In the cozy sanctuary at Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, eight people sit in a relaxed circle, all of their eyes closed, all of them silent. It’s about 7:30 p.m. and a few days before Rosh Hashanah, when hundreds of worshippers will fill the same room for the High Holy Days.
But right now, the participants of Beth Jacob’s weekly Jewish meditation group are engaged in a spiritual practice that — depending on whom you ask — is at once similar to a traditional Rosh Hashanah service and altogether different: They’re turning inward, preparing for the High Holy Days and the coming year through the deceptively simple act of mindfulness.
“We’re going to take a few more moments here,” says Laura Caplan, a Beth Jacob member who leads the group. “And we’re going to keep paying attention to our breath as we come back together.” In Caplan’s lap is a copy of “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared” by the late Rabbi Alan Lew, the San Francisco scholar, writer and activist who was instrumental in introducing meditation to modern Jewish practice.
To Caplan’s left is Wendie Bernstein Lash, a regular in the group who is also a meditation teacher, spiritual guide and counselor. Among other things, she leads a “contemplative” Shabbat service at Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto on the first Saturday of every month; it combines study of the week’s Torah portion with silent meditation, chanting, and a focus on the intention, or kavanah, of Shabbat prayers. In nearby Foster City, Julie Emden, the director of embodied Jewish learning at Jewish LearningWorks, currently leads a weekly Jewish yoga class on Wednesdays at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center.
Not used to mixing your davening with your downward dog? A growing group of Bay Area Jews will happily tell you that the congregations and Jewish organizations that do aren’t unique; they’re not even outliers.
Though perhaps once dismissed by the larger Jewish community as a relatively small subset of New Age-y Jews (or “JewBus”) who borrowed from Eastern traditions and Buddhism to invent their own kind of East-meets-West spirituality, the sheer number of Jewish meditation and yoga classes, contemplative services and other alternative spiritual practices that have sprung up in the Bay Area’s Jewish community simply can’t be ignored — especially when one looks at where it’s happening, and who’s getting involved.
“It seems to me that this is a historic moment,” says Rabbi Lavey Derby, director of Jewish Life at the Peninsula JCC, where he leads a Jewish meditation class that draws about 20 people to each weekly session. “There is clearly a cohort of people who are not nourished by traditional Jewish practice, whether that’s synagogue attendance, prayer or traditional Jewish language.”
Berkeley’s Jewish Renewal community Chochmat HaLev is considered a pioneer in blending meditation with Jewish spiritual practice, having trained teachers in Jewish meditation for more than two decades. Avram Davis, Chochmat HaLev’s founder, published a book in 1996 called “The Way of Flame, A Guide to the Forgotten Mystical Tradition of Jewish Meditation,” and the community hosted the Bay Area’s first Jewish meditation conference in San Francisco the following year, drawing some 550 people.
Nowadays, Jewish meditation is turning up in communities that might have scoffed at the notion 17 years ago.
“One can point to the Jewish Renewal movement as an important part of this renaissance, but you’re finding it happening across the board — in Reform temples, Conservative, Orthodox shuls — because people are thirsty for spiritual nurturance,” Derby says.
He uses the term “renaissance,” he says, because meditation “has always existed in one form or another in Jewish life, Jewish practice, text and tradition. The people the Torah calls ‘the early pious ones’ would sit in meditation for an hour before and an hour after prayer.
“For a variety of reasons, those practices were lost or not passed down to further generations,” Derby adds. “So a lot of the work of the past 20 years in Jewish meditation has actually been excavating the Jewish tradition to find these practices that used to exist. And a lot of people are finding that they need them.”
For Judy Fisher, Jewish chanting was the gateway to exploring alternative spirituality.
“I wasn’t looking to go outside Judaism, but when I found chanting, I realized that was a kind of meditation itself,” says Fisher, who moved to Redwood Shores from San Diego four years ago and is now the director of the Or HaLev meditation group at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.
Through Or HaLev, which has held weekly meditation sessions for a decade and has recently begun organizing contemplative Shabbat services every few weeks, Fisher says she’s become connected to a Jewish community unlike any she’s ever known.
“There’s a vibrancy here [in the greater Bay Area] that’s not like anywhere I’ve ever lived,” she says. “People are hungry for meditation classes, for contemplative services, for a broadening of ways to connect spiritually.
“I’ve been talking with our congregants,” Fisher continues, “and just saying ‘Come and try it. It may add something: an additional dimension to your prayer, a new way to think about something. And often when people come, they’ve been pleasantly surprised that this exists within Judaism.”
