“The joy was more palpable than any other prayer service I have ever experienced…PROFOUND. Thank you.”

— Lay Retreat participant Winter 2012

January 2019 Newsletter

Lisa Goldstein

Where It All Begins

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein

This month begins IJS’s 20th anniversary year! I was not personally present at the very beginning in 1999 when Rachel Cowan (z”l) and Nancy Flam brought together an extraordinary group of spiritual teachers and seekers in a process of sharing and learning that became the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. So much has changed and evolved since then.

But one thing that has not changed has been the core values that undergird our work. Like all values, they are aspirational. Like all intentions, we fall short occasionally and recommit ourselves to them anew. As we take stock of the last 20 years and begin the process of reflection and rededication towards the next 20, I wanted to share these powerful values with you in hopes that they inspire you as much as they inspire me.

Shiviti Adonai lenegdi tamid: I strive to cultivate an awareness of God in every moment.

We seek a spiritual practice that wakes us to God’s reality in all aspects of our lives. The whole earth is full of God’s glory!

Tzelem Elohim: The Divine Image

We affirm and strive to reflect the divine and infinite potential in each human being.

Kehilla Kedosha: Holy Community

Creating and maintaining a safe, intentional community allows for deep listening to ourselves and to others, and opens us for healing, connection and insight.

Im eyn ani li mi li?: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Jewish leaders best serve and inspire their communities when they cultivate and refine their own spiritual lives–you can’t give what you don’t have.

La aleycha hamlachah ligmor: You do not have to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it

Spiritual growth is a life-long process that requires ongoing commitment, practice and guidance.

Tikkun HaNefesh and Tikkun Olam

We understand that our work to cultivate awareness leads inexorably to acts of kindness and justice.

Ki tavo chochmah b’libeycha, v’da’at l’nafsehcha yinam: For wisdom will enter your mind and knowledge will delight you

While we inherit a unique religious tradition, we are open to, benefit from, and integrate wisdom from other traditions.

Redeeming Sparks of Language

We are committed to helping people connect their traditional Jewish God, language, and ritual with their authentic inner experience in order to nurture and expand their sense of experiencing of God as Jews.

Mechadesh b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh beresheet: The world is constantly created anew

We believe in the power of Teshuva–the capacity of Jews and Judaism to change and grow and thereby be of greater service to themselves and to the world.


Rededicating Ourselves to Practice: 20 Years of IJS

Institute for Jewish Spirituality Staff


Each secular New Year, there is a tradition of setting new intentions, or returning to old ones. We call these New Year’s Resolutions: committing (or re-committing) to habits, goals, or practices that we believe will enrich our lives, relationships, or spirits. This is part of Jewish New Year tradition as well: at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we acknowledge the spiritual leave-taking, yitziah, which occurred throughout the past year, and engage in intentional acts of teshuvah, spiritual returning, or home-coming.

Each year, we rededicate ourselves to practice in different ways. Perhaps through acknowledging what has lapsed in our spiritual work. Perhaps through looking for new sources of spiritual enrichment or deepened learning. Perhaps through noticing where there are needs in the world, and making a commitment to connecting our inner work to the outer work of addressing those needs.

This year is a special one. In 2019, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Twenty years since our inception around a kitchen table, our model of cultivating personal and social transformation through contemplative Jewish spiritual practice is more essential than ever. We will be recommitting ourselves to our practice throughout this year, from our summer retreat, Deepening at 20: Heart-Opening Practice for Challenging Times, to our national day of practice, open to everyone in our communities, all over the world.

Teshuvah is a returning practice, but this year at IJS, it is recommitment, rededication, and homecoming. Mark your calendars, save the date, and plan to join us for a virtual day of study, learning, and celebration.

Questions and practices for consideration:

  1. Kavannah Practice: Many of us set secular New Year’s Resolutions, but the secular New Year is also approximately halfway through the Jewish calendar. Whether you set resolutions for yourself on January 1st or set intentions for practice in Tishrei, check in with yourself about those intentions or resolutions: how they have gone, how you have fulfilled your commitments, if you have noticed changes or kept to practices. Notice the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise when you check in.
  2. Journaling Practice: Consider the definitions of spiritual yitziah and teshuvah used here: leave-taking and home-coming. Write about a time you took a meaningful journey. What made the journey meaningful? How did it impact your spiritual life?

