On a recent evening, in the sanctuary of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, 19 people sat in a circle. A single candle flame flickered in the center, as Rabbi Rex Perlmeter welcomed them. His colleague, Beth Sandweiss, then led them in a chant, which flowed almost seamlessly into a brief meditation.
Perlmeter instructed the group to focus on their breathing and try to live with the music spilling from the teenage fund-raiser in the next room. Participants closed their eyes and tried to hold onto the vibrations from the chant and find their own silence in the anchor of their breath.
This is one of the first outposts of the new Jewish Wellness Center, founded in Montclair by Perlmeter in phases during 2013. This beginners’ meditation class has been meeting at the synagogue every few weeks since early fall.
Perlmeter, a Reform rabbi, is currently enrolled in New York University’s master’s in social work program and is 11 months from becoming a certified spiritual guide.
He conceived the Jewish Wellness Center while grieving for his son Mitchell, a high school student who died suddenly in 2011 from a cardiac emergency.
“There are a lot of people who are part of the Jewish world who are also engaged actively in some way in a search for deeper connections and meaning,” he told NJJN over coffee at the Bluestone Cafe in Montclair a few weeks prior to the meditation session. “They are engaged in synagogues but are also seeking yoga and tai chi. There are people like me who go to the gym seeking physical activity” as a way to achieve health and wellness.
“The vast majority of these people recognize what they need for bringing wellness into their lives,” Perlmeter said, and the Jewish Wellness Center “has the capacity for bringing together like-minded