Ellen Shireman agrees. As the director of San Francisco’s Makor Or, one of the first Jewish meditation centers in the U.S. — it was co-founded in 2000 by Lew and the poet and Zen priest Norman Fischer, another pioneer in blending Eastern spiritual practice with Judaism — she has seen meditation surge in popularity among both Jews and non-Jews over the past decade.
“I think it’s becoming more of an accepted practice in society in general. Everyone’s doing some kind of meditation in their yoga classes,” Shireman says.
“But in Jewish meditation, in particular, something really interesting is definitely happening in the last few years,” she says. Makor Or began with a very small group of people who were interested in learning meditation; the organization’s mailing list recently surpassed 300 people.
Shireman says she thinks Jewish meditation is taking off in part because of its accessibility, relative to other kinds of Jewish practice. “For modern people it can be difficult to access Judaism: people aren’t learning Hebrew, teachers aren’t really stressing a relationship with God. Meditation can help a person find what’s been missing,” she says.
“It’s a huge religion, it’s a dense religion, and it has many different aspects to it and many forms of practice. But meditation kind of cuts to the core of it. It allows us to calm down enough to enter into conversation with God.”
Oakland resident Rachel Dorsey was leading a Birthright trip to Israel the first time she connected Judaism with her yoga practice. “Shabbat would roll around, and there was a lot of downtime,” she recalls of the 2008 trip. “Some folks would want to go on a walking tour, some people would want a service. I wasn’t a licensed yoga teacher at the time, but I had a lot of yoga experience, so I started leading these little Shabbat afternoon yoga experiences.”
From 2008 to 2012, Dorsey staffed seven Birthright trips, leading Saturday afternoon yoga “by request” each time. On longer trips with multiple Shabbats, she would see interest in yoga grow from week to week. “I started to feel like people were getting this new way to access Judaism and spirituality through it,” she says. “And that was when I committed to myself that I would become a yoga teacher.”
Dorsey completed her yoga teacher training in 2012 and has taught Jewish yoga classes around the Bay Area ever since. The Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto brought her on to lead two Havdallah Yoga programs that each drew more than 30 people; two more sessions are planned for January. Their success led the JCC to launch “Vinyasa, Kavanah and Vino,” a wine-tasting and yoga evening aimed at Jews in their 20s and 30s, also led by Dorsey. Temple Emanu-El in San Jose invited her to lead a quarterly Shabbat morning series and, this past September, had her lead a Yom Kippur yoga workshop that took the place of the afternoon service (the congregation retained its traditional morning and evening services).
But what is Jewish yoga, exactly? There’s no set of instructions, no “liturgy.” It’s up to the individual leading the session.
“I like to open all my classes with sitting, breathing, meditation, and during that time I’ll give a little drash or lesson. If it’s Shabbat, it’ll be themed around the Torah portion,” Dorsey says. “One around Passover was about finding freedom within boundaries — what does it mean to explore that within our physical bodies? Maybe you bring in muscle engagement, and a person finds that they can bend their knee a little more deeply than before. You’re able to connect this very heady concept of freedom with a very physical sensation.”
Pointing to other longtime yoga instructors like Julie Emden, Dorsey emphasizes that she’s far from the only Jewish yoga teacher in town. She also says she thinks Jewish yoga appeals to people who want to have Jewish experiences but “who might be intimidated in a traditional learning environment.” Take, for example, Dorsey’s husband, who’s not Jewish.
“We host seders, Shabbat dinners, and have tons of Jewish friends, but I know he still hasn’t felt 100 percent comfortable in all Jewish communal things,” she says, noting that the couple plan to raise their soon-to-be-born baby Jewish. “And then he started coming to some of these Jewy yoga workshops because he’s really into yoga, and he’s been able to access the community, the teaching and the learning that way. He has not set foot in a synagogue, but now he actually wants to take that step, and for me that’s awesome. It was something that seemed foreign and scary to him, but because he was able to come to it through something familiar, I think we’re going to have fun with it.”
Of course, say many involved in the movement, synagogue attendance and alternative spiritual practices needn’t be mutually exclusive — far from it.
Rabbi Corey Helfand, spiritual leader at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, is inspired by the task of creating experiences in his Conservative congregation that could appeal to both traditionalists and those who gravitate toward Jewish meditation.
“This is not a replacement model,” says Helfand of contemplative services. “For people who connect with traditional services, that is always going to be available to you … I’m more of a traditionalist in my own personal practice. But I don’t believe anymore that there’s one hard and fast way of people connecting to God — of nurturing whatever authentic relationship that is for you. There’s no reason you can’t be more creative.”
