From 2009 to 2017, Sarah Hurwitz served as a White House speechwriter, first as a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama and then as head speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama. Prior to serving in the Obama Administration, Sarah was chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton on her 2008 presidential campaign.
Sarah is the author of Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life – in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), a book about her experience rediscovering Judaism as an adult, which discusses among other things her transformative experience with Jewish mindfulness meditation.
IJS Executive Director Josh Feigelson interviewed Sarah during a live public event on April 28, 2020. This is a full recording of their conversation.
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” (Genesis 6:14). The implication is clear: if the ark is to be a true refuge from the coming floods, Noah must pay close attention to how it’s built.
Like Noah’s Ark, our spiritual practices can provide us with a lifeboat, a place of safety and refuge in a world turned upside down. Like Noah, we are invited to pay attention and mindfully build for ourselves through practice a place of safety and wholeness. In the midst of the storm in which we find ourselves, our practice can provide a refuge, breath by breath and moment by moment. For those of us with established practices, now is the time to recommit and deepen them. For those new to mindfulness or who have long wanted to start such a practice, there’s never been a better time to begin. IJS offers numerous resources to launch you on this journey.
We share here some general guidelines for how you might use your mindfulness practice during this time to build your inner ark and find solace and strength:
- Cultivate Body Awareness: The uncertainty and disruption of this time leave all of us feeling anxious and even scared to some degree — for ourselves, our elders, our students and children, and our communities. Centering ourselves into a body awareness practice can help us cut through the ruminations that drive much of our anxiety and fear. Try out a practice like simply observing your breath coming in and going out or mindfully scanning each part of your body for the sensations you are experiencing. You could also listen to sounds arising and falling away or focus on each bite of food as you eat. Practices like these can help your nervous system relax so you get a much-needed break from being hyper-vigilant.
- Count Your Blessings: When we experience feelings of scarcity around time, resources, attention, and energy, it’s easy to fall into tunnel vision and a zero-sum-game mentality. Focusing obsessively on our own sense of fear, we become blind to the blessings and connections that are already here. Counting our blessings can open the heart to gratitude, a powerful antidote to feelings of scarcity and disconnection. An easy way to start off your day with an attitude of gratitude is to recite the Modeh/Modah Ani prayer and make an inventory of five things for which you’re grateful before getting out of bed.
- Develop Loving-Kindness: Social isolation helps us stay safe, protect others, and “flatten the curve.” Although we can connect online, it is still easy to feel lonely and disconnected, especially if we’re in our homes alone. A growing body of research shows that loving-kindness practices can help us feel more connected to others, even when we’re alone. You can engage in loving-kindness practice by gently closing your eyes, visualizing someone, and sending that person kind thoughts for safety, calm, and strength. Doing this when we’re online with others, too, can help us feel more openhearted during a time when our hearts may tend to close down and contract.
- Track Your Attention: We’re all spending more time online, and it’s easy to become more distracted from the very people we are trying to connect with. Simple practices that help us track our attention and bring it back to things we mean to focus on — the person on the screen — can be a major support in helping us to remain present online. If you are a teacher, invite your students to keep track on a notecard of the number of times their attention wanders or they notice or feed the impulse to multitask. Invite them to report out at the end of class, and give credit for simply reporting no matter what students share. Challenge students to see if they can reduce the number of times they fall prey to distraction by one each day. Challenge yourself to do the same thing. Just noticing when we get distracted helps us be better at paying attention.
- Cultivate a Sense of Sacred Purpose: During these times, it can be easy to feel hopeless and powerless. Doing practices that help us cultivate a sense of purpose can help us overcome these feelings and support us in doing thing within our control that help others. Practices like intention setting and asking for guidance in prayer about how to be of service during this time can help us kindle a sense of direction and sacred purpose. So can doing something to help a person in need. You might reach out to an elderly person who’s all alone, set up a charity to buy someone a tablet so they can video conference with their loved one, or donate to a charity.
Let us know, by posting below, if you have ideas for others ways in which spiritual practice can serve as a place of refuge during these disorienting and scary times.
May you be healthy, may you feel calm and safe, and may your practice support you with the wisdom and skill to weather this storm with kindness, wisdom, and compassion.
From our hearts to yours,
Rabbi Sam Feinsmith, Program Director and Firkins Reed, Foundation Relations
Dear friends and colleagues,
When I started in my position just a month and a half ago, the world was a different place. My big ambition for my first year was to lead us through a strategic planning and business modeling process that would result in a rearticulated vision, mission, and strategy with a multi-year business plan. My assumption was that we would secure new funding for that project this spring, start the process in the summer, and complete it by a year from now.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cessation of most normal activity, and what will be a major economic recession, I feel like we can plan about as far as lunchtime. If we needed any reminder of the limits of our power as human beings and the fragility of life on the planet we share, I think we can unequivocally say: Message received and understood.
