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.

Awareness in Activism: Jewish Spiritual Practice for Personal Change and Social Justice

Awareness in Activism: Jewish Spiritual Practice for Personal Change and Social Justice

During the COVID-19 pandemic and the current uprising for racial justice, I have been teaching an online program for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) in mindfulness and character development, “Awareness in Action: Cultivating Character through Mindfulness and Middot.” Through this program, participants have applied tikkun middot practice — mindfully cultivating innate spiritual/ethical qualities — to personal challenges in their daily lives. This has helped them weather the pandemic without succumbing to fear and despair, while striving to remain true to their highest intentions.

Tikkun middot practice is particularly compelling for social justice activists — indeed, for anyone seeking to address the larger, systemic social inequities exposed by COVID-19 and the virus of racial injustice. This practice directly connects personal transformation with social change. It infuses both with a sense of higher purpose and deeper meaning, and grounds social justice activism in our innately sacred qualities. Most importantly: it addresses the deepest roots of the issues of our day, applying spiritual wisdom to the work of personal and social change.

Tikkun middot practice involves using mindfulness (focused attention on what is true in the present moment) to strengthen both our ability and willingness to open our eyes to reality. It helps us witness, without flinching, unflattering aspects of ourselves and our society, revealing our implicit, unrecognized biases and assumptions. This practice is an indispensable tool for promoting pragmatic social change initiatives and for courageously identifying our blind spots and rooting out — with love — the toxic racial and other biases lurking deep within us all.

The first step of tikkun middot practice is hitlamdut, literally “self-learning,” with which we adopt a mental stance of curiosity rather than judgment. We can associate this with the Biblical term hineini (“I am here”), connoting a state of consciousness in which one is fully present and attentive in the moment, open and receptive to what is revealing itself, and ready to act and speak in accordance with what the moment demands. The classic Biblical example is Moses, who turns aside to look at the burning bush, listens deeply to the hard truth from which he has fled, and who, despite powerful inner resistance, nevertheless heeds the call and acts upon it.

Through hineini practice we see more clearly, in real time, our subconscious judgments and biases — our habits of mind, emotion and body — which trigger unwise, reactive behaviors, patterns which have been engrained over time, and become embedded in our daily lives and society at large.  We notice and release our understandable inclination to deny or avoid these “inconvenient truths.” We see ourselves and the world through a wider and clearer lens.

The second step of this practice is noticing a (“choice”) point, a moment in which we become aware of the choices for responding wisely, instead of reacting out of fear-based habit. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” the psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl taught. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Heightened awareness of our base, reactive tendencies enables us to open additional spaciousness within us, and to respond with greater wisdom, guided by “the better angels of our nature.”

The third step of this practice is activating our “better angels” by accessing what Jewish tradition refers to as middot (literally “measures”), innate spiritual/ethical traits embedded within each of us: Chesed, recognizing the fundamental interconnectedness of all life; Gevurah, setting wise boundaries which honor differentiation and diversity; Anavah, balancing the needs of self and others; Zerizut, responding energetically, promptly, and resiliently to that which must be done; and Hodayah, accepting and appreciating life just as it is, with gratitude.

Through tikkun middot practice, we intentionally seek to channel these essential qualities into all of our actions and words, in service of promoting tzedek v’shalom, justice and wholeness, both in our daily lives and in our larger world. We “seal” this practice with the middah or quality of Emunah, Trustworthiness, which helps us be resolute and steadfast in creating a life and a society reflecting the infinite, equal worth of every human life.

Like many other schools of spirituality, IJS understands spiritual practice not as a prescription for retreating from the world, but as a springboard for actively engaging in it. Spiritual practice grounds both individual and social transformation in sacred qualities implanted within us as beings created in the Divine image, as well as in the wisdom of tradition and our own hearts. It enables us to address the deepest roots of the daunting social challenges we face, rather than the symptoms.

We each have an “inner tzadik,” an internal voice insistently calling us to do what is right, in a manner that is also right. This persistent inner signal reminds us of our connection to and responsibility for each other and, indeed, all of creation. It urges us to repair that which is broken within us and around us, promote healing for those who ail, protect the vulnerable, and pursue shalom, wholeness and reconciliation. Spiritual practice attunes us to this inner voice, helping us pursue that which is right and just from our highest instincts, guiding us to seek justice informed by a sense of loving connection with all beings — and with the earth.

This critical juncture in human history demands a response reflecting our most noble qualities, including courage, humility, empathy, generosity, and resilience. Jewish spiritual practice can help us rise to the occasion, individually and collectively. Cultivating our inner life (tikkun hanefesh) is inseparable from pursuing repair of the world (tikkun olam). By grounding personal and social transformation in sacred qualities implanted within us as beings created in the Divine image, as well as in the wisdom of tradition and our own hearts, spiritual practice can help us survive the current storm while also laying the foundation for a future in which our society might thrive for generations to come.

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 coordinating the work of its rich roster of instructors, and will be responsible for developing and delivering all of IJS’s programmatic offerings.

Smart joins IJS after an already distinguished career in Jewish education. She has previously served as Executive Director of the Isabella Freedman retreat center, co- founded the Teva Outdoor Learning Center, and led the Jewish Studies faculty as Associate Principal at Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, CT. Most recently, Smart served as Director of Ayeka North America, overseeing the development of its celebrated programs to enhance spiritual development in Jewish day schools.

