Lisa’s Blog

Notes from the Executive Director’s Desk

A Year of Learning

Journey and Apprceciation

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, given that this is our first time parenting and we jumped right into teenagerhood – not to mention all kinds of cultural differences.

And yet, a year in, I realize that so much of the learning is simply refining the work we are engaged in all the time anyway. For example, one way to frame it is to take the spectrum between Netzach (victory, engagement) and Hod (receptivity, gratitude). These two categories are sephirot, part of the mystical map of how Divinity moves from the infinite to the tangible in our lives. That may sound very esoteric, but the applications are actually practical and can be very helpful.

What are these two ways of being? Netzach is the quality that urges us to get involved, to fix things, to form and act and create. It is about drive and success and doing. Hod, on the other hand, which literally means “glory,” is the quality of giving space, letting it be, feeling thankful for the ways things are, not needing to change a thing. Interestingly, both of these are understood to be divine qualities that can manifest in us and both of them are worthy of cultivation as part of our spiritual repertoire. The question is when do we bring what to bear.

So: when do we push (encourage) our foster son to do certain things and when do we stand back? When do we ask questions and when do we just give him his space? When do we lead with feeling energized and active and when do we lead with simply feeling grateful for the miracle of our family coming together?

These are the questions in every relationship – with children, parents, partners, friends, co-workers and neighbors. These are the questions we can ask looking out at our country and our world. And these are the questions we can ask of our own sweet lives. How much action? How much acceptance? How do we find the wise balance? How do we respond to what is needed at this moment again and again?

Sometimes just having the framework of these two qualities can help us notice our habitual responses and make better decisions. We hope that this investigation of netzach and hod will support you in your practice.

Institute for Jewish Spirituality and Nathan Cummings Foundation Announce New Scholarship Fund to Honor the Legacy of Rabbi Rachel Cowan

Rabbi Rachel CowanThe Rachel Cowan Scholarship Fund will provide greater access for activists and traditionally marginalized Jews to IJS’s contemplative retreats and programs.

The Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) has created the Rachel Cowan Scholarship Fund to celebrate the legacy of Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who passed away last year. The fund will focus on bringing more activists and underrepresented constituencies in the Jewish community into its programs and retreats.

At this critical moment in history, where division and hate are tearing at the fabric of our communities and endangering the possibility of multiracial democracy, activists and change-makers of all races and religions are using mindfulness and spiritual practices to cultivate an experience of deep connection, sustain their spirits and bring their best selves to advocacy for a just and equitable society.

Seeded in part through a $180,000 grant made by the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) and individual donations made in Rabbi Cowan’s memory (including a bequest from Rachel herself), the fund will offer scholarships to IJS’s retreat-based programs, making them more accessible to young people, Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews and activists. Additional scholarships will be available for IJS programs through 2022.

Honoring Rachel’s commitment to social justice and supported by the grant from NCF, IJS will also offer a special three-day retreat for twenty-five activists in 2019. This contemplative retreat will give activists the opportunity to pause, tend to their own souls, and see the deep connection between tikkun hanefesh (healing ourselves) and tikkun olam (healing the world). Participants will learn new tools of spiritual practice so that they may return to their work with renewed motivation, perspective, and resilience—hallmarks of Rachel Cowan’s legacy.

Rachel’s Transformative Vision

“NCF’s board, leadership, and staff are proud to celebrate Rachel’s transformative vision with this grant. In doing so, we are building on our legacy as a Foundation and bringing new energy to our commitment to the transformative potential of contemplative and spiritual practices for social change,” said Isaac Luria, Director of Voice, Creativity, and Culture at the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

“Today, we still see incredible potential in nurturing the spiritual and leadership capacities of the next generation of Jewish social justice activists,” continued Luria. “By improving the resilience and creativity of our leaders through spiritual and contemplative practice, we are growing the Jewish community’s contributions to the work of building a multiracial democracy where all may thrive, dismantling racial injustice and confronting antisemitism, and enlivening the soul of Jewish communities.”

