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By Cultivating Mindful Leaders, We Can Revitalize Jewish Life

The posts on The New Spirituality blog are responses to Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s lead essay in his book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Jewish Lights). In that essay, which was posted on this site on May 5, 2016, Schwarz argues that any organization that hopes to speak to the next generation of American Jews needs to advance one or more of four key value propositions. They are: Chochma, engaging with the wisdom and practice of our inherited Jewish heritage; Kedusha, helping people live lives of sacred purpose; Tzedek, inspiring people to work for a more just and peaceful world; and Kehillah, creating intentional, covenantal communities that bind people to one another and to a shared mission.

While the work of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality is most directly focused on kedushah, we see it manifesting in ways that include the other three propositions. Our premise is that by cultivating mindful leaders, we can revitalize Jewish life. We are seeking to help leaders in Jewish communities – rabbis, cantors, educators, social workers, community leaders, activists, and others – to develop greater insight, with honesty and compassion, into their inner life so that their work in the world is in greater alignment with their most cherished values and commitments.

We do this by teaching five Jewish contemplative practices. Some of these practices have been Jewish practices for millennia; others are emerging now as authentic Jewish practices complete with Jewish language, symbols and values. The practices we teach are meditation, prayer, Torah learning (with an emphasis on Hasidic masters not often encountered in mainstream Jewish life), embodied practices such as yoga and a mindful approach to midot work. We believe that these five practices are different portals to the same arena and while some practices resonate with particular personality types, others might be more conducive to others.

Meditation is a technique used to enhance one’s capacity to recognize kedushah. Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piasceszner Rebbe, (a 20th century Hasidic teacher who taught meditation) wrote that there are two reasons we are not always aware of the Divine Presence at all times: we are cut off from our emotional lives and we are too distracted. (And he wrote this in the 1920’s!) Meditation is a practice that helps us learn to recognize the habits of our minds and hearts. It teaches us greater concentration and helps us to bring greater truth telling and compassion to our own experience. When we do this, we are better equipped to experience the radiance of holiness. Prayer also prepares the heart to recognize kedusha, but we are especially interested in exploring prayer as practice. This means that when we engage in prayer, we are curious to investigate what kind of transformation we are seeking through prayer and how different forms of prayer, both liturgical and non-liturgical (such as hitbodedut or chant), can help to facilitate that transformation. We are committed to creating communities of practice (kehillot) in which we can share our prayer experiences and learn from one another.

In our Torah study, we focus both on the content (chochma) and the methodology of learning. We are most interested in early Hasidic masters who offered great insight into the inner life and the ways we can live with devotion and passion. We bring a contemplative approach to the learning, with an intention to engage the heart as much as the head and to explore how these teachings can hold up a mirror or a window into our lived lives.
In our embodied practices, through yoga or singing, we bring attention to the body and its truths. We have hints in our tradition about finding kedusha in our bodies, but few native practices.

Tikkun midot, bringing a mindful attention to the qualities of our behavior and how they are aligned (and not) with our ideals, is certainly a practice of tzedek. While many of the practices that we teach are found most easily on the cushion, the bimah, the yoga mat or in the beit midrash, tikkun middot brings our curious and loving attention to how we treat others in all contexts of our lives.

The final element which is crucial to us in our work and which may (or may not) count as an additional proposition is trust. As Jews we are not naturally inclined towards trust for many good reasons. And yet, it is only in a context of trust and safety that much of this work can take place. Trust allows us to open to the holy, to come close in community, to stand up again and again for the sake of justice, and to be curious about the wisdom of our ancient teachers and new teachers from many backgrounds.


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