Smart is a graduate of Princeton University (BA) and Cornell University (MS in Natural Resources), a Wexner Graduate Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, and a Fellow in the Melton Senior Educators Program. In 2015 she received the Grinspoon Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Her 2013 book, Kaddish: Women’s Voices (Urim Publications) received a National Jewish Book Award. She also lists on her resume that she is a mother of five children, competes in triathlons, writes poetry, practices Jewish/kundalini yoga, and teaches wilderness exploration.

“I am thrilled that Michal is joining our team in this senior leadership role,” says Executive Director Rabbi Josh Feigelson. “Michal’s combination of experience, talent, intelligence, and creativity are exactly what we need now as we rise to meet the growing demand for IJS’s work. She will help our faculty to do their best work, aid us in our strategic thinking and planning, strengthen our integration of meaningful outcomes assessment, and serve as a highly-respected representative of IJS in the worlds of Jewish education and philanthropy.”

IJS Executive Director Josh Feigelson’s Conversation with Author Sarah Hurwitz

IJS Executive Director Josh Feigelson’s Conversation with Author Sarah Hurwitz

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.

Mindfulness Practice: An Ark in the Storm

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” (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

Embodied Practice for Hanukkah

candlelight-yoga

There is a mystical teaching that the light of the first day of Creation is hidden away in this world as the Or HaGanuz, the Hidden Light. This light is no ordinary light. The Or HaGanuz brings the heat of timeless, limitless energy that penetrates and permeates matter and animates our physical bodies. It also exists as light waves of thought and feeling within our more subtle bodies of emotion and intellect. The Zohar states that this first light of Creation, this hidden light, is hesed, lovingkindness. Vibrating within each of us is this primordial, hidden light of love.

In the Hanukkah story, hesed wins. Light increases and drives away darkness. Hanukkah thus challenges me to reveal and to embody the healing power of love. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Sometimes, being a Heart Warrior, a modern Maccabee, requires the courage to feel how my body holds fear and the willingness to let it be touched and softened by the transforming presence of loving attention. Other times, being a Maccabee means standing firm and strong, emboldened by the love I feel lighting me up inside.

How do we embody this miraculous power of love? We bring awareness to the body and pay attention without judgment to whatever is arising. We meet our bodies with compassion and curiosity. When we can receive our own beings just as we are, we strengthen a vessel that can reveal the hidden light of hesed that is inscribed in our very cells, no matter what we are feeling in the moment.

Begin standing with your feet hip distance apart. Let your arms rest by your sides. Close your eyes and feel your feet on the floor. Draw a deep breath through your nose. Watch the breath move down through the neck, the chest and belly, into your hips, and back out through the nose. Repeat several times. Visualize the breath kindling the light hidden inside the face, the neck, your heart, under the shoulder blades, your belly, and hips.Allow the sense of light to grow inside you with each soft, deep breath.

Next, again begin by feeling your feet firmly on the floor. From that grounding, as you inhale, raise your arms and clench your fists as you cross the forearms over each other in front of your chest. Furrow your brow and clench your jaw.

As you exhale, release the fists and uncross your arms. Let the arms lower towards the earth with palms open and facing forward.

Repeat several times. Notice what happens to the energy in your body as you clench your fists and cover your heart. Notice what you feel as you soften the hands and release the hands and arms by your sides. Explore moving your arms and torso in ways that clench, hold and guard your chest, and those which open and soften the hands and chest. See, with curiosity, how you move between states of open and closed. See if you can bring the state of openness to the following posture even as you engage your muscles and find your strength:

Star Pose

Take your feet wide apart, facing forward. Inhale and lift your arms up to shoulder height. Spread the fingers wide. Inhale and rotate the arms so the palms face the sky and the armpits are opened upwards. Strengthen through your legs, toning through the upper thighs. Lift up through the crown and the sides of your waist as you send the tail bone to the floor and draw your stomach in towards the spine. Enjoy several long inhalations and exhalations as you sustain the muscular energy to remain firm and toned in this pose. With each breath in and out, visualize the cells of your bones, muscles, organs, tissues, each filling with light and growing softly brighter. Fill yourself with light and scan your body. Where are you holding very tightly? Can you soften and let the light bathe you there? Stand firm and burn softly, and, brightly as you embody a luminary pulsing with the light of Divinity.

Now return your feet to stand under your hips and let your arms rest by your sides. In the stillness, notice what your body is feeling as you receive the gifts of having sown seeds of light through your body in the pose. Is there tingling? Warmth? Sweat? A quickened heart rate? Feel all that there is to feel in this body now. There is no need to do anything other than be right here.

What if, as Carl Sagan asserts, we really are stardust? And what if these stellar beings we are hold the energy of hesed, lovingkindness, hidden in our DNA and physical bodies since the beginning of creation? Practice shining this love through your eyes today as you greet others. Shine it into your own heart, belly, hips, hands and head. Become a modern Maccabee, letting your firm yet open stance become the vessel through with divine light burns steadily and bright.

With warmth and blessings,
Rabbi Myriam Klotz