“As a lifelong activist, Rachel saw the connection between inner and outer work,” said Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. “She knew the transformative power of contemplative practice for herself, and what it could be for the world. This Fund will not only provide powerful learning opportunities for Jewish activists and other marginalized Jews, but assist IJS in learning how to reach a broader community of spiritual seekers. This could not come at a better time for us, especially as the world cries out for a spiritual and moral evolution.”

A Foundation of Spirituality and Justice

Twenty years ago, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, then Jewish Life Program Officer at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, co-founded IJS out of a belief in contemplative practice and its ability to connect our inner experience to the work of healing and repairing the world. Acting upon NCF leadership’s challenge to help more Jews access deep Jewish spiritual wisdom, Rabbi Cowan gathered a small group of colleagues who worked together to create an intensive, practice-based model of Jewish spiritual learning and exploration. A similar model of consultation and conversation will be used to deepen knowledge of how contemplative practices can support Jewish activists in this moment.

This model, which began around a kitchen table and would grow to encompass hundreds of alumni around the world, became the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, now a global leader in teaching Jewish mindfulness and spiritual practices through retreats, community programs, and online learning. IJS teaches core practices such as Jewish mindfulness meditation, tikkun middot (the development of ethical character traits), prayer, and reflective Torah study.

Rachel was known as a visionary activist in the Jewish community: a beloved teacher, mentor, and advocate for social transformations through spiritual wisdom. She knew that while spiritual practice can happen anywhere and mindfulness work can begin at any level; she also believed deeply in the transformative nature of retreats and aspired to make the experience more accessible to a diverse audience.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan served as a Program Director for Jewish Life at the Nathan Cummings Foundation from 1990 to 2003 and as Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality from 2004 to 2011. Rachel passed away in September 2018 following a battle with brain cancer.

For more information about bringing Jewish mindfulness practices into your life, the Rachel Cowan Scholarship Fund, or the Jewish Mindfulness Retreat for Social Activists, visit www.jewishspirituality.org/legacy.

For a collection of remembrances and reflections of Rachel from her friends, colleagues, and partners, click here

Where It All Begins

Institute of Jewish Spirituality LeadersThis 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.

Institute for Jewish Spirituality: Our Guiding Principles

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.

Sweetening the Root

Sweetening the RootThe 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 passed from this world, where we are as a community, as a culture, as a planet, compared to a year ago.

It is easy to feel discouraged at the state of the world, to want to root up and throw away all the things we don’t like. But the neo-Hasidic tradition offers us a different approach. We are guided towards a process of hamtakat hashoresh, “sweetening the root.”

The phrase comes from a startling image. Imagine a great Tree of Life hanging upside down with the roots in the air. The roots are the source from which blessings flow down, through the trunk of the tree, through the various branches and then down into the many manifestations of leaves and blossoms that brush the earthly realm. Everything that happens in this world starts with the roots.

But the flow can get blocked or constricted in all kinds of ways. We experience this as the various forms of suffering. The answer, however, is not to chop things up and get rid of them. Instead, it is to bring things back into alignment so the sweetness at the root can flow unimpeded into the world.

So when we face suffering out in the world or in our personal lives, one possibility is to work to discover the hidden sweetness in the difficult thing itself that might help us act from a place of greater wisdom, connection and spaciousness. So for example, when I feel the heat of anger, perhaps I can discern the cooler energy—but energy nonetheless—of healthy self confidence that will help me act from holy boldness. When I feel fear, perhaps I can move, even slightly, towards a spiritual sense of humble awe in the face of all that is bigger than me. When I feel the grief of loss, perhaps I can shift my perspective towards receiving the love that continues to flow.

In each case, the goal is not to get rid of the difficult emotion. It is to sweeten it, just a little. Because on a deep, often hidden level, there is one Source for all.

May our looking back over 2018 bring us wisdom and perspective and may 2019 be a sweeter year for all.

 

image credit: worldbeyondyourown

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 seemingly insurmountable odds that enabled them to defeat the wicked government that vastly outweighed them.

