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How Spiritual Practices Impacted my Bearing Witness Outside the Glynn County, GA Courthouse

On Thursday November 18, 2021 I traveled to Brunswick, GA along with eleven other Jewish clergy to bear witness and offer support to the Black pastors, the community and family members gathering at the Glynn County courthouse during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery, 25, was shot while going for a run in a suburban neighborhood. The chase and shooting were caught on video footage. Local rabbi and IJS Hevraya (alumni) member Rachael Bregman invited Jewish clergy to join her in Brunswick to bring spiritual comfort, solidarity, and to support the local community.

When I heard the call, my immediate response was YES. I don’t live there now, but I grew up in Georgia. While there are many parts of my upbringing in the South that I appreciate, I also find that when I walk on Georgia earth, I feel horror that any large tree I see might have borne “strange fruit”, a phrase referring to the 1937 song likening the many Black people lynched in the south to fruits hanging from trees. When I learned of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, I became nauseous. The same nausea I feel when the stirrings of “strange fruit” move through my body when I am on Georgia soil.

Reflecting now, I ask myself: what motivated my discernment to participate in this action? What enabled me to stand with others for the long hot hours, awaiting Reverend Sharpton’s arrival for the prayers and calls for justice? And what inspires me now, looking ahead? I noted several things.

First, years of regular spiritual practice have shaped my heart, mind, and my nervous system so that my soul and my body could move in sync throughout this journey after my initial response was to participate.

Additionally, years of contemplative daily prayer have forged in me the language for feeling myself part of something larger than my individual body and ego mind. The injustice around me is an affront to the God Who lives in me and in all of us. There is no difference between me and another human soul. This clarity strengthened my conviction to study and learn about the history and prevalence of racism in the USA, and further forged in me the clarity that I cannot stand idly by and look away from the suffering around me.

Likewise, regular mindfulness meditation practice helps me pay attention to emotions, thoughts, sensations, be they pleasant or unpleasant, and bear witness to them with less reactivity. No doubt, the years sitting in meditation helped me stand steady and more open, as strong emotions such as grief, rage, and the physical discomforts of thirst and heat were blazing all around on the courthouse lawn and steps.

Years of yoga and somatic practices enabled me to stay grounded in my body, and to center my attention on the bodies around me. When I noticed that many Black pastors and others crowding together in the hot sun, were sweating and seemed to be suffering in the heat, I registered that in my consciousness–rather than pass over that recognition as I focused on “important” matters. Because I noticed, I could enlist colleagues and together we located cartons of water bottles (that would have been discarded), and carried them to the courthouse steps where we distributed the hydration to Arbery family members, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and others. Had I not been transformed through years of body-centered spiritual practice, I would not likely have paid attention and been able to help serve those I prayed to be of support to on that day.

Lastly, twenty years of practice in spiritual direction have formed in me the desire to look for God’s presence in whatever is unfolding around and inside me. Pausing to listen for the sacred in the chants or see the sacred in the signage or in the faces of those I looked upon, and to listen to the stirrings in my own spirit as I moved through the day, I could better sustain an intention of remembrance: remember I am bearing witness to God’s presence here today, in every human being I encounter. Seeking the face of the divine, my heart remained more open and less at the mercy of my own preferences, judgments and opinions in that volatile and fractured situation.

Looking ahead, though I am wary about the implications of this and other trials, I believe even more strongly that spiritual practices can help bring clarity, insight, and strength as well as the capacity to remain soft and open, willing, more hopeful, and to bear witness from loving intention. The practices also cultivate the potential to stand our ground, and to notice where suffering might be attended to. Perhaps you, too, might take stock of how your spiritual practices equip you to meet the present moments in your life when you might feel called to respond and engage.

May we each be empowered through our practices to meet what is ours to meet, so that together we might bring blessing and love, advocacy and change, right where, when, and how it is needed most.

Resilient Writers Fellowship Feature Articles

I will pour out My spirit on all flesh
Your children shall prophesy
Your old shall dream dreams
And your youth shall see visions.

These words from the prophet Joel (made even more famous by Debbie Friedman) are a perfect introduction to the essays in the enclosed booklet, which are the product of the Resilient Writers Fellowship, a joint project of IJS and New Voices Magazine. Over the course of eight weeks in the winter and spring of 2021, this group of college students and recent graduates gathered online to explore the intersection of Torah, spiritual practice, creativity, and embodiment. These incredible essays are the fruits of their labor.

At a time when many young people were and are struggling — wrestling with social isolation, anxiety, depression, a global pandemic, political turmoil, and an uncertain future — this fellowship offered these outstanding young Jewish writers an opportunity to develop a personal set of practices to both navigate the emotions and spiritual challenges of an ailing world and maintain their creative work in a way that is sustainable and Jewishly rooted.

Co-facilitated by IJS Senior Program Director Rabbi Myriam Klotz and New Voices Editor Rena Yehuda Newman, the fellowship began with a three-hour opening online retreat, fostering a sense of community and connection between fellows, and gathered via Zoom each subsequent week on Thursday evenings for themed, 90-minute sessions where fellows learned, shared, and created Torah together. Throughout the fellowship, each fellow was responsible for writing a feature article on a topic of their choosing. Between sessions, fellows were encouraged to try an assortment of embodied and mindfulness practices, keyed to the weekly themes, to support their creative process.

As you will see in the essays in this booklet, these fellows come from an extraordinarily diverse, thoughtful, and provocative range of perspectives. They touch on issues ranging from Shabbat and time to body image and living through this extraordinary time of pandemic.

