The chanting started once a minyan had gathered. Sitting in a loose circle, some on pillows and others on chairs, some with feet crossed, others with legs stretched forward, the mostly middle-aged participants followed Beth Sandweiss in a rhythmic, melodic incantation of “Shalom.”
By the time the chanting had come to a gradual end, about 25 people had gathered in the small storefront of YogaDeshi in Watchung Plaza on a Shabbat afternoon in mid-April for the inaugural session of the Jewish Meditation Center of Montclair.
The center is the effort of three Jews who live and worship in Montclair. Larry Yermack and Larry Schwartz, both members of the Conservative Congregation Shomrei Emunah, have been meditating for a decade or more. Sandweiss, of Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist synagogue, has been meditating regularly for 20 years; she has studied chanting with Rabbi Shefa Gold, a central figure in the Jewish Renewal movement.
“We are committed Jews and have a meditation practice, and we wanted to make this available to the community,” said Yermack in a telephone interview in advance of the first session.
“It’s a struggle in the liberal Jewish community how to celebrate Shabbat in a meaningful, joyous, contemporary, relevant way. To organize this with my friends and do it a mile from my home — I can’t think of a better way to spend Shabbat,” said Schwartz in a phone conversation after the first two sessions.
The Jewish Meditation Center of Montclair joins a growing group of Jewish meditation centers nationwide, including Chochmat haLev in Berkeley, Calif., Makor Or Jewish Meditation Center in San Francisco, the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn, and the Nishmat Hayyim Jewish Meditation Collaborative of New England. Ground zero for the movement may be the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center (isabellafreedman.org) in upstate New York, which offers meditation retreats.
“I think this is part of a new trend,” said Rabbi Rachel Cowan, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, who is writing a report on the emergence of contemplative practice in the American-Jewish community. “There’s a real growing interest in the Jewish world in meditation as a form of spiritual practice.” Both Schwartz and Yermack sit on the IJS board, and Sandweiss has studied there.
Beyond the few independent centers for Jewish meditation are many more options for meditation within traditional Jewish frameworks, such as those offered by synagogues and JCCs. The Institute for Jewish Spirituality has trained over 200 rabbis in leading “mindfulness” meditation.
Meditation can provide “a profound Jewish experience both for those who do not have a home in traditional centers of Jewish practice, like the synagogue, and those who do,” said Cowan.
While the founders of JMCM did consider offering meditation at one of their synagogues, they decided to use a neutral space in order to attract both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews in the area.
“A lot of people want an entry place to Judaism, but don’t find it at shul,” said Sandweiss. “Yoga centers are so popular, and people come there for Sanskrit meditation. We figured, how about Jewish meditation?”
JMCM is offering mindfulness meditation. While the practice’s origins are in Buddhism, the center is clear that its version is entirely Jewish: It is being practiced in a Jewish environment using traditional Jewish teachings, and the sessions are held on Shabbat afternoons.
There are forms of Jewish meditation with roots in the Kabala; like traditional Buddhist meditation, they were practiced by mystical elites, and not available to the masses. According to Rabbi Alan Brill of Seton Hall University, who has led classes on kabalistic meditation, Buddhist meditation was popularized in the 1960s by Thich Naht Hanh, an expatriate Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk. The insight meditation commonly practiced today was created in the 1950s and ’60s by Ajahn Chah, founder of two major monasteries in Thailand with hundreds of worldwide branches.
“Jews who entered the Peace Corps picked up the really popular forms of Buddhist meditation, not the intricate monastic meditation,” said Brill. Although kabalistic meditation is still practiced, it was never popularized.
Despite its origin in Buddhism, Cowan believes mindfulness meditation can be authentically Jewish. “Many things have come into Judaism from other cultures. That’s how Judaism has grown,” she said. Borrowing a phrase from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, another leading Renewal rabbi, she likened the basic practice of meditation to tofu, which can be “marinated” to take on the flavor of anything to which it is added.
The “tofu,” in this case, is a practice for expanding into a different consciousness. “Buddhists use that to heighten Buddhist teaching,” she said. “We are not just decorating it with Jewish words; we are putting it to the service of Jewish life.”
Schwartz began the first meditation at the center with a kabalistic teaching about the omer, the ritual counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot, which imbues each of the seven weeks between the festivals with a different attribute. This was the week for “hesed,” or compassion, he said, acknowledging that the technique he’d chosen — Metta meditation — “came pretty straight from Buddhism.”
Sandweiss feels that chanting reinvigorates the traditional liturgy. Any given passage in the prayerbook often includes so many words, she said, it’s hard to do more than just read through. Chanting is “taking phrase and working with them, meditating on them. When you chant a phrase, that part of the liturgy comes alive,” she said.
An informal survey of attendees at the first two sessions suggested that many had previous experience with meditation, especially transcendental meditation, but few had a current regular practice. Some came from Shomrei Emunah and Bnai Keshet; others were unaffiliated.
The sessions offered at the center are held only on Shabbat afternoon and are open to people at all levels. The three leaders, who will rotate in leading sessions, said they hope to bring their own teachers to the center as well. There is no fee, but an optional donation is encouraged, to cover the $50 weekly rental fee for the space. A collection jar sits near the door; for those who do not handle money on Shabbat, stamped, pre-addressed envelopes are there as well.
“Meditation is about learning to be awake in all moments of your life, being present in the moment, whether you are praying, working, studying,” said Yermack. “There are many doors to spirituality. We are focusing on meditation.”