Widening the Tent with Jewish Mindfulness
Last summer, at the Wexner Heritage Summer Institute in Snowbird, Utah, participants brainstormed about challenges facing Jewish life in North America. I listened: “How can Judaism be more meaningful for people’s lives today?” “How can synagogues be more relevant for Jewish life?” “How can young professionals be drawn into Jewish life?”
All of these questions were similarly on our minds when the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington (JMCW) was just an idea. Since then, our Center has not just become a reality, but it has far exceeded expectations. In fact, JMCW just received a coveted Slingshot Award! And as a special bonus, the DC Wexner group (current and alums) added its own endorsement by voting to give JMCW an additional Slingshot Fund Award. I am sharing our experience not only to describe this “cool,” innovative program, but to relate a practical and inspiring way to address the questions raised in Utah.
The vision for JMCW came from our extraordinary senior rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, who five years ago introduced several of us to Jewish contemplative practice through a women’s meditation group at Adas Israel Congregation, the oldest Conservative synagogue in Washington, DC. We all had the personal experience of wanting more spirituality from our Judaism than our traditional synagogue was providing. And we all noticed that despite the heavy investment in “engagement” and “outreach” by Jewish institutions, many Jews in the DC metro area had given up on looking for spirituality in Jewish settings, choosing instead to help fill Buddhist meditation halls and yoga studios to capacity.
We envisioned a different approach – a center dedicated to Jewish mindfulness and contemplative practices that would provide Jews in the DC area a way to access a sense of the spiritual. And in doing so, it would promote a community of spiritual seekers who could find deep meaning in their Judaism within a synagogue setting.
In early 2012, the rabbi asked me to lead a task force of dedicated lay leaders to make this vision a reality. We started by defining three goals: to become a vibrant center for affiliated and non-affiliated Jews in the DC area seeking a more meaningful, spiritual Jewish experience; to increase the satisfaction of Adas Israel members seeking a deeper spiritual connection; and through this innovative programming, to attract new members to the synagogue.
Over six months, we met to plan programming, fundraising, and outreach. We were fortunate that our efforts complemented a major “renewal” effort at Adas Israel to redesign itself for a new era, both architecturally and substantively. Truth be told, my 18 years of experience as a World Bank economist came in handy as we had to navigate the politics of introducing a major innovation into a synagogue more than 100 years old. To do this, I joined the synagogue’s Board of Directors and worked closely with clergy, staff and lay leadership. Independently, we raised $80,000 to finance the early years of JMCW operations as a way to demonstrate our added-value to the synagogue.
JMCW was launched in the fall of 2012 with special High Holiday programming (including a “spiritual shofar-blowing” workshop led by yours truly!). We quickly followed with regular programming, including a weekly “Morning Awakening” minyan and a weekly evening “sit” (meditation and torah talk); three weekly Jewish yoga classes; a series of “mindful mikvah” programs; and a monthly “Return Again” Friday night service infused with soulful music. This was complemented by special programs that featured well-known Jewish mindfulness leaders such as Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Sylvia Boorstin, as well as a wonderful Shabbaton organized with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
Thousands of people – Adas members and non-members – have participated in our programs over the past two years, including 1,500 for our unique “Kol Nidre Under the Stars,” led by JMCW’s inspiring and wonderful Spiritual Director Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt. More important than numbers, however, are the testimonials we receive attesting to JMCW’s success in injecting meaning and depth in participants’ Judaism, creating genuine community connection and opening pathways for engagement with other programs at Adas Israel. To hear my own 17-year-old son Benji describe Kol Nidre as “totally authentic with an awesome sense of community” gave me a wonderful sense of confidence that he will continue to seek out meaningful Jewish experiences when he heads off to college next fall.
When we started, other Jewish institutions in the DC area politely declined our invitation to partner with us in hosting special programming. Two years later, “Jewish mindfulness” programs are springing up everywhere in our community, from synagogues to JCCs. We view this as validation of our core idea that a different set of spiritual practices can make Judaism – and, specifically, synagogue life – more meaningful.
Several synagogues throughout the country have reached out to us to learn from our experience. We are eager to spread the word; we believe the potential for “Jewish mindfulness” to enrich synagogue life is huge.
Jennie Litvack, a native of Montreal and a current member in the Wexner Heritage Cohort (Washington DC 13), spent 18 years as lead economist at the World Bank before changing course and devoting herself to building a community of spiritual-seekers through creating the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington. Her special spiritual passion is blowing shofar, for which she has twice been featured on National Public Radio. Jennie had the great pleasure of blowing shofar for her Wexner colleagues on top of the mountain at Snowbird – a near Sinai experience! She and her husband Rob Satloff are the parents of three wonderful boys Benji, William and David. Jennie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.