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Reflections on Sukkot

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dwellings and about containers — about the temple whose destruction we mourn on Tisha B’av at the start of the holy day arc and about the sukkah that we celebrate at its end. About the houses and apartments we’ve all been largely cooped up in these past many months, and about the way we can lock up our emotions, especially the painful ones, in our bodies.

A week or so after my dad died, many years ago, I found myself standing in The Container Store, not far from our house but not a place I ever go. In the fog of grief, I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten there — or why. I just knew I’d felt compelled to come to this place, with aisle upon aisle of containers and boxes and storage devices of all kinds. Surely, I could find here what I needed: something large enough to hold my overwhelming grief. I could find a way to contain it, tuck it away, if only for a while, so that I could see again and breathe. I bought so much stuff that day! My husband, Dennis, didn’t know what to say when I arrived home with blanket boxes, spice racks, drawer organizers, sweater bags, you name it. Of course none of it worked as a way to hold my grief but somehow, in the midst of all that organizing, I began the long, slow process of feeling my sorrow and integrating it.

I’ve had a similar response to the pandemic and everything that’s followed in its wake: marches, murders, wildfires. In March, I threw myself into work, incredibly grateful to be doing something meaningful for a place I love, but also grateful for the guardrails that working long hours provided. On the weekends and at night, I became fairly obsessed with home projects. Like many Americans lucky enough to have a home, I painted, calked, and scrubbed. I rearranged the furniture. I re-stuffed the cushions on my grandmother’s sixty year old sofa. I organized all of the books in our house alphabetically by period and genre. I’ve wanted to do that for 20 years, but who has the time? Suddenly, home all day, every day, I did. (Worth noting: I no longer have small kids at home, like many of my friends, to whom I send prayers of blessing every single day.)

But clearly, it’s not just about having extra hours in my day. In the midst of this swirling, scary time I was trying to contain the chaos by fortifying my dwelling– making it stronger, safer, more impervious to all the bad things out there. Like when my dad died, I was trying to find the perfect container for my grief and confusion, my anxiety and fear.

But hermetically sealed containers, of any kind, are spiritually dangerous. They might protect us from certain things, but they also cut us off from everything worthwhile. Dennis has joked to friends that living with me the past few months has sometimes felt like engaging with a toddler in parallel play. (Can’t he tell that I’m desperately trying to build our family a fortress with my blocks?) I know he’s right. I’m here, but I’ve cut myself off, too often preoccupied with my own toys to give him my heart’s full attention or to receive his. 

When I was in my twenties, I used to tell my friends that spiritually I aspired to be a colander — so that everything superfluous and yucky just washed over me and away, with only the nutritious parts remaining. But then I converted to Judaism, and the metaphor shifted. Now I want to be a sukkah. It’s such a richer metaphor, because it’s not about just holding onto the good parts, but about letting everything in: the sun and the rain, the mist and the moonlight. The last warm days before winter, the chilly night air, and best of all — God.

The Torah teaches us that if we are going to know God and become who we are meant to be, we have to leave our homes in Egypt for the wilderness and its sukkot. Neither are what they appear to be of course. Our brick homes in Egypt aren’t secure, and a sukkah in the wilderness isn’t fragile. When we live in a sukkah, we aren’t out in the elements alone. God is with us. And, as in all things Jewish, we have each other. It’s not enough to sit in a sukkah, though. We have to be a sukkah — open, receptive, vulnerable, with faith that we are protected.

Last week, my colleague Rabbi Myriam Klotz led our staff through an embodied practice in which each of us situated and felt ourselves deep inside our bodies, our personal sukkahs. It was a powerful experience. For the first time, I felt cracks in walls I didn’t even know I’d built around my heart these past months. I FELT. I felt my sorrow and caught a glimpse of my real fear. I was so relieved. I was sad, absolutely, but also — because paradox is always and inevitably at the heart of spiritual life — I was joyful, to be fully present to the sukkah of my body and everything it’s holding.

