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

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.

Chanukah

Menorah

 

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.

Sleepiness

Sleepiness

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.

Waiting Out Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane_Sandy

 

As Psalm 94 so succinctly puts it:  God knows that human plans are futile.  Instead of spending this week learning with Art Green and other teachers on retreat, we came back home to witness the overwhelming destruction swept in by the hurricane.  I and the other Institute staff were very, very lucky; we experienced very little of the direct fury of the storm and a great deal of concern and love from so many people from all over the world.

In the midst of the tremendous losses all around, I am noticing the role of waiting.  Beginning on Shabbat afternoon before the storm, there was a eerie stillness all around.  The air felt heavy, foreboding.  I came back to the city on Sunday and had to stock up on food and emergency supplies since I had not expected to be home.  The line at the grocery store snaked all around the entire building.  The anxiety was palpable, even though it was more than 24 hours before the storm arrived.  The stores closed and we all went home to wait.

And now that the winds and rain have stopped, we are still waiting:  waiting for the trains to start again, waiting for the roads to be cleared and for airports, schools and businesses to reopen.  Some are waiting for electricity and water to be restored and to get back into their damaged homes.  There will be waiting for insurance companies and rebuilding.

And there will be waiting for the terrible pain of grief to subside.  This must be the most difficult waiting of all.

In his book, “Sailing Home,” Norman Fischer writes, “We all know a crisis when we see it. … But after the dust of frenzied activity settles, and we are finally able to feel our way into what we have been through, we realize just how unhinged we have become.  We can’t go back to business as usual, for we sense that we no longer fit into our former life.  We need a new life.  But we don’t know how to find it.  There is nothing else to do right now but stay where we are and wait.”

Sometimes waiting is not simply passivity or wasting time.  Sometimes, even though it is frustrating, painful or anxiety-producing, it just takes time to let the things we have experienced work their way through our souls.  Waiting too can be holy work.

Of course, there are things to do while we are waiting: reaching out to loved ones and neighbors, contributing money and effort towards taking care of those in need and rebuilding, not to mention voting next week and thinking again about climate change.  But those are all human plans.  We have an opportunity to remember that sometimes the deep transformation can begin to emerge not from impulsive action, but rather precisely from the slow, difficult work of waiting.