Meditation With a Jewish Twist Offers Israelis a Respite From Reality

Israelis are increasingly combining Eastern philosophies with Jewish insights in their search for spiritual solace.

Eliyahu Zaturanski

One woman is sunk into a beanbag. Another two sit cross-legged on a beat-up couch. Three more people sit upright on a mattress on the floor. Everyone’s eyes are closed. The lights are dimmed. The buzz of the refrigerator seems very loud.

Danny Cohen, a 27-year-old new immigrant from Philadelphia, in army pants and a white T-shirt, his kippa fastened on with two clips, faces the group and speaks gently.

“Find a position that is comfortable,” he suggests. “Check in with yourself,” he advises.

“And now breath.”

The door of the little apartment creaks open and a latecomer tip-toes in and slides into a wicker chair. “Focus,” Cohen prods. “Be present.”

It’s a balmy Wednesday evening, and those gathered in this third-floor walkup Jerusalem student pad are here for a two-hour meditation session.

It starts out in classic style: “Mindfulness” gets an early mention. “Awareness” is introduced. “Process” and “energies” are touched upon. “Gratefulness” is advanced. “Appreciation” is contemplated. “Breath.” “Accept.” The words string together and waft into the silent room.

And then, just as it all begins to feel like a familiar lullaby, comes the twist: “As the Baal Shem Tov would say … ” continues Cohen, not skipping a beat as he moves into quoting the 17th-century rabbi: “You are where your mind is.”

“Breath.”

And before one might begin to wonder what the founder of Hassidic Judaism has to do with all this breathing, Cohen is already onto some Rebbe Nachman wisdom. Soon, the class will be chanting lines from Leviticus.

This is not, so it turns out, exactly your regular kind of meditation session after all.

In some form or another, the mixing of Jewish spirituality with Eastern meditation traditions has been popular in the U.S. since the 1960s when, as part of the counter culture, curious Jews started engaging in new ways with Kabbalah and the Hassidic movement – as well as with the Eastern and new-age practices coming to the West.

Jewish figures like Shlomo Carlebach, to some extent, and to an even greater degree, “Reb Zalman,” who holds the World Wisdom Chair at The Naropa Institute, were among the early voices who stretched and changed the expectations of many regarding what Jewish prayer and study could encompass.

Today, a place like the New York-based Institute for Jewish Spirituality is so well established that its months-long retreat-based learning and practice programs are packed every year with rabbis, cantors and lay Jewish leaders.

But in Israel – while there are both plenty of people who practice meditation (Tovana, probably the largest meditation organization here, has been running Vipassana-style retreats for 15 years) and, of course, far more involved in the practice and study of Judaism – few are those who merge the two streams together.

A daily practice

“When I arrived in this country there was nothing of the sort,” says James Jacobson-Maisels, a 40-year-old Hershey, Pennsylvania native cum kibbutznik, who directs the Or HaLev center for Jewish spirituality, the first such organization in Israel.

The journey that would eventually lead Jacobson-Maisels to Or HaLev began during his junior year at Brown University. “That year I became depressed ... and at the suggestion of a therapist, I started practicing mindfulness stress reduction, with tapes,” he says. “It was a radically different way of relating to my life. Instead of running away from my anxieties, I turned toward them and embraced them.”

Five minutes of practice every night soon turned into 10, then 20. Jacobson-Maisels persevered through his time at Oxford University, where he did a masters degree in modern Jewish mysticism and joined a mindfulness class, and through his immigration to Israel and his years of studying to become a rabbi at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

Almost 20 years later, Jacobson-Maisels still meditates every day – only today he doesn’t do it alone.

“At Pardes I asked if I could teach meditation. There was openness to it, so we started a class in the basement,” he relates. “At that point I knew my meditation and my Judaism were reinforcing each other and working well together – but they were still not meshed in my mind.”

It was only when he returned to the U.S. to complete a doctorate in Jewish mysticism at the University of Chicago and began attending Jewish meditation retreats that Jacobson-Maisels realized the two paths he was drawn to could become one. He joined forces with Rabbi Jeff Roth, who directs the respected Awakened Heart Project for Jewish Meditation and Contemplative Judaism in the U.S. – and returned to Israel in 2009 to organize the first ever Jewish mindfulness and silence retreat here. It took place at Kibbutz Hanaton in the Jezreel Valley, where Jacobson-Maisels today lives with his wife and two children.

That retreat is where the seeds for Or HaLev, which was formally established two years later, were planted. Cohen, a Wharton graduate who had studied meditation under Jacobson-Maisels, became the center’s first director and today teaches some of its classes.

A need for spirituality

These days Or HaLev runs an average of three or four week-long retreats a year, usually at Hanaton, in which social silence is required and participants spend their days in sitting meditation, chanting, mindful walking and yoga/body practice – alongside prayers, talks by the teachers and Jewish textual study. The center also offers shorter weekend retreats and weekly classes in Jerusalem, either at Pardes or, during the summer, in ad hoc spaces and friends’ apartments.

“I think we are tapping into a broader change in Israel,” says Jacobson-Maisels, who estimates the retreats get around 40-50 participants, from different streams of Judaism. “I am seeing in Israeli society a deep longing for meaning, spirituality and healing. We live in country filled with overstimulation and threat, and people want spiritual solace and a path that can lead them to love, compassion and restoration – and they are interested in finding their own such path.”

Cohen, who spent a year running an open house for Jewish spirituality in India, concurs. “I met hundreds of Israelis there,” he says, “… almost every one deeply thirsting for spiritual nourishment, but turned off by the cookie cutter, black-and-white way of established religious options in Israel. They were shocked that Judaism could speak to their lives.”

Back in this week’s Jerusalem class, the guided meditation has turned into a silent meditation. And then, half an hour later, into a lesson on chukat – the Torah portion of the week – and how some of its themes, such as vulnerability, negative thinking and, most particularly, laying blame, might be relevant to those gathered.

“The people of Israel complained to Moses,” says Cohen, reading the text in Hebrew from his Mac Book “… so what did Moses do instead of speaking to the rock as instructed? He hit it. Twice.”

“It’s easy to demonize Moses, but instead lets try to feel into the human experience from which he was acting,” suggests Cohen. “Lets tap in.”

“Often, when things don’t go our way, especially in this country, what do we do?” he asks. No one answers. About half still have their eyes closed.

“We shout and push our way in,” he answers himself. “And just as Moses gets the water out of the rock, so too, we might get what we want – but is this the way? What can we do when we find ourselves in places of anger and blame?”

The talk moves naturally back to meditation. “Relaxation,” is mentioned. “Mindfulness” and “Awareness” come into play. Questions of “Ego” are touched upon. A tale of Rambam is relayed. And “breathing,” of course, features prominently, all over again.