Honesty, Humility, Resolve

Rabbi Nancy Flam

It’s always humbling, at best, to recognize that we’ve fallen away from living in alignment with our highest selves. Especially when we know that it is partly, or even largely, due to having grown negligent or complacent with the practices that nurture and protect the expression of our divine souls: prayer, meditation, soul accounting, awareness of how we express our middot in the world, etc. It can be hard to counter the negative inertia and realize we need to start again and to start from whatever place we find ourselves.

Meditation teacher Phillip Mofitt often instructed just that during the month-long meditation retreat he taught (during which one was sure to rise up and fall down, repeatedly): “Start again, and start where you are.” Especially for those of us who have been walking a spiritual path for years or who serve as spiritual teachers or guides for others, it can be quite humbling when we fall hard.

But the best advice I know is to start again, and to start from where we are. Together with Phillip Moffitt’s advice, I have always loved this teaching from the Piecetzner Rebbe, who reminds us that although we all wish we were tzaddikim, it actually takes work to be so. And we can keep making progress, year by year, but to do so we must investigate our resolution.

Resolution: The Inner Drive to Work toward Progress
If you want to know if you’ve progressed on your spiritual path over the years, the way to judge is to look at your resolution – at your inner drives – and not at your wishes. Only the inner drive with which you work to attain your desired goal is called resolution. But if you do not work but rather just want, this is not called resolution. Every Jew would like to be a Tzaddik, but this is no more than a wish; he’d like to wake up in the morning and suddenly find himself a Tzaddik. Only the level and state of being that you seriously work toward can truly be called resolution…But the true inner drive that is accompanied with hard work is not for jumping but for gradual progress. Step after step to a higher level is the goal of those driven from within. Consequently, the objective of your resolution will be in direct proportion to your present spiritual level: at the beginning your strivings will be to master lower levels. If you want to know how you have progressed and gauge the change in your spiritual level, compare the goal of your drive last year with that for which you strive now. Is it for the same objectives or even for higher?
Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (Esh Kodesh), To Heal the Soul: The Spiritual Journal of a Chasidic Rebbe, p. 9 and 9. 26


Rededication: Returning Again to What Is

Rabbi Jonathan Slater

In this meditation we investigate directly, through our experience, the nature of rededication. We set an intention, fall away, and return. We build our inner mishkan, see its collapse, and recall its beauty in our return.


A Simple Walk in the Woods

Barbara Stock, IJS Alumna

My husband saw it as an opportunity for renewal. We’d lucked out. We’d downsized our home from six bedrooms to a compact, one story Chicago bungalow, a breathtaking Frank Lloyd Wright style home complete with stained glass windows, archways and a carved Belgian stone fireplace. My husband was ecstatic. He’d moved into my house when we married. This new house would be “our home.” He’d come through quadruple by-pass surgery. He was living with a pacemaker, a defibrillator, several stents and lots of medicine. This house renewed his hope for the future.

The new house held different meaning for me. Yes, I loved the beauty, the light, the proportions, the location close to my office and my grandchildren. But in moving, I was leaving behind reminders of a most important phase of my life – single parenthood of young children – piñata parties, indoor picnics on the floor, annual first day of school photos by the tree, lemonade stands, family sit down talks, sleepovers, graduations. I’d grown from a frightened, overwhelmed young woman to a much more confident adult.

Now I was again riding tsunami waves of feelings: sadness, poignancy, regret mixed with amazement, gratitude, joy. I felt emotionally unanchored. Forty years in this house. What was next? With trepidation and anticipation, I surrendered the remote garage door opener and the house keys.

I couldn’t go back. The only way was forward. Change my house. Change my life. As I unpacked boxes, I watched for a sign of renewal calling out to me: a new career, the Peace Corps, the Himalayas – something dramatic, exotic.

My rabbi suggested the answer might come by leaving town for a mindfulness retreat of five days in silent meditation. I agreed without hesitation. This was just what I needed: time and space to leave behind the old and find the next path forward.

I flew from Chicago to Connecticut and joined a group of strangers in the woods. The agenda included daily lectures and a bit of “talk time” but mostly silence: sitting, eating, journaling, and movement meditation by yoga, Qi gong, even a labyrinth walk, all in silence.