We tend to shy away from exploring this kind of strong action because it can seem so antithetical to the spiritual endeavor of finding inner peacefulness and because it can too easily veer into bold fanaticism, as the Hasmonians themselves exemplified. And yet, holy boldness, the courage of the spiritual warrior, is an important middah, or trait, even (and maybe especially) for the contemplative repertoire.

One teaching on how to approach this boldness comes from the daily liturgy. In the morning service, the first prayer before the Shema offers an image of angels. The prayer book describes the angels in vivid terms: “They are all loved, they are all clear, they are all bold and they all do the will of their Maker with fear and awe.”

At first, the description appears rather random. Why those three particular adjectives, other than the fact that the Hebrew words for “loved,” “clear” and “bold” follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet? But if we look carefully, using what we know from our contemplative practice, something quite beautiful emerges.

First, the angels know that they are ahuvim, loved. This is the crucial first step, to take in the awareness of being precious, seen, cherished. From that place of warmth and connection, they can be brurim, clear. Feeling loved can help clear the delusions so that we can see with greater clarity what needs to be done, as well as our motivation for acting. And then, when the path forward is clear, the angels can act as giborim, as courageous and bold heroes. But even here, they are aligning themselves with humility and a sense of serving – not of their own will, but of the great Source of life and creativity in the universe.

What marvelous instructions! A courage that is rooted in love, shone through with clarity and in humble alignment with what needs to happen. May this Hanukkah provide us with opportunities to explore this holy boldness so that we can through our actions help bring more light into this dark season.

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...

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Rachel’s Legacy of Connection

It is hard to believe that we are almost at the shloshim, the 30-day initial mourning period, for Rachel Cowan, who peacefully left this world at the end of August. For me, it has been a month of deep sadness and a sense of confusion: even though we all knew this day...

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Re-Committing to Intention

In just two short weeks, the High Holy Days will be upon us: a new year, a new beginning, a new opportunity to live our lives a little more in alignment. At first glance it may seem a little odd that Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of...

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Finding Curiosity

Sometimes hitlamdut, cultivating a lens of openness and curiosity, is simple and inspiring. It is reawakening a childlike wonder that brings joy and gratitude and a sense of belonging to this life. That is not my experience these days. These days I am keenly aware of...

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Wisdom from Our Teachers

I am coming up on the conclusion of seven years as the director of IJS – a full cycle, like the fullness of creation or the cycle of the fields. I am so proud of the work of IJS and how we have grown, offering spiritual seekers opportunities to deepen their practice,...

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First Comes Effort, then Comes a Gift

Several years ago, the New Yorker featured a cover that showed a woman sitting in the lotus position, ostensibly meditating. You can tell she is so wound up that she is about to jump out of her skin. If you look carefully in the direction of her baleful glare, there...

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Act Kindly (Demand Justice)

The first time I led a seder was my sophomore year in college. There were nine of us in Perkins Hall, three Jews and six Catholics. I was so proud of my charoset and matzah balls. I borrowed haggadot from Hillel and confidently led us through the readings. But when we...

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Teach Me Your Way

Part of my daily practice includes a fragment of a teaching from the Piaseczner Rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. He instructed his students to work with Psalm 86:11: "Teach me, YHVH, your way that I may walk in your truth. Unify my heart to revere your name." He...

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Add More Light

There are times when joy is an act of resistance. I have to remind myself of that occasionally. On these days when there is so little daylight, when the headlines are so dire, when my beloved home state of California has been engulfed in flames, joy can feel like an...

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Creating and Destroying Worlds

Although occasionally I am told that I should have been a lawyer, the truth is that I really don’t like arguing very much. As a child and young woman, arguments and disagreements frightened me. But since, like it or not, arguments are part of how this life is, I have...

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Beneath the Surface to the Heart

My husband and I are almost finished with a course that is preparing us to be foster parents. Neither one of us has parented before and we are eagerly learning the theories that will hopefully help us once we have been certified and can bring children into our home....

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Imperfections

A number of years ago, I approached the High Holy Days with a great sense of inadequacy. I was keenly aware of all the ways in which I missed the mark, that I fell short of my own expectations and that I was unable to keep to my intention. It was a sobering and...

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