Lisa Goldstein

Lisa Goldstein, Executive Director. Prior to joining the Institute, she spent 15 years as Executive Director of Hillel of San Diego where she garnered local and national recognition for her devotion to students and her leadership. She has been a service learning group leader for the American Jewish World Service and as a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow in 2009-2010, she designed a new methodology for combining local justice work and contemplative practice within a Jewish framework.

Executive Director’s Blog – Notes from Lisa’s Desk

Repeating Patterns

I recently learned the Yiddish phrase:  “Iz geht schon auf Elul.”  It’s just about Elul.  Even though the sun feels like the height of summer, the soul’s season is moving steadily towards teshuvah, towards turning back to the way we know things ought to be.

One of the advantages of the holidays beginning so unusually early is that we have different metaphors from the natural world to inspire this work of teshuvah.  For example, look at Queen Anne ’s lace, the common summer wildflower.  As you can see from the photo, the flower is actually a fractal, a series of the same pattern on an ever smaller scale.  The whole circular structure of the flower is made up of smaller clusters, arranged the same way as the entire flower.  These smaller clusters, in turn, are made up of circular clusters of petals, also in the same pattern.

Spiritual practice works in this same fractal pattern.  Working on an intimate level is a different manifestation of working on a more public level, but it is in fact the same work. When we consider teshuvah and turning back towards the way we know things ought to be, it can be overwhelming.

How do we take on the big issues, the long-held doubts and angers and pain?
How do we in fact forgive ourselves and others?
How do we realign ourselves to be truer to our soul’s desire?
How do we even allow ourselves to glimpse what our soul’s desire actually is?

Spiritual practice reminds us to start small.   Set an intention.  Maybe it’s to say a blessing before eating with real gratitude and humility.  Maybe it’s to act more generously today.  Maybe it’s to pay attention to one breath.  Then, in the course of our day, we will forget.  Our attention will wander.  We will act according to old habits.  We will get tired and discouraged.   And yet – that is the opportunity to practice teshuvah!

This is the cluster of petals level.  In these small moments, we can wake up and remember:  Oh yes, my intention was to do this thing, but I forgot.  But now I remember and so I can return and act according to my intention.  I can return non-judgmentally.  I am not a bad person because I forgot.  People forget.  It’s part of the human condition. That’s why we have Elul – to help us remember to remember.

Returning to our intention with compassion in the context of spiritual practice is actually practice for returning to the bigger intentions of how we live in the world.  Perhaps we could say that if the petal level is analogous to the personal arena, the small clusters made up of the many petals are analogous to the interpersonal arena of our lives.  The more we are able to gently forgive ourselves and return to our intention, the more we are able to forgive others in our lives and return to our intentions regarding those relationships.  And then the whole flower could be analogous to our whole world.

Elul reminds us:
Start small.
Start practicing.
Let’s go.

Summertime Travels

Summertime – the great annual habit-breaker. If we are lucky, we have the opportunity to look up from our usual routine and try something new.  Often that newness involves travel.  And it’s curious:  some of us sit still to try to reconnect with clarity and insight.  But there are some insights that are easier to come to through motion.  It’s like when we stand in front of a wooden fence.  When we stand still in front of it, all we see are the slats, blocking what is on the other side.  But when we walk by it, we can often glimpse the garden through the cracks between the slats.

And yet, the moving itself is often the least pleasant part of the traveling.  We like to arrive at our destination, but dealing with traffic, lines, security and all the rest of it is a whole different story.  It can feel more like the fence, slowing us down, herding us along, keeping us out.

Reciting tefillat haderech, the traveler’s prayer, can serve as an intention to help us transform the often harried experience of traveling.  The traditional Hebrew asks God to guide us in peace, to let us take each step in peace and to help us reach our desired destination alive, joyful and in peace.  It asks that we be kept safe from any kind of danger along the way and that we encounter only kindness and graciousness from those we meet.  Here is a link to the prayer:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tefilat_HaDerech

Imagine if we took this on as a blessing practice.   If we began each journey with this blessing, evoking that sense of peacefulness and security for ourselves, then, from an inner place of joyfulness and peace, we might be able to bless all those people with us in those endless lines and crowds – perhaps even the really annoying ones – with the same blessing.  May you be guided in peace!  May you reach your destination safely!  May you encounter only kindness and graciousness!  May your prayer be heard!