To Prevent a Crisis of Clergy Burnout, Help Them Cultivate Their Inner Lives

As a spate of recent articles have proclaimed, clergy face a crisis. In his recent piece in eJewishPhilanthropy, Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), warned of the real possibility of an exodus of rabbis from congregational life, due to the extreme additional emotional and professional burdens imposed upon them by the pandemic. He urges congregational lay leaders to mitigate this trend by acknowledging these additional burdens, expressing appreciation, increasing compensation, offering scheduling flexibility and time off, and being forgiving and generous towards clergy.

All of these are excellent, tangible steps institutions can take to address the symptoms of “clergy burnout” — a constant vocational hazard for rabbis across the denominational spectrum, which is greatly exacerbated by the extraordinary demands placed upon clergy in these pandemic times. External expression of empathy, gratitude, and tangible support from congregational leaders can, to some extent, ameliorate the heavy load clergy are bearing. But by themselves, these are band aids which can cover, but not heal, the underlying source of the problem.

To address the root causes of burnout, Jewish clergy themselves—liberal, Orthodox, and of every stripe—need spiritual practices and resources to help them navigate periods of “full catastrophe living” (in the phrase popularized by mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn) with grace, resilience, and wisdom. This has, in fact, been our approach to working with over 500 clergy across denominations over the last two decades at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. As part of our Clergy Leadership Program, we bring rabbis and cantors on retreat and engage them in spiritual practices including mindfulness meditation, contemplative study and prayer. We do this not so that they “take time out” or gulp down some oxygen in order to then get “back in the race”, but rather that they become more able to experience all moments of their work and life as opportunities for witnessing and lifting up awareness of the Divine.

This approach is analogous to the ritual of inhaling the sweetness of the spices at the conclusion of each Shabbat. The aroma of the spices reminds us (among other things) to infuse the six days of the week with the restorative quality of Shabbat. The rhythm of Jewish living is not sprinting for six days, catching our breath on the seventh day, and then returning to the track. Rather, we immerse in practices which help us cultivate a sense of Divine Presence on Shabbat, so that we might be better able to infuse all of our moments during the week with an awareness of that Presence.

Using this far more sustainable model, we immerse clergy in spiritual practice on retreats every six months, and in the interim periods between retreats, so they can learn skills for infusing their daily lives with breath and with a sense of Presence. We seek to help them experience their professional challenges not simply as burdens to be borne until they can set them down and breathe again, but as opportunities to engage in — and to model for others — spiritual practice and cultivate awareness of the sacred dimension of life.

The results of this approach are striking. Even years after their participation in our Clergy Leadership Program, 99% of alumni report that, because of their spiritual practice, they are able to be more fully present (56% of which report “to a great extent”) and 94% have greater emotional resilience (42% “to a great extent”). Amazingly, fully 87% of participants report that developing a spiritual practice increased their connection to their Jewishness.

This approach to Jewish mindfulness practices empowers clergy so that in times of stress they are better able to remain present in body, mind, and spirit — present for their congregants, themselves, and the Divine. Through their practice, clergy learn to exercise self-compassion rather than berating themselves for not being able to “do it all” and do it “perfectly.” By becoming more tender and compassionate towards themselves, they also learn to be more compassionate with those they serve.

It is easy in this period for clergy to imagine they need to be heroic figures, that they are being “tested”. But here we might learn from a 19th century Hasidic commentator, the Tiferet Shlomo (R. Shlomo Hakohen Rabinowitz of Radomsk, 1803-1866) who taught that the Hebrew word for the verb “test” — “nisa” — can be understood as a reverse acronym for the Hebrew expression “someikh noflim”, “uplifting the fallen”, a descriptor of God found in our liturgy. On the basis of this approach, that which appears to us as a “test” may actually be an opportunity instead to simply be present, to respond hineini, “I am here”, and notice a Divine source of strength buoying and uplifting us, rather than waiting to see if we will “pass” or “fail”.

Rabbi Kamrass is correct: particularly in these times, Jewish clergy need empathy and material support from their lay partners in congregational life and from the community at large. At the same time, more than ever they need spiritual tools, resources and community which can serve as somkhei noflim, supporting them in the midst of their efforts “in the field.” If we are to stem the tide of burnout and an exodus from the pulpit, we must support Jewish clergy to help them transform the “test” of these times into ongoing moments of spiritual uplift and awareness of the Divine Presence.

Rabbi Marc Margolius is a Senior Program Director at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.


 

[1] With gratitude to my teacher and friend Rabbi Dorothy Richman (a member of the IJS Rabbis 2 cohort) who offered this teaching on the IJS Daily Meditation on October 21, 2021.

A Conversation with Dr. Lisa Miller

We are grateful to Dr. Lisa Miller for joining us on Tuesday, October 5, 2021 for a special evening.
In conversation with Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Dr. Miller shared her insights and research on the new science of spirituality.

Lisa Miller, PhD, is a professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the Founder and Director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, and the author of The Spiritual Child. To learn more and order The Awakened Brain, visit https://www.lisamillerphd.com.

An Evening of Music with Joey Weisenberg

We are grateful to Joey Weisenberg for joining us on Tuesday, July 20, 2021 for a special evening. In conversation with Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Joey shared his music and insights.

Joey Weisenberg is a virtuosic multi-instrumental musician, composer and teacher. He is the Founder and Director of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute, cultivating grassroots musical-spiritual creativity in Jewish community. He has released seven albums with the Hadar Ensemble and is the author of The Torah of Music (2017 winner of the National Jewish Book Award).

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