Executive Director’s Blog – Notes from Lisa’s Desk
I have a very exciting announcement to make.
But first, let me set the stage. We have long believed that cultivating mindful Jewish leaders could have a profound and even transformational impact on Jewish communal life. However, one of the persistent questions we have struggled with has been how to help alumni of our cohort programs transmit the practices that we have found so personally meaningful to their communities who are also seeking. The obstacles are many: overwhelming busy-ness, a lack of confidence in teaching the practices, Jewish organizational culture, lack of support, just to name a few.
Over the years, we have developed various tools to help address these obstacles. Starting this fall, we will have a new one to add to our repertoire.
The John Templeton Foundation has given us a major grant to support an innovative, national program to promote character development through mindfulness and tikkun middot practice in targeted Jewish communities led by Institute-trained rabbis, cantors, educators, mindfulness teachers, and community leaders. Over the next three years, we will work with 28 Jewish communities to bring a mindful approach to cultivating desirable behaviors or character traits (such as generosity, patience, truth-telling and humility) into the culture of these communities.
There are three significant innovations to this program. The first is that we will be providing training to help leaders bring a specific practice to their communities in a way that reflects the unique culture and realities of that particular community. Participants in the program will be given curricula, in-person trainings, regular webinar support and targeted consultations, all with the support of the other members of the cohort. Secondly, we will be exploring what happens when we make a systemic connection between strengthening individual character development and communal norms and culture. This will give us the opportunity to learn more about how transformation works along the spectrum of change within an individual, in interpersonal relationships, in institutions and in society at large. And thirdly, we will be pioneering a new approach to mussar that is grounded in mindfulness practice.
Rabbi Marc Margolius will be the director of the program. For more information, please visit the program page.
That a non-Jewish foundation with the clout of the Templeton Foundation has decided to invest in our exploration is just thrilling. We are hopeful that this will significantly improve the tools we can offer our alumni in helping to revitalize Jewish life.
For more information on the Templeton Foundation’s work, please click here.
As I walk through New York City these days, particularly in the evening, I am conscious of a desire to hold on to this magical time of year and not to let it pass. The city is filled with lights and decorations and people in beautiful clothes; the sidewalks are crowded with Christmas trees and holiday shoppers. It seems like everyone is heading out to a party and the darkness is warm and cozy, not cold and lonely. Wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all winter long until spring comes? And come to think of it, why stop just because the days are longer?
One could argue that the story of Chanukah is also about holding on. The second blessing reminds us of the miracles that were performed on our behalf at this time of year – this very same time of year. Now it’s just like it was back then! We want to remember the miracles and the deliverances, to keep the power of memory, to bring back traditions of our real or mythical ancestors – the specific latke technique, the Yiddish or Ladino melodies.
How profound, however, that the candles we use to make known the miracles are small, thin candles that go out in less than an hour! They are not like Shabbat candles that last through dinner or like yahrzeit candles that burn 24 hours. In fact, one of my family’s traditions is betting on which candle will go out last and watching intently as the flames flare and gutter and go out, releasing its twisting ribbon of smoke.
We know that everything passes – the candles, the holidays, the winter, life itself. Even the miracles come and go; the siddur reminds us that new miracles are constantly with us, morning, noon and night. The ephemeral candles remind us that light is beautiful, even when it’s fleeting – perhaps even because it is fleeting. They remind us that joy and gratitude in and of themselves are miracles of the spirit.
Wishing you and your loved ones a Chanukah filled with light and all kinds of miracles.
I find it so difficult to get up in the dark morning as we head into winter. And of course, although going back to standard time gives me a temporary reprieve, soon it will just be a fact of winter: dark mornings and dark evenings.
Some people experience a depression of spirit in the face of so much darkness. For me, the most difficult part is the accompanying sleepiness. I must have a very strong circadian clock in my system! My instinct is to hibernate; I want to curl up in the blankets and dive back into dreaming.
I have learned a lot about sleepiness from my practice. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt sleepiness overwhelm me in the midst of meditating or learning or praying. At first, I would berate myself, but over time, I have learned that sleepiness requires subtle discernment. Sometimes sleepiness is just a fact. I am tired right now. That is part of the human condition. I can bring a sense of curiosity to it: What IS this sleepiness? I notice the heaviness in my body, the fuzziness in my thinking, the dream states as they arise. My awareness ebbs and flows and I notice that too.
But sometimes the sleepiness is something I can address as a hindrance that can be overcome. The truth is I don’t want to allow sleepiness to take over my practice. I have my bag of tricks to help me. I begin counting, paying careful attention to the beginning and end of each breath. Or in a word-based practice I seek one word in each line that might hold special meaning or intention. These things can wake me up.
Ultimately, waking up is the purpose of all this practice. Sleepiness is not confined to the winter months. As the shofar blasts from last month’s holidays remind us, it is so easy to lead sleepy lives. Cultivating curiosity and the ability to remember to wake up can help us shake off the heavy slumber and prepare us to face the darkness – and the light – more wide awake and more alive.