That kind of inner spaciousness can transform the burden of travel into an opportunity to enjoy each encounter.  It can tear down the fence around the heart altogether.   (And of course, the summer traveling– the moving from place to place, the crowds, the aggravation, the pleasure, all of it – is nothing less than a facet of  – and practice for – our life journey, in which we can only pray to reach our destination in peace.)

Templeton Foundation Grant: Mindfulness & Tikkun Middot Project for Jewish Organizations

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.

 

Repair the World

Recently, I had the opportunity to test out a pet theory of mine and to see if it held any water.  I was excited and nervous:  what if this whole idea just sounded nice in my head but didn’t have any traction on the ground?

For the past three years or so, I have been interested in the juxtaposition of justice work and contemplative practices.  I had been leading a variety of service-learning trips, mostly with college students in the Global South, and also doing local volunteer work, helping a family of refugees from Burma start to make a new life for themselves in the US.  I had also been teaching meditation.  I wondered:  could there be a connection between these two worlds?

Perhaps combining social justice with contemplative practice could help make sure that meditation and prayer and learning don’t turn into self-indulgent, self-satisfied activities that are only about personal fulfillment.  And perhaps bringing contemplative practices to justice work could help ensure that activism is more creative, more sustainable and more grounded in the values it endeavors to hold.

At our Jewish Meditation Teacher Training retreat in November, I had the first opportunity to share some of my ideas and I was pleased with the positive reception.  But in some ways, I felt like I was preaching to the proverbial choir.  Many of the participants in the program are already involved in various forms of social change and all of them have a strong meditation practice.  All I had to do was connect the dots.

But this winter I had the opportunity to be the scholar in residence for Repair the World’s Fellow program.  This training was for twelve outstanding professionals who are leading service learning programs across the country.  They came to the training without any a priori interest in contemplative practices.  They were looking for tools to be more effective teachers, activists and organizers.

To my great delight, they got it right away.  They understood that, in the words of Paul Auster, “the inner and the outer could not be separated except by doing great damage to the truth.”  Paying attention to our inner lives – to what is difficult, to our own inner shadow, to the process of reflection – is the same thing as paying attention to the areas that need fixing out in the world, just on a different level.  And bringing a loving, gentle awareness to the areas of brokenness, both inner and outer, can open possibilities of healing and transformation in beautiful and surprising ways.

This is just the beginning.  Stay tuned for more…

Snow in the City

NY in snow

It is interesting that it took a snowstorm to turn New York City into Jerusalem on a Friday evening.

Like many people who have spent time in Jerusalem, one of things I love the most is the way Friday afternoons come into the Jewish parts of the city.  Bit by bit, the stores close and the roads empty out.  The sounds of the usual bustle begin to subside and a calm begins to pervade the squares and streets.  By the time the sun sets over the plain below, it can feel like the whole city has taken a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Last Friday, with the approach of Snowstorm Nemo, New York City could have been Jerusalem.  Sleet was falling in the afternoon and people began leaving, getting to where they would stay for the duration of the storm.  Even in Midtown, where our office is, bit by bit, there were fewer cars, less honking and sirens.  We closed the office a little early.  And by the time the snow began to fall in earnest, later in the evening, as I was on my way to Shabbat dinner, there was a magical hush everywhere.  The streets were mostly empty except for people walking, some with their dogs.  The glow from the strings of left-over holiday lights caught the softly falling snow.  The usually frantic city felt soothed and quiet.

One of the things I love about New York City is the wonderful energy and astonishing abundance of people and buildings and things to do and see and eat and explore. There is usually no stopping it or even any desire to stop it.  But on this Erev Shabbat, it seemed like the city shavat vayinafash – stopped and took a breath.

By Shabbat morning the sun was shining and the sky was blue.  I made my way to Central Park to explore the snowy woods and to watch the kids (of all ages!) playing in the snow.  New York was returning to itself: noisy, colorful, vibrant.  Yet, the magic of the snow stayed all through Shabbat.  It wasn’t until Sunday that there was more gray slush than pristine fields of snow – just in time for a new workaday beginning to the week.