Jewish mindfulness is helping revitalize Jewish spiritual life in North America, so why couldn’t it do the same in Israel? Why couldn’t it help make Judaism more meaningful to Israelis, including the many “secular Jews” who seek spiritual fulfillment from sources outside their religion? And, by expanding the pluralistic landscape in Israel, why couldn’t North Americans find more common ground with Israelis while sharing a Jewish spiritual experience? This seems more timely than ever. These are the questions I explored with a Wexner Israeli Fellow one evening a couple of years ago when he was visiting DC, and this is what inspired me to develop a project for the Wexner Summit “Stronger Together: (Re)Imagining the Israel-North American Jewish Community Relationship,” dedicated to improving North American-Israeli communal relations.
In October, 2014, I wrote an article for WexnerLEADS called “Widening the Tent with Jewish Mindfulness” describing the success we had creating the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington. Although we were an “early adapter” for Jewish mindfulness (many Jewish institutions considered it “too Buddhist” to pursue, despite mindfulness’ deep roots in Jewish text and practice), in the past few years, this practice has sprung up throughout many synagogues, JCCs and Jewish communal groups. North American Jews are finding meaningful community and spiritual fulfillment through these practices of Jewish meditation, yoga, chanting, soulful musical services and other experiential programs.
Jewish mindfulness is happening in Israel too, though at a very early stage, and my goal for the Summit was to find partners and help support its growth. I found Or Halev: Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, based at Kibbutz Hanatan in the Lower Galilee. Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, the founder and Spiritual Director, twice had been a guest rabbi at our DC synagogue, Adas Israel Congregation, and was a tremendous hit, and Rabbi Sara Brandes, I soon learned, was an entirely inspired and effective executive director. They were already bringing Jewish mindfulness to Israelis through spiritual retreats and my Wexner Summit project could help them in their efforts.
During this past year, I worked with Or Halev to design a pilot project expanding their work with spiritual retreats. The pilot supports a 4-day silent retreat for 60 Israelis of all religious backgrounds, with a special focus on a cohort of 10-15 Fellows, drawing in particular from participants in a new pluralistic rabbi training and think-tank program sponsored by the Hartman Institute and Oramin, and run by Rabbi Tamar Applebaum, Shay Zarchi, Dani Segal and Shraga Bar On. These Fellows can receive micro-grants to bring the mindfulness tools back to their communities, while continuing to receive mentorship from Or Halev. After a thorough evaluation, the idea is to move from the pilot to a much larger project that will expand mindfulness training and hosting spiritual retreats jointly for North American and Israelis.
As part of this Wexner Summit project, we raised the full $48,000 to support the pilot, thanks to a handful of generous donors and a matching grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Part of the fundraising strategy was to pave the way for future support by attracting the interest of individuals connected to family foundations or non-profits who are personally interested in pluralism in Israel and/or Jewish mindfulness and spirituality.
Planning is already underway for the pilot with the hiring of a project manager – Arie Romano, a native of Mexico, himself an orthodox Jew who had never experienced Jewish pluralism until his first Or Ha Lev retreat. The lay team of volunteers helping Or Ha Lev create and promote the retreat are Israeli young people, both religious and secular, who feel the thirst for this type of inspiring and accessible Judaism, both personally and for Israeli society at large.
Our vision and hope is that by spreading Jewish mindfulness in Israel, future trips sponsored by Federations, congregations, meditation groups and individuals in North America — and maybe future Wexner trips! — will find shared spiritual experiences with Israelis through Jewish mindfulness at Or Halev and in many other places throughout Israel.
Jennie Litvack is a native of Montreal and a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Program (Washington DC 13). A former Lead Economist at the World Bank, she served in such varied places as Russia, Vietnam, Morocco, and Latin America. She has an AB from Duke University and a PhD. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. After 18 years, she left the World Bank in 2011 to follow her “still, quiet voice” and pursue Jewish communal activities, including the creation of the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington (JMCW) at Adas Israel Congregation, which has won two national Slingshot awards for innovative Jewish programming. Working on this new project for the Wexner Summit for the past year has been a labor of love. Jennie’s spiritual passion is blowing shofar for which she has twice been featured on National Public Radio. She and her husband, Rob Satloff, are the parents of three wonderful boys, Benji (20) William (17) and David (9). Jennie can be reached at email@example.com.