July 2019 Newsletter

Intentional Communities

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein


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.






Chevruta: A Community of Spiritual Practice for Two

Rabbi Marc Margolius


Judaism is both an individual and a collective spiritual practice. While we may recite most traditional prayers by ourselves, certain core prayers (Barchu, the Kedushah of the Amidah and, of course, Kaddish) require a minyan, the critical mass constituting a community of practice. As individuals, we each have our own unique relationship with the Divine. But the structure of Jewish practice provides a process by which our differentiation is integrated into a shared, collective experience. We might liken a prayer leader’s initiating the call and response of Barchu to a conductor tapping a baton, inviting the orchestra’s constituents to harmonize the sounds of their distinctive, essential instruments.

Similarly, the spiritual practice of engaging with a chevruta partner in talmud Torah, study of Torah, creates a structure which holds and honors our individual experiences in dialectical tension, while integrating them into a whole greater than the sum of its elements. When we cultivate a shared relationship with a sacred text with a trusted study partner, we create a sacred space which both honors our unique individual self and fosters deeper connection with our self, our partner(s), and the text itself.

Rabbi Nehemiah Polen has observed that in chevruta practice,

[i]t is in the space in between the study partners where illumination is to be found, where the spirit of holiness and wisdom emerges. … [W]hen we learn with a study-partner, we not only learn new material, but we learn the inner truth of ourselves. Three stand revealed in every chevruta situation—the two human study-partners, and the Torah. The Torah in this context is not merely a body of teachings, a text to be grasped and apprehended by the intellect, but a living Being with personality, soul and destiny, who joins in the study, wanting to understand and be understood. One of the deepest ways to break through the isolation of one’s own self is to make contact with the soul of another through Torah study.

One can find a Jewish community of practice simply by cultivating a safe, trusting, deep relationship with a single chevruta partner. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah counsels that one should “make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person favorably” (Pirkei Avot 1:16). Avot d’Rabbi Natan 8:3 interprets this to mean that one “should find a friend to eat together, drink together, study Bible together, study Mishnah together, sleep together and reveal all their secrets to each other: secrets of Torah and secrets of worldly things.”

Mindful chevruta practice is built upon the principles with which we make for safety: (1) we respect the uniqueness of each other’s experience and interpretation; (2) we speak from our own experience and view, refraining from commenting on or “correcting” our partner; (3) we listen deeply and attentively to each other, cultivating open-mindedness and curiosity. This process awakens us to ever deeper levels of truth about ourselves, our partner, and the text. We create sacred space in which the Divine Presence can emerge, as R. Hananiah ben Teradyon teaches in Pirkei Avot 3:2: “if two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, then the Shekhinah abides among them.”





The Roots of Community

Rabbi Jonathan Slater


I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that it is easier to meditate with other people. In fact, I know that I’m not. I hear it all the time: from people who are just beginning, to long-term meditators, to people who haven’t even meditated but who imagine what it would be like to just sit by themselves. Not everyone here is a wimp, unable to “do the work” that meditating seems to take. Not everyone is afraid of being alone. Not everyone is unable to sustain their practice on their own. So, there must be something to practicing together.

And, if you take a look at all of the new meditation (or weight-loss, or running, or other practice-based) apps, you’ll see that this is a psychological reality. That is, these apps connect you with other people who are practicing at the same time. The idea is that if you know that there is someone else out there doing it, you’ll do it, too. (Similarly, and not to be too much ahead of the issue, that is why candidates may send you a letter or card to let you know that your neighbors voted in the last election while you didn’t. They are counting on that knowledge to inspire you to vote the next time, too.)

But, being connected to other people is not just a marketing gimmick. It is a piece of reality, at least the reality of experience. When we sit with other people, we often are close enough to hear them breathing. Sometimes this can be annoying – but most of the time it is inspiring. Knowing that someone else is there, committed to their intention to pay attention encourages us to commit to our intention as well. Physiologically we come into relation. We may not breathe in synch, but we will be connected in our breath.

When we then stand for walking meditation, we are placed immediately into community. If we are walking in a circle together, I find that I can’t take a step until the person in front of me takes theirs. And, I can’t just stand there, as people behind me are waiting for my step. In this odd sort of “elephant-dance” we might experience frustration: why can’t they move faster? Why are they going so fast? Why does that person walk so oddly, as if they might fall any minute? Why can’t I keep my balance walking so slowly? And on and on…We are bound to one another, in all of our particularity and uniqueness. Each one of us necessary, each one of us important. All of the frustrations and confusion we might feel soften in the midst of this circle – and we open to our place in community. We cannot hold ourselves aloof. We have to commit to the others, and our hearts open as well.

Fundamentally, then, community is rooted in sympathy, synchrony, welcome and compassion. All of those experiences might be available to us when we are alone, but they will be grounded in theory if they haven’t first been rooted in community. Ultimately it is in community that we learn to love, and be loved, and be love itself. And, ultimately, that is the root of community as well.





How We Make for Safety

 Institute for Jewish Spirituality


When we gather together as communities of practice, we want to do our best to create a safe, welcoming container that makes space for everyone’s holistic selves.  At our IJS retreats, we use these guidelines for our meditation and prayer spaces, chevruta partnerships, faculty-led processing groups, and even at our mealtimes to make sure that everyone – faculty, staff, and participants – feels welcomed, safe, and whole.

How We Make for Safety:
Guidelines from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality

1. Presume and extend welcome. It is almost always challenging, in one way or another, to be part of a group. Good news: there is no “inside” and no “outside” to this group! Be aware, though, of such sensitivities in ourselves and in each other.

2. Respect difference. We are a truly diverse group. Notice judgment, and practice experiencing it with compassion rather than conviction. (Remind yourself that other people are not failed attempts at being you!) Cultivate curiosity.

3. Know that there is genuine freedom in this circle. We do not engage in “forced sharing.” Every invitation to speak and participate is just that: an invitation. Passing or staying quiet is perfectly acceptable.

4. We do not engage in “fixing, advising, saving or correcting” (Parker Palmer). Each of us is here to refine our ability to listen to the still, small voice inside. Trust that we will each find our own way.

5. When in a group, whether a small group or the group as a whole, give your full attention to the person speaking. Do not engage in side conversations. Use “I” statements when speaking. Be aware of how much space you are taking up.

6. Each person in the circle commits to both conventional and “double” confidentiality. Conventional confidentiality means that we do not speak to anyone outside the group about what is shared in this group. “Double” confidentiality means that when a person shares a confidence that we sense makes them vulnerable, we do not raise the issue again with that person or anyone else in the group, without the invitation of the person in question.

7. To assure each participant has the opportunity to know directly their own immediate experience, we each commit to respecting each other’s boundaries in all areas, including  the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.  Further, retreats are inappropriate settings to initiate any new romantic or sexual relationships. Uninvited touching, commenting on another’s appearance, sexually or emotionally suggestive remarks and the like undermine our safety, and will not be tolerated. We commit – staff and participants – to these limits for the sake of our shared wellbeing.

8. Make every effort to respect the group container. Please follow rules about silence and speech, and come to all programs (punctually!). If you cannot make a program, please let the person running the program know that you will not be there (or inform another member of the faculty).