By the fourth day, I still had not found a new direction. In fact, I felt more lost. I wondered if I’d underestimated how much of my identity was attached to maturing in that house I’d left behind. There I’d coped with my cancer, my husband’s heart attacks, my adult children’s life threatening illnesses, my parents’ deaths. In this new neighborhood, no one knew me. They would see me as a grey haired senior in my seventies, an “old person” downsizing to a house with minimal stairs. That’s how I saw myself.

Determined to create a renewal, I joined the group taking a mindful walk in the woods. It seemed like the perfect way to find my new direction. Little did I know.

As we gathered, the leader surprised me, saying, “This mindfulness meditation is not easy.” How could walking be hard? He read a Buddhist reflection on the importance of mindfully walking, step by step. Then he gave simple directions: “Watch for the orange markings on the trees. These will lead on a path through the forest to the back of the retreat center. Stop along the way to sit and meditate as you wish.” Then he headed off into the woods.

Instinctively I walked close behind the leader. I stretched my short person steps to match the leader’s longer strides. I thought I was walking mindfully. Actually I was not. I was so busy trying to keep up, I was not checking my own body. A couple walked ahead of me, the rest of the group behind me. In short time, the couple stopped to sit on a rock. I strained to keep the leader in sight, then lost him. I focused on the orange ribbons and watched for wildlife.

In the woods, I enjoyed my mind’s wanderings. Long ago as a young graduate student, I rode a school bus with Headstart children in rural Kentucky. This was before seatbelts. The children scrambled from side to side, calling out squirrels, chipmunks, deer. I never saw what they saw. Now I looked and listened but again saw no wild life. So much still exists beyond my senses. And then suddenly I realized, I could no longer see orange ribbons – not a single one in any direction.

I continued to walk forward, playing out a scene of angrily confronting the leader. He should not have taken off without a backward glance. He was like my father, unable to skillfully protect me. I let it go. Anger never served me. I played with the drama of a search party aiming searchlights through the trees. Realistically, the sun was high. I had plenty of time before dark to find my way. No helicopters. No flares. No drama. I thought, “I have to find my own way” – just as I’d decided as a child, first-born daughter of immigrants, forging my path.

Was I scared? I didn’t check my body. I didn’t want to know. I was truly lost in a wooded forest, no idea if foxes or other beasts roamed here. In elementary school, when the principal brought a parrot to our classroom, the bird took off, flying frantically until it landed on me. The other kids squealed and jumped out of their seats. Frozen, I sat still. The principal quietly lifted the parrot from my shoulder, praising me for what she saw as my calm. To this day, I cope by containing my feelings, generally hiding my fears even from myself. “You do what you have to do in a crisis,” a good friend once commented. “You let yourself feel later.” This was no time to feel. This was a crisis. If I had let myself feel in these woods, I would have felt terrified. What I needed to do was get out of this forest, find my way back to the retreat center. I could process feelings later.

As I hesitated, a young man arrived behind me, silently held out a hand and helped me across a narrow creek. He seemed to know where he was going though for the life of me I couldn’t see any orange markers. I followed him until he moved out of sight.

In retrospect, if I’d walked mindfully, I wouldn’t have allowed my mind to wander. I would never have taken a step until I saw the next orange marker. I’d been deep in my thoughts, enjoying my internal travels. Now I was deep in the woods, the path squishy from the overflowing creek.

The canopy of trees blocked the sun. Now, more mindful, I watched my feet so I wouldn’t trip over a branch or sink into the soggy leaves. I had no clue where I was going, traveling with no compass, no path. I’d done that before: one of the few women in my Ph.D. program in the 60’s, divorced in the ‘70’s with three young sons, few older women graduate students or divorced friends to guide me. My mind kept wandering. The Buddhist was right: this mindful walk was a real challenge.

“Stop. Breathe. Be mindful.” David Wagoner’s poem “Lost” came to mind: “You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.”

Let it find me. Let go of searching. Trust the Universe. That’s hard for me.

And then a man and a woman in bright orange jackets emerged several yards to my right. Relieved to see them, admitting to myself I definitely needed help, I broke silence. I called out, asking if they were on the path. They nodded and waited for me to come close, then walked off. I followed. I stepped onto a traveled path with ribbons on the trees. My torso relaxed. Tears of relief and joy flowed down my cheeks. The couple walked quickly out of sight.

