Mindfulness Practice for Election Night

I remember election night 2016, which coincided with an IJS meditation teacher training
retreat. At first glance, it might seem dissonant to bring an election with all of its
emotion, spin, and hype into the retreat experience. However, at the Institute we have
the conviction that if our practice is going to be real it must be accessible and operative
in real life–no matter what the circumstances.

We sat at Brandeis Bardin, and watched the PBS coverage of the election. Every 20
minutes or so I rang a bell, we muted and covered the projection, and just sat together
for a few minutes. It was quite surreal and challenging to be in that strong container of
practice while also watching the election coverage. We all felt an intensity of emotion
that evening, compounded by the long hours of meditation leading up to election night.

However, as I’ve understood upon reflection, it was importantly and truly in the spirit of
our practice. It would have been easier and in many ways preferable to have not been on
retreat for that election, but it was also a powerful way of meeting the moment as it is,
with bravery and integrity to the principles of our practice. I am proud of the courage
and dedication of all the participants in the JMMTT program that year, as well as of our
staff. We all held each other up in real ways.

I believe that the fundamentals of what we did that night are good guidelines for all of
us to practice in the midst of this season, including on election night.

Keep reading

Prayers to Recite Before Voting

Below we offer three prayers for you to choose from, to be recited before voting. We recommend reciting your prayer(s) of choice immediately before casting your ballot as a way to ground your kavvanah (intention) for voting. The first was written by Rabbi Sam Feinsmith of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. The second, an improvised variation on the Kaddish, was composed by the beloved eighteenth-century Hasidic teacher Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev as a protest against the Czar. The third is a prayer for peace composed by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, another influential Hasidic teacher and a contemporary of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. If the length of the first prayer is a hindrance, you may choose as your prayer a few paragraphs that speak to your heart.

Read the three prayers

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.

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”...

read more

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.

read more

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?

read more

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?”

read more

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.

read more

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,...

read more

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...

read more

Sweetening the Root

The end of the year is often a time for looking back, a kind of collective secular cheshbon hanefesh: an accounting of what has transpired over the year. In addition to the list of top movies and songs, we can take a sober look at what were the big news stories, who...

read more

Loved, Clear, Courageous

Hanukkah is upon us and with it the aptness of all the metaphors of bringing light into the darkness. A less examined theme of the holiday, however, at least in many spiritual circles, is holy boldness - the decisive action that the Macabees took in the face of...

read more

Threefold Path of Action

Even before the horrific massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Shabbat, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the state of the world. The forces at play are so huge and the stakes are so high. How do we muster the courage to act? How do we even...

read more