think more clearly, to connect more deeply with God and with each other,” said Rachel Eryn Kalish of Woodacre.

She will be one of around 40 people at “Cultivating an Awakened Heart,” a Jewish meditation retreat Nov. 23 to 29 at the Santa Sabina Retreat Center in San Rafael.

Kalish has been meditating since 1975. She started, “like a lot of people,” with transcendental meditation. Then, in 1992, when Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev began offering a teacher training in Jewish silent meditation, Kalish finally found a way to merge her Jewish soul with her meditation practice.

“I think some people think meditation is Buddhism Jewicized — I don’t think that’s true,” Kalish said. “There are really deep ancient Jewish meditation practices … But they are less known and studied and are still being unearthed and examined.”

Rabbi Jeff Roth will lead “Cultivating an Awakened Heart,” a seven-day mostly silent retreat.

Though still on the fringe of mainstream Jewish life, Jewish meditation is growing in popularity, especially in Northern California, said Rabbi Jeff Roth, who leads the Awakened Heart Project for Contemplative Judaism and also recently published a book, “Jewish Meditation Practices for Everyday Life.”

Roth will lead the November retreat with Rabbi Joanna Katz, co-founder of Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Renewal retreat center; Norman Fischer, a Jewish Zen Buddhist priest who lives in Muir Beach; and Marin resident Sylvia Boorstein, a meditation instructor and psychotherapist.

“The overall meditation approach is to ask people to be awake and aware and notice everything moment by moment,” Roth said. “If you sit down and are quiet for six days, you can’t help but learn and notice many things about your own life.”

Participants can be beginners or advanced practitioners. Each day will begin with a period of silent meditation, followed by a contemplative morning prayer service and chanting lines from the Jewish morning liturgy, followed by breakfast.

Instructors will then talk about the day’s practice, which will include silent seated and walking meditation. An hour-long talk by one of the meditation instructors will inform the evening meditation and chanting.

“To me, silence is heavenly, but I don’t want to paint meditation as all sweetness and light,” Kalish said. “Everything comes up when we’re silent. There can be a period of discomfort … whatever is going on in your life, silence is like shining a great light onto it.”

Rabbi Diane Elliot, who first began meditating in the Buddhist Vipassana tradition, chuckled when she remembered how “terrified” she was at the thought of sitting in silence for an extended period of time.

“Something in me was afraid of what would come up if I were quiet,” said Elliot, now the rabbi at Berkeley’s Aquarian Minyan. “But then I saw the benefits, I felt the benefits, and I began to really embrace this.”

Elliot is looking forward to the retreat. She meditates on her own daily, but said carving out a week for silent meditation provides a sense of relief unlike anything else.

For her, “It’s as essential as food,” she said.

Kalish also meditates on her own and usually spends one day a week in silence. Still, attending a Jewish meditation retreat is uniquely affecting, she said.

“I feel more spacious, more open, more connected to God,” she said. “I sometimes joke about having ‘Jewish Interuptus Syndrome,’ and after a retreat, I interrupt less. I feel more connected to myself and to who’s in front of me. I feel more aware of what’s going on and therefore can respond to people more clearly.”

That’s exactly what Roth hopes participants get out of his retreats — a keener sense of the world within them and around them.

“Most people’s critique of mediation is that it’s so inner-directed that it doesn’t take care of the world,” Roth said. “Jewish meditation practice is not about escaping from the world, but delving deeply to understand the nature of life so we can make a difference in this world.”

“Cultivating an Awakened Heart” will take place Nov. 23-29 at Santa Sabina Retreat Center, 25 Magnolia Ave., San Rafael. $775-$1,000. For information or to register: www.awakenedheartproject.org/retreats.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.