Helfand recently launched a monthly contemplative service at Peninsula Sinai, “born out of conversations with congregants about what they were looking for.” The prayerbook he has put together contains both traditional liturgy and meditative language focusing on “gratitude, mindfulness around our bodies, images of nature, kinds of wealth other than material wealth.”
Some of the most traditional Jewish rituals are actually closely related to meditation, Helfand says, so it’s really not much of a leap. “In their rawest sense, personal practices — and prayer — are a way of creating mindfulness,” he says.
Like many people interviewed for this article, Laura Caplan was quick to suggest that, far from creating a neo-spiritual movement within Judaism, meditation and contemplative services are actually harkening back to ancient Jewish practices that may simply have gone by another name.
“It’s a valid question: Are we doing something new, or are we just getting back to what was? And if you look at the Torah, and the early Jews, what were they doing out there in the desert? There was a lot of quiet time, and they had opportunities to talk with God,” she says.
Putting those ancient practices back into our modern lives makes sense and feels right, she says. “We don’t have the quiet time that we used to,” she says. “We’re finding that we need to build it back in.”
Says Dorsey: “I have been a member of a synagogue. I’ve taught Hebrew school at four different synagogues in the Bay Area. I’ve worked for Jewish organizations. And for me, the way I’ve been able to feel the most spiritually connected to the Jewish community and to my Jewish spirit has been on my yoga mat.”
It’s nearly impossible to talk about the intersection of meditation and Judaism in the 20th century without talking about Norman Fischer. When he was a kid in Pennsylvania in the 1950s, Fischer’s family belonged to a Conservative synagogue. But after U.C. Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union brought him to the Bay Area, Fischer gravitated toward Buddhism, becoming ordained as a Zen priest in 1980 and director of the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin in 1981. Beginning in 1995, he served as co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and in 2000 founded Makor Or alongside Lew.
“When we first started doing [meditation classes] in the ’90s, it was definitely viewed as a weird thing, something on the fringe, though I think interest has always been strong,” says Fischer. “But now with the research about its health benefits, emotional benefits … and you know that the world has gotten accelerated in its pace. More people are stressed out than ever before, and people realize that’s unhealthy, so meditation is really needed maybe more than ever.”
As for its rise in popularity among the Jewish community? And why it might appeal to Jews who have been turned off by traditional synagogues? Fischer laughs, and sighs.
“So here’s the problem as I understand it: When you consider the Judaism of the past, where you had observant Jews living in local communities most of the time by necessity, you had an ongoing sense of spiritual path that everybody took part in. Everybody observed Shabbat; spiritual practice was in the air, and to some extent that depended on Jews being separate and not having the opportunity to share in the world at large,” Fischer says.
“At this point, I don’t think synagogues have much sense of spiritual practice. Vast numbers of Jews don’t go to services, and if they go it’s often not because it’s spiritually meaningful but because it’s a community center, a way of expressing identity and affiliation,” he continues. “Which loses track of the fact that Judaism was always supposed to be a spiritual path — dealing with questions about: How do I live? What’s meaningful? How do I confront the past? How do I deal with death? And that’s where meditation comes in.”
Fischer, like Derby, points to the Talmud’s references to the ancients having meditated before and after prayer.
“It makes sense, because if you actually thought you were going to have some kind of encounter with God through prayer, you prepare yourself for it,” he says. “You don’t just come into synagogue off the street with your messed-up, busy mind. You’d take some time to focus, to process through your stress, to be able to concentrate on the prayer service.”
As of this interview, Rabbi Derby was preparing for a three-day Jewish meditation retreat he leads each December; hosted by Beit Ayin, a spirituality center in Sonoma County, it usually draws 50 to 60 people. Derby says he does still hear push-back from “certain sectors of the Jewish community.”
“I’ve heard concerns that it’s a kind of solipsistic movement — that because it’s about a person’s inner life, it will cause a person to no longer be interested in Jewish community, that communal life will suffer. And my inclination is to say there is that danger,” he says.
“But the payoff is so much more valuable. Because it’s so much more worth it to have Jews find spiritual practices that nourish them. Ultimately, spiritual practice provides clarity of the mind, opens the heart, cultivates compassion and care. And the more people who engage in Jewish contemplative practice, the more compassion and care is cultivated, the more people care about the poor and about the community,” he adds.
“What could be more Jewish than that?”
on the cover
Members of Makor Or, a Jewish meditation group that practices at the JCCSF, in 2012 photo/sasha gulish