That night, I dreamt that all of my worldly possessions were in the trunk of my car. I was driving on a dirt road through the woods, at dusk. My version of the wilderness? I pulled over and opened up the trunk — only to discover that everything was gone, all of it. It hit me like a gut punch. I woke up suddenly, breathless. But then I felt this odd sense of both relief and deep connection. Yes, we can lose everything in a second, just like that — as our ancestors did fleeing Egypt, or all the people in Oregon and California whose homes have burned to the ground. Like George Floyd on a Minneapolis street corner and Breonna Taylor lying in her own bed.

I want to keep feeling both the gut punches and the connections that are only possible when I live both in and as a sukkah. I am so grateful to my colleagues and teachers at IJS for showing me ways to keep tearing down the walls and letting God in.

The Shofar Project Adds Four New Partners

We are pleased to announce that ALEPH, the American Conference of Cantors, Cantors Assembly, and Torat Chayim have joined The Shofar Project as our newest partners.

These four organizations join the Central Conference of American Rabbis, International Rabbinic Fellowship, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructing Judaism, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Union for Reform Judaism, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in this historic cross-denominational partnership with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

The Shofar Project is a free program that runs during the month of Elul (August 20 – September 18) and includes daily Jewish mindfulness meditation sits led by clergy from the partner organizations, weekly Torah study, and a twice-weekly Jewish yoga studio. IJS faculty will prepare short teachings to frame each week in a theme related to listening to the shofar. Upon registration at IJS’s website, participants receive email reminders about the weekly and daily events. Local communities can create weekly practice groups to reflect on the themes and build other programs around them.

For more information on The Shofar Project, including registration information, visit https://www.jewishspirituality.org/go-deeper/the-shofar-project/.

The Institute for Jewish Spirituality Collaborates with Movements in Historic Cross-Denominational Spiritual Partnership

In an historic cross-denominational partnership, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality today announced the Shofar Project, a program of spiritual preparation for the High Holidays in collaboration with the Central Conference of American Rabbis, International Rabbinic Fellowship, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructing Judaism, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Union for Reform Judaism, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The free program runs during the month of Elul (August 20-September 18) and includes daily Jewish meditation sits led by clergy from the partner organizations, weekly Torah study, and a twice-weekly Jewish yoga studio. IJS faculty will prepare short teachings to frame each week in a theme related to listening to the shofar. Upon registration at IJS’s website, participants receive email reminders about the weekly and daily events. Local communities can create weekly practice groups to reflect on the themes and build other programs around them.

“What is most exciting to me about The Shofar Project is that it’s really an open-source platform,” said IJS Executive Director Rabbi Josh Feigelson. “Because it’s free, local communities can piggy-back on the programming and customize it. That’s a big paradigm shift and a wonderful form of collaboration and partnership.”

“IJS has pioneered the renewal of Jewish spiritual life in North America for over 20 years, and we are thrilled to partner with them,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Hundreds of Reform clergy have transformed their approach to Torah and Jewish life through experiences with IJS. I know—I was in the very first cohort of rabbis who studied with IJS two decades ago. So I’m thrilled that we can bring this Torah to so many more people through this partnership.”

Feigelson reflected that the cross-denominational collaboration potentially reflected a broader turning-point: “While I know the movements have collaborated in various ways over the years, I cannot think of a time when this wide a cross-section came together in the cause of spiritual practice. It’s profoundly heartening to witness, especially at a moment when so many people are awakening to the vital importance of spiritual life.”

For more information on The Shofar Project, including registration information, visit https://www.jewishspirituality.org/go-deeper/the-shofar-project/.

Rabbi Myriam Klotz Joins IJS Staff as Senior Program Director

The Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) announced today that Rabbi Myriam Klotz will join the organization’s staff as Senior Program Director effective August 17.

Klotz, a major figure in Jewish yoga and embodied practice for decades, has been a faculty member at IJS since 2003. She has taught in the organization’s flagship clergy leadership training programs and recently helped to launch its online Jewish yoga studio. In her new position, she will lead the Institute’s development of embodied and somatic practices, with a particular focus on how attention to the body can aid healing, inclusion, and justice work on behalf of traditionally marginalized populations. Her position at IJS will be half-time while she continues her work as Coordinator of Spiritual Direction at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Director of Bekhol Levavkha: A Training Program for Jewish Spiritual Directors, also at HUC-JIR.