I breathed in the light. Out loud, I spoke softly, “Thank you,” for the beauty of the untended space, thanks for the solid ground under my feet, thanks for the people who knew the way. Then, walking, I focused on the orange ribbons…

… Until I realized the path had led me back into the bush again with no orange ribbon in sight. “I am truly lost,” I said out loud. “I must walk toward the sun. That will set my direction.” I noticed I was talking out loud to myself, comforting myself with a plan. In time the forest became less dense. Suddenly the sun broke through the trees. Way in the distance, I could see an opening. I walked through to a clearing, a meadow with a house and a highway further on.

I felt lighter as I ran to the house. I peered through the windows, looking for a sign of life. Abruptly I stopped. This house was isolated, no others even in the distance. I was alone, sweaty, trespassing. I walked to the highway as fast as I could, working hard to prevent my imagination from creating a Stephen King thriller.

Again, I had to choose. Which way to turn? The retreat center faced the highway but I had no idea how to find it. I had no smart phone with me, no GPS, not even an address. In childhood day camp we’d gone on Penny Pitch hikes, tossing a penny and deciding which way to turn. No penny. I turned right and began walking. As a truck passed, I waved. I was not asking for a ride, simply directions. Surely a truck driver would know! He didn’t hesitate. He pointed me in the opposite direction. ”Just a mile or so,” he said.

I took his advice, turned around and began walking…and walking…and walking. At home I walk at least a mile every morning. After awhile I realized I’d been walking much more than a mile.

Ahead I spotted a rural postal cart. “Turn around,” the postal woman said kindly. “You’re headed in the wrong direction. It’s quite a ways down the road.”

By now I was tired and thirsty. “A good ways down the road” sounded as daunting as a march across the Sahara. It never crossed my mind to sit and rest. I waved to an oncoming car, hoping for a ride.

“Be careful,” the postal woman said, watching me.

“Of what?” I thought. “I’ve just walked through a forest.”

Cars sped by. Finally a woman stopped and waved me in. “I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker before,” she said, smiling.

“I’ve never hitchhiked before.”

We laughed. She lived near the retreat center. We chatted until she dropped me off and drove on. As in life, when I’ve needed help, a teacher, a friend, a stranger appears.

Back at the retreat center, I washed and sat at silent lunch, trying to wrap my mind around all that I’d experienced. My mind kept wandering. I couldn’t take it in.

In our afternoon “talk time,” one member after another mentioned getting lost. Each had turned back or waited to turn back with a companion. Even the couple in orange jackets had later gotten lost. Still trying to take in the full experience, I found myself recounting detail by detail, as if reliving a trauma: the path, the soggy ground, the choices, the help.

Hearing my story, the leader apologized. “I could’ve gotten you killed,” he said. I hadn’t taken in the real danger. Determination and perseverance are my strengths. Getting lost in my own thoughts, I learned, can be a dangerous weakness.

When I returned to my new house, life pulled me into old, familiar challenges. My husband was hospitalized in ICU with dehydration, pneumonia, and then several episodes of congestive heart failure. My path ahead was clear. I consulted with doctors, visited rehab facilities and worked with the handyman to prepare the new house with bannisters for his return home. Nothing exotic. Just life. Within the next year, my husband required a valve replacement, became skeletal from lack of appetite, and needed a new battery for his pacemaker-defibrillator. He indeed received a renewal, just not the sort he anticipated.

I returned from the retreat with a new blank journal and the practice of morning meditation. I began to feel calmer, more anchored. Still I couldn’t let go of the confusion of my walk through the woods. I re-walked and re-walked the path in my mind: the trees, the brush, the creek, the solid road. How had I missed the orange ribbons? Had I also missed signs of a new life path?

Now, on the second anniversary of our move, I see the folly of my over-focused search for a new external path. My disorientation was not about leaving the old house. It was from not recognizing that wherever I go, I take myself with me. All I need to do is breathe and stay connected to my body and spirit. The paths emerge. As Theodore Roethke wrote, “I learn by going where I need to go.” I trust I’ll find my way. I always have.

Celebrate IJS at 20!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

10:30 am – 12 noon EST


1:30pm – 3pm,   EST

Celebrate together with meditation, study, discussion and music!

Join online from anywhere in the world. Invite others. Host a group.

Free of charge and open to all!

More details to follow.

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