We founded the Institute in 1999 in response to a challenge by then President of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Charles Halpern, to help liberal Jews find greater access to the deep wisdom of the Jewish spiritual inheritance and to help them build lives of vital and engaged practice. Rabbi Rachel Cowan, then Jewish Life Program Officer at the Foundation, gathered a small group of colleagues who worked together to create an intensive, practice-based model of Jewish spiritual learning and exploration.
The project was first nurtured by Metivta and directed by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, becoming its own non-profit, tax-deductible organization in 2004, with Larry Schwartz taking exquisite leadership as Board Chair.
In January 2000, under the guidance of the Institute’s founding Executive Director, Rabbi Nancy Flam, the first programs were launched: an eighteen-month long, retreat-based learning and practice program for rabbis, and a similar year-long program for lay leaders. From the outset, we believed that professional and lay Jewish leadership would need to work together to create structures of learning and exploration for Jews seeking a serious, contemplative, practice-based Judaism.
Soon after (2003), the Institute launched a similar retreat-based model of learning for cantors, directed by Rabbi Jonathan Slater. And not long after (2004), we were able to offer such a program for Jewish educators of teens. Since the first professional cohort was launched in the year 2000, we have run seven cohort programs for rabbis, two for cantors and one for educators, training close to 350 Jewish professionals, 90% of whom continue to engage with ongoing Institute programs, such as two tracks of weekly Hasidic text study directed by Rabbi Jonathan Slater or the twice-yearly retreats for alumni (Hevraya), directed by Rabbi Marc Margolius.
In an effort to widen the reach of the Institute’s approach to learning and exploration, we developed a two-year intensive curriculum for Jewish communities, entitled Vetaher Libeynu: A Curriculum for Adult Learners. Vetaher Libeynu has been taught by dozens of professional Institute alumni throughout North America. In addition, the Institute developed an intensive two-year program called Kivvun, which has supported community leaders to deepen their own spiritual practice while taking greater initiative in the Jewish world through their synagogues and community centers and through entrepreneurial efforts of their own.
In 2010, the Institute began a training program to raise up a new generation of teachers who can bring the Institute’s mindful perspective to the Jewish community. The Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training (JMMTT), founded by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg and Rabbi Jeff Roth, has trained over 60 individuals in the art of teaching mindfulness meditation and practice in a Jewish context and idiom.
Over our fourteen-year history, the Institute has grown a core staff of dedicated individuals who work with an array of talented guest faculty from across the spectrum of the American Jewish leadership. It maintains its administrative office in New York City, directed by Rabbi Lisa Goldstein.