“I am thrilled that Myriam is joining our program staff,” said IJS Executive Director Rabbi Josh Feigelson. “So many of us are awakening to the ways in which our bodies are intimately tied up with our minds, hearts, and spirits—and how paying more attention to our bodies can help us heal from trauma, relate to ourselves and others with greater compassion and bring about greater inclusion, equity, and justice. We have an opportunity to expand and deepen the ways our Torah at IJS responds to these forms of awakening and ensures we collectively sustain and build on them into the future and Myriam is exactly the right person to help lead that effort.”

Klotz received her B.A. from Brown University and was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is a certified yoga instructor and yoga therapist. She lives in Philadelphia with her spouse Rabbi Margot Stein and their son, Raffi.

IJS Welcomes Maidelle Goodman Benamy as Director of Development

The Institute for Jewish Spirituality announced today that Maidelle Goodman Benamy will become the organization’s Director of Development effective July 22.

Benamy joins IJS after an already distinguished 35-year career in philanthropy and Jewish communal work. She has previously served as Vice President of Development at the Educational Alliance, Executive Vice President at the Jewish National Fund, and most recently as director of the capital campaign at the Shefa School. Benamy’s career has also included service at UJA-Federation of New York, the Anti-Defamation League, and Hillels of New York.

“Maidelle is an incredible addition to our team at IJS,” says Executive Director Rabbi Josh Feigelson. “Her energy, intelligence, wisdom and experience will help us build on the amazing programmatic growth we’ve experienced in recent years and especially the last several months. She is exactly the person to help us secure the support and build the infrastructure we need to meet the spiritual needs of so many individuals and communities now and in the future. IJS is  extraordinarily fortunate that a professional of Maidelle’s caliber and accomplishments is joining us.”

Benamy holds a Masters degree in Community Social Work from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work and a BA from Barnard College. She is a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, NY, and is the proud mother of three children, friend to 2 daughters-in-law, and grandmother of three.

IJS Welcomes Michal Fox Smart as Chief Program Officer

The Institute for Jewish Spirituality announced today that Michal Fox Smart will become the organization’s first Chief Program Officer effective July 1. She will serve as the leader of the program team, overseeing the Institute’s faculty and program staff and...

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Mindfulness Practice: An Ark in the Storm

In Genesis, God instructs Noah to build an ark to protect his family and two of each species on earth from the floodwaters that God will bring. “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood: make it an ark with compartments and cover it inside and out with pitch”...

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Intentional Communities

The phrase “community of practice” is one of those bandied-about terms that seems particularly suited to Jewish spiritual groups: Community and practice – how obvious and how obviously beneficial!

And yet, it’s also not so simple.

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Rage and Love: Reaching Out

Last week we offered a meditation retreat for activists from across the country, thanks to a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation in memory of Rabbi Rachel Cowan. At the end of a few days of cultivating a loving heart through meditation, prayer and silence, the participants shared their thoughts and experiences of connecting contemplative practice with their work as activists. Several of them expressed the tension between the rage they felt in response to their own experiences of oppression which then fuels their work and the healing power of reaching out – and in – in love. It was such a relief to immerse in love. But what about the justifiable anger at all that is hurtful and unjust in our world?

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Hey Big Talkers: Shhh

We Jews are known for being big talkers. We are stereotypically a people of a lot of words, of arguments, of big ideas, of strong opinions. I remember once speaking to a Catholic boys’ school in Missouri. The first kid raised his hand and said, to his teacher’s mortification, “Our science teacher is Jewish and she talks fast, too. Do all Jews talk fast?” (I quickly said, “Yes!”) It’s not surprising that people frequently raise their eyebrows when they hear what IJS does and ask, “How do you get Jews to be quiet?”

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Facing Our Vulnerability

In our people’s mythic calendar, this is the time of year that we are journeying from the Red Sea to Sinai, from Passover to Shavuot. For me the annual pilgrimage started, as it does most years, when I made the journey to my parents’ home for Passover. And as usual, each time I boarded the plane, coming and going, I whispered the traveler’s prayer to myself.

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A Year of Learning

Last week we celebrated a special anniversary: it has been one year since my husband and I became foster parents to a wonderful 18-year-old refugee from West Africa. It has been a year of great blessing and joy and also of tremendous learning, as you can imagine,...

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Where It All Begins

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...

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