Shut Up, Sit Down: Reflections on a Jewish Meditation Retreat in Israel

A weekend of meditation based on Hasidic mindfulness practices that were almost wiped out in the Holocaust proved to be unexpectedly transformational.

My wife and I recently went on a silent Jewish meditation retreat. There wasn’t much to say. The end.

Just kidding. There is in fact very much to say about the retreat, which was organized by Or HaLev - the Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, established by Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels at Kibbutz Hanaton in the northern Jezreel Valley.

As described in its mission statement, Or HaLev seeks to “teach concrete Jewish techniques for deepening our lives and to provide opportunities for intensive contemplative Jewish practice.” I never “get” mission statements like that, so after the retreat I asked Jacobson-Maisels to put it in his own words. He’s aiming, he told me, for nothing short of “transformation. I want the Jewish world to become kinder, more compassionate, more vulnerable, more vibrant and more in touch with the divine, with less hatred and fear. I want people to have greater understanding of each other, whether religious or secular. And I believe we can find this transformation through our tradition, through Judaism.”

That sounds like it ought to be the goal of any thoughtful religious practice – why add meditation to the mix? “It’s not enough to just think about all this, or to read texts about it, or to pray,” Jacobson-Maisels says. “Meditation is a core tool toward opening ourselves up emotionally.”

How does this play out in the silent retreat itself?

The meditation space at Or HaLev is set in a large outdoor tent constructed on the grounds of the kibbutz. The tent can hold about 70 people. Some sit on mats on the ground, others on plastic chairs. I brought a comfy, very non-traditional pouffe and meditated in reclining luxury.

Participants run the religious spectrum, from totally secular to a few ultra-Orthodox. Not that we would know about anyone else’s beliefs: everything is conducted in complete silence – including interaction with roommates and dinner companions (that gave us a chance to try out some “contemplative eating” in the kibbutz’s communal dining room. Too bad the food was bare bones, but hey, that made the weekend affordable). Some people, such as my wife, avoid eye contact entirely (including with her husband – even in our private dormitory space).

Starting at 5:30 A.M., there are alternating sessions of sitting and “walking” meditation. In the latter we moved mindfully, feeling the connection between our feet and the earth. We must have looked like a group of well-dressed zombies to the other guests at the kibbutz.

Short teaching sessions punctuated the silence. Jacobson-Maisels usually presented a text and tied it in to the meditation practice. A beautiful example was when he explained that it is completely normal for thoughts, and particularly emotions, to come up while one is trying to sit, and then brought in the story of when the biblical patriarch Abraham welcomed guests into his tent. Some of those visitors may be pleasant, he explained, others not so. They may linger for a short time or overstay their welcome, but eventually they all leave. The same is true with emotions, he said, advising students to welcome their emotional guests in and to stay with them for as long as they choose to remain. If they are painful, that’s OK too.

Jacobson-Maisels did the same kind of text and meditation “mash-up” during the Friday night egalitarian Kabbalat Shabbat prayers. Before chanting each of the service’s psalms (for this, we broke silence), he pointed to that verse’s essential quality – be it gratitude, joy or awe – and turned it into an invitation to deepen one’s practice.

Emotions are at the heart of Jacobson-Maisels’ approach, which emphasizes “mindfulness” – striving to be “in the moment” and aware of what’s going on in your body right now – rather than the perhaps better-known form of “mantra” meditation, which he says works more as a concentration aid.

In stressing mindfulness, this form of meditation builds on a Jewish tradition that was almost lost. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, better known as the Piaseczner Rebbe (from the Polish town in which he was born), was active in Warsaw in the early 20th century and went beyond his fellow Hasidic masters to provide his followers with concrete techniques in contemplative Judaism, including quieting the mind, visualization, song and prayer. Shapira and most of his students were murdered in the Holocaust. Jacobson-Maisels, who also teaches Jewish meditation at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and at the Drisha and Hadar Institutes in New York, has, in a way, picked up from where the Piaseczner Rebbe left off.

Silent meditation retreats are nothing new in Israel. The Tovana organization has been running Buddhist Vipassana style retreats for 15 years, and there has been great interest in meditation among young Israelis who return from post-army treks to India and other points East. Jacobson-Maisels says he embraces that search and stresses that Judaism doesn’t hold a patent on insight. “Wisdom exists in many places and the wisdom we share is not all necessarily Jewish,” he says. “But the Jewish tradition is my central path... I want to give people the possibility of finding their way toward transformation through their own tradition.”

Something I find special about Or HaLev’s programs is that they are friendly to those who observe Shabbat and the laws of kashrut, and offer a sort of bridge between people from diverse Jewish backgrounds who might not ordinarily meet. On our retreat were two women wearing wigs and another who came to Shabbat services in a tank top and shorts. Previous retreats have had men in full haredi gear. For some, it was the first time they’d ever davened; for others, it was an opportunity to experience co-ed prayers without a mehitza (Kibbutz Hanaton was established by the Conservative Movement).

The highlight of my weekend was the final meditation session, a version of the Hasidic practice taught by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov called hitbodedut, or speaking directly to God, which usually involves going out into nature and communing with the divine alone. I’m not big on God talk, but I’m quite happy to chat with myself. So I gave it a shot. I walked out in the direction of the kibbutz cowsheds and had a nice hour-long out-loud conversation with myself about the nature of life, the universe and everything. I don’t think I solved world peace, but I strangely came away craving more. Psychologists and theologians will both agree on the human brain’s need for an external object to focus thoughts, gain clarity and, for some, achieve spiritual grandeur. For me, it was an exhilarating end to an unexpectedly transformational weekend.

Does that mean that I’ll be a regular meditator now? Hard to say – I’m trying to stay in the moment and not plan too much. Perhaps I’ll start by taking the advice of one staff member: meditating while brushing my teeth. My hygienist would definitely recommend that kind of mindfulness!

Brian Blum is a Jerusalem-based writer, journalist and editor. His clients include a mix of non-profits, universities, public companies and online publications. When he's not meditating, he can often be found hiking in the Himalayas. He can be reached at brian@bluminteractivemedia.com.

Reuters / Haaretz Archive
Courtesy Brian Blum