IJS has all of the building blocks we need to weather the storm. Most important, have something of great value to offer: Our Torah and the people who teach it. Our Torah includes not only concepts and ideas but, crucially, 1) practices that respond to the challenges of the moment and reach the most innermost parts of our lives, and 2) community that can be experienced even in isolation. These differentiate us from many other organizations. Beyond that, we have great admiration, loyalty, and love among those who know us. We have a board and funders who are committed to us. And we have a staff team that knows how to work together and is proving agile and nimble, which we must be right now.
Yet the moment demands that we articulate who we are and what we do at this crucial moment, in this world that has been turned upside down. So here is our response to that challenge.
IJS’s mission right now is this: To empower Jews to live and lead with courage, resilience, and a sense of sacred purpose.
This frankly isn’t so different from what our mission has always been. But it is a rearticulation for this moment of crisis, with a few key points:
- We must continue to support leadership, including rabbis and cantors who are on the front lines of caring for their congregations—both those who are among our Hevraya and those who aren’t yet.
- We must also serve other leaders: Lay leaders, Jewish professionals, and Jews who lead schools, organizations, businesses, communities, and families—again, including those who are already part of the IJS community and those who are just finding us.
- We must serve Jews, whether or not they hold formal positions of leadership. As one of our great teachers Parker Palmer writes, “Leadership simply comes with the territory called being human… As long as I am here, doing whatever I am doing, I am leading, for better or for worse. And, if I may say so, so are you.” This is of a piece with our own IJS Torah: Simply by virtue of being humans who live in an interconnected relationship with others, we exercise leadership. Our work serves this large group, too.
- In addition to courage and resilience, which are so necessary right now, IJS is distinguished by grounding our work in the reality of our relationship with the divine, what I refer to here as helping Jews live and lead with a sense of sacred purpose. We teach this practice because we believe human beings were created in God’s image, breathed into being by a divine breath, and put here to serve and protect creation (l’ovdah u’lshomrah). While a mindfulness practice can help manage stress and anxiety, we are not only another mindfulness app we are an Institute that teaches a Jewish approach to spiritual living.
Beyond rearticulating our mission in what I hope is a succinct and powerful way, it is also important right now to state our strategic objectives. Given that we cannot know when we may be able to resume regular retreats, for the time being we have to assume that all of our work will take place through virtual means. The very encouraging news here is that we are in a better position than many others to do this. We have a functioning online platform, revenue-generating online courses, experience teaching via Zoom, and a rich archive of material we can share. We will leverage and build upon these resources in the coming days and weeks with the following key strategic aims in mind.
- We will offer valuable teachings and experiences in service of our mission. The key word here is offer. We must be generous and be perceived as such. This is not a time to be transactional. The Jewish people needs us right now and we must show up for them. If we demonstrate generosity in this moment, it will be reciprocated when we ask for the support we need to operate.
- We will be an ark in the sea. Over the last 20 years, IJS has been extraordinarily successful in seeding the ground of Jewish mindfulness. We are a tree that has sprouted an orchard. And yet in this moment of economic crisis, many of our saplings are struggling. To switch metaphors, our job in this moment is to be a Noah’s ark for the many Jewish meditation teachers and smaller Jewish mindfulness organizations who do not have the infrastructure we have. To that end, we should wisely and smartly engage the fellow-travelers in the Jewish mindfulness world, invite them to teach for us, and promote their events.
- We will grow our audience. Before this crisis, I frequently said that IJS is the most important organization that most people have never heard of. This moment is an opportunity for many more people to learn who we are and what we have to offer. People want and need what we have. We will energetically engage with partner organizations and market ourselves so that far more people know IJS’s name than before, have joined our email list, and are benefiting from our offerings.
It is crucial during this period that we stay true to our values. I believe the following can serve as our north star during this intense moment:
- פיקוח נפש דוחה את השבת – Pikuach Nefesh: Saving life is the greatest of Jewish values. In the current situation that means that everyone’s first priority must be to take care of themselves, their loved ones, and other human beings. We have adapted our sick leave policy to this effect, but more broadly this value translates into recognizing that all of us are profoundly affected by the crisis and will only become more so in the days and weeks ahead. We will be understanding, supportive, and caring for ourselves and one another.
- אדם בצלם אלהים נברא – Adam b’tzelem Elohim nivra: All people are created in God’s image. This is always a value for us, and we cannot lose sight of it. All humans are endowed with the dignities of infinite value, equality, and uniqueness. Even and especially at this acute moment, we must maintain a broad field of vision that includes the most vulnerable, those who are apt to be marginalized or forgotten, and to ensure that our teaching and our work includes the full range of human beings.
