They sat on the floor with their small hands cupped. A boy named Yoni rang a bell to signal the beginning of kavanah, or intention. A video of the aurora borealis, the northern lights shimmering over a forest, appeared on the screen.
“It’s almost like you can breathe in the light,” Anne Norris said, “almost like we’re one of the trees.” After a moment, she continued, “Put your hand on your heart and make yourself a wish — ‘May I be peaceful.’”
The group chanted together, “May I be peaceful. May I be healthy. May I be strong. May I take the light of the Chanukah season into my heart.”
The participants were 4 years old, and Norris is their Ohr Chadash Academy preschool teacher. Yoni rang the bell again, and the group moved into their morning prayers.
Although commonly thought of as the province of Eastern faith systems, mindfulness and contemplative practices have been part of Jewish worship and observance for centuries. But now, they’re increasingly observed and incorporated more openly into the fabric of the mainstream Jewish community across the denominational and congregational divides, and Norris’s class is only one example.
Beth El Congregation’s Soul Center offers a weekly Torah and yoga class. On a recent Sunday morning, Rabbi Dana Saroken began the class by talking about the biblical patriarch Joseph’s realization near the end of the Book of Genesis that to move forward, he needed to respond to his brothers in a new way.
“What does it mean to let go of old scripts?” she asked. “How does that liberation look in our own lives?” The dozen or so participants settled onto their mats as yoga teacher Kimberlee Strome led them in a series of yoga poses focused on the themes of holding on and letting go.
North Baltimore’s Kol HaLev Synagogue conducts a “Meditation Shabbat” on the second Saturday of each month. After an hour of Torah study, congregants move into the chapel for a “mindful minyan” — a guided and silent meditation that evolved out of the Torah study.
“There’s value in an eclectic spirituality, as long as you’re rooted in your own,” said Kol HaLev’s Rabbi Geoff Basik. “Ultimately, the tradition something comes from isn’t an important question. Does it help us access our own spirituality? Mindfulness is a resource that serves that.”
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation holds a “guided meditation service” every Yom Kippur afternoon to “help quiet our thinking mind to become more present and in touch with our yetzer hatov, our inclination to do good,” said BHC’s Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen. “The work of Yom Kippur is to face with honesty and humility our imperfections. It’s challenging and daunting. Bookended by the liturgy, the meditation service enables that work, gives us that space.”
Marvin Israelow, a faculty member in the New York-based Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Wise Aging program, contends that mindfulness and contemplation have always been a vital component of Jewish worship and observance.
“In Jewish practice, there’s an invitation to deepen our experience with the Divine through silence,” he said. “There are aspects of our tradition that introduce mindful meditation even though they don’t name it that. Before you pray, for example, you sit and ‘get present.’”
Prayer and rituals, Israelow said, are “mindfulness practices. Those symbolic artifacts help us remember to remember. They help us reset our intentions in the moment.”
Ten local synagogues — BHC, Bet Aviv, Beth Am, Beth El, Beth Israel, Chizuk Amuno, Har Sinai, Kol HaLev, Temple Oheb Shalom and Temple Isaiah — are collaborating to implement
the Wise Aging program into their congregations. A multi-session course includes meditation, contemplative listening and mindfulness, as well as text study and discussion, largely to help participants confront the issues of aging, family challenges and wellness.
At his Pikesville residence, investment advisor and meditation teacher Steve Siegel leads workshops in “authentic Jewish meditation,” with sessions focusing on t’horah hi (pure soul), chesed (lovingkindness) and more. Meanwhile, Liora Hill, owner of the Zoetic Wellness Center, which is scheduled to open this spring at Pikesville’s Pomona Square shopping center, offers meditation workshops exploring the sefirot, the energy forces to the infinite and divine as defined by kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism.
Hill noted that a rabbi once told her that “prayer is a dialogue with God, and that meditation helps you find the place that makes that possible.”
Finding space for mindfulness, peace and healing in one’s internal life is essential, said Rabbi Saroken. “We’re living in a time when people feel like they can’t keep up with life,” she said. “God gave us Shabbat to give us the opportunity to be human beings and not human doings, at least for one day a week. The mindfulness movement is a way for people living in a chaotic world to create space in their lives in order to be present to do the work of the soul.”
For Israelow, mindfulness practices “help us choose freedom, choose life, and what could be more Jewish than that! Breathing in and out in nature is an echad moment — all is one.”
Jonathan Shorr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Jewish Meditation classes Steve Siegel: email@example.com
Kol HaLev Meditation Shabbat kolhalevmd.org
Mindful Self-Compassion, 8-week class Leslie Krohn: Lesliekrohn66@gmail.com, 443-869-5731
The Soul Center at Beth El soulcenterbaltimore.org
Wise Aging Phyllis Kolman: firstname.lastname@example.org
Zoetic Workshops (Sephirot meditation practices) zoeticworkshops.com
Institute for Jewish Spirituality jewishspirituality.org