If one scans a prayer book at any Conservative synagogue, it’s not difficult to find the word meditation amid the liturgy; nonetheless, when one thinks of meditative prayer, the image of incense, monks, and mantras is usually what comes to mind, certainly not Jewish worship. Besides, the “Chosen People” aren’t exactly renowned for their ability to sit in silence. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening, once a month, on Shabbat morning, at The Jewish Center in Princeton.
The Hamakom Meditation Minyan is the brainchild of the Jewish Center’s Hazzan Joanna Dulkin, who created this hour-long innovative program by melding the practice of mindfulness with the experience of Shabbat. The goal of the program is to provide a place to enjoy the spirituality of Shabbat. Hamakom, which is the Hebrew word for “the place,” is certainly an appropriate title for this program, which has become the place to be on Shabbat.
Mindfulness is the act of focusing one’s attention completely and non-judgmentally on the only moment that ever really exists — the present moment. Hazzan Dulkin draws on many of the same mindfulness techniques that Buddhists and other practitioners have been using for centuries except, like a good chicken soup, she adds some Jewish flavor to it. Interspersed between silent meditation, chanting, and connecting with one’s breath, the hazzan shares her perspective on the week’s parsha and provides alternative insights on familiar Jewish prayers. Hazzan Dulkin uses these techniques with the hope, as she puts it, “to connect people to each other and to God, and to come away from the experience somehow transformed.”
Judaism is certainly not without its own rich tradition of spiritual practice as the more recent rise in popularity of Kabala demonstrates. Through the Hamakom initiative, Hazzan Dulkin highlights the spirituality that already exists within traditional Jewish prayers. Whether it is the evocative morning prayer Modeh Ani or the meditative Sh’ma, Hazzan Dulkin’s approach is exciting many Jews who might otherwise have sought their spirituality outside the synagogue.
Mindfulness has recently grown in popularity as yoga centers have become as ubiquitous as Dunkin Donuts shops. Even such corporations as Google and Apple are promoting the benefits of mindfulness to their employees, setting aside meditation rooms that have fast become as popular as smoking stations. It seems that a disproportionate number of those practicing mindfulness and meditation today are Jewish. A transformative and uniquely Jewish program such as Hamakom has the potential to break through what many view as the monotony and repetitive nature of the traditional Shabbat service and lure disconnected Jews back to the sanctuary. A regular attendee of the Hamakom service, Helena Sherman, talked of her experiences with more secular meditation sessions. “I always felt a little odd chanting out loud ancient Sanskrit words like ‘Om,’” she said. “I feel so much more comfortable chanting ‘Shalom.’”
Another enthusiastic participant is The Jewish Center’s past president, Gil Gordon. Gordon, who has been attending the meditation sessions since they began last year, admits, “It was a bit of a push for me to go since I am not the meditative type, but I was surprised at how quickly I got drawn into it….” Neither Hazzan Dulkin nor Gordon views this program as replacing the traditional sanctuary service. “On the months we have our Shabbat morning meditation,” said Hazzan Dulkin, “I come into the sanctuary service a little more present and connected than usual.” Gordon views the sanctuary service as the “centerpiece of Shabbat mornings” and describes the Hamakom sessions as “a great way to…get into a Shabbat mood.”
However, the benefits of mindfulness are more far-reaching than just enhancing the Shabbat experience or filling empty seats in the sanctuary. A quick Google search will return a plethora of articles and scientific studies providing evidence that practicing mindfulness can reduce stress, increase cognitive ability, and improve working memory. Research has also shown that those who practice mindfulness are more likely to display important altruistic qualities such as empathy, compassion, and selflessness. Hazzan Dulkin encourages anyone interested in attending the Hamakom sessions to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is no guarantee that you will walk away from the sessions an enlightened guru, but you will certainly feel less stressed and enjoy a beautiful and peaceful Shabbat.
Hey, and you never know, through the practice of Jewish mindfulness, you could become part of a kinder and more compassionate Jewish community, which in turn has the potential to transform the world.