- עת לעשות לה׳ הפרו תורתך – Et la’asot laShem heferu toratecha: This is an exigent moment and it calls for extraordinary responses.
a. We will be flexible. In addition to the toll of illness and physical suffering, we must adjust to the profound changes to the rhythms of our lives. We will do our work as we are able, with creative schedules when we need them.
b. We will do less, better. We will be judicious and wise about what we take on and what we leave behind, prioritizing those things that can best advance our mission and strategic goals.
c. We will be responsive, not reactive. We will move quickly and skillfully to respond to the demands and invitations of reality as it shifts.
d. We will be disciplined. As much as we need to be entrepreneurial, we have to do it smartly and with respect for our colleagues and teammates. We will ensure that we work as an efficient and aligned team, following processes and procedures for committing organizational resources.
e. We will communicate. We will ensure transparency in communications for members of our team and keep our board and supporters regularly apprised of and engaged in our efforts.
f. We will have faith in each other. We will support and encourage one another. We will show gratitude. We will maintain an environment in which we can be passionate about our work, both because the world needs us and because we want to keep our business going.
- פותח את ידיך ומשביע לכל חי רצון – Poteach et yadecha umasbia l’chol chai ratzon: We will operate with a spirit of abundance. As our own individual worlds become confined to the walls of our homes, it will be beyond tempting to fall into a narrowness and constriction of spirit. Yet I return to what I wrote at the outset: We have what we need. We have a Torah and outstanding teachers for this moment. We have people who love and support us as an organization. We have an online platform. In short, we have the essential things to make it and even, with cautious optimism, to grow. So we will remind each other of that and continue to hold open our minds and hearts.
None of us have ever faced anything like this before. It is utterly new and unprecedented. We cannot anticipate all of the challenges to come. At the same time, IJS’s own Torah teach us that, on a certain level, this moment is an intensified version of much of life in general. The challenge of remaining open, grounded, wise, compassionate, courageous and resilient in the face of the reality of suffering is always with us. Right now we feel it even more acutely. So we must encourage each other, remain focused and disciplined, be forgiving, caring, and loving.
This is the moment we’ve been practicing for. We will rise to the occasion.
With blessings for health and courage, with gratitude and faith,
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD
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. Just because you happen to share a profession, a craft or a practice with a group of other people doesn’t mean that the group will in fact be supportive or a good learning environment. The stories to the contrary are many and we might even say that particularly in our individualistically oriented society, the difficulties of communities of practice sometimes seem to outweigh the benefits.
One way to address this is to think of creating communities of practice as a spiritual practice itself. We can start by setting explicit intentions. By setting an intention, we have an anchor that we can return to – again and again – when we notice that we have moved away from the intention.
Those of you who have participated in IJS retreats know that we begin each retreat with guidelines about creating intentions around safety. They include things like being aware of judgment arising and trying to hold it with curiosity instead of conviction; assuming and extending welcome; allowing people to listen to their own inner voice, even when we think we know what it should say; “double confidentiality” which gives people the space to say something vulnerable and not have to revisit it unless they so choose. These guidelines help create intentions for a community of practice that supports the participants in the community in doing their own deep work of truth telling and loving kindness.
In your communities of spiritual practice, what are your intentions? What kind of community are you intending to create? What kind of transformation are you hoping to cultivate? What are the conditions that will help facilitate that? How do you communicate them to the entire community?
It sounds easy – and it’s not, even in the relatively small and temporary context of a retreat. But, as those of you who have participated in IJS retreats also know, the effort is worth it. As our summer retreat season closed, we saw once again the true power of a community of seekers, coming together and finding a safe environment, the way the heart can open, bonds can form and deepen, awareness expand. And those experiences can give us inspiration and fortitude to take with us as we continue on our way.
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?
This question caused me to reflect in turn on an experience of conflict that arose in my own life. In the aftermath of my own anger and hurt, I struggled with my habitual response of withdrawing, of creating greater separation between myself and the other. I know that separation may initially feel comforting, but it also brings greater suffering. I often teach the midrash that says that when God separated the upper waters from the lower waters on the second day of creation, the lower waters wept over the separation. Out of compassion for their anger and hurt, God refrained from saying “It is good” and indeed the Torah does not include that blessing for the second day. Separation does deepen suffering; in fact, one of the aspects of the suffering is that when we are in its grip, it is more difficult to reach out in love.
And yet, as one of the participants commented, aren’t we all deeply yearning for more love?
Perhaps the answer is to hold it all, to make space for the anger and hurt, these difficult but important human experiences that both protect us and separate us from others. After all, separation was essential for creation to happen. The practice can be not to get stuck there. From the separation it is sometimes possible to reach out again in love which can lead to healing. In the case of the conflict I experienced, the conversations that took place afterwards created a new sense of closeness and understanding. That is not always possible. But even when it is not, to reach in with love and compassion for our own suffering can be a transformative intention. And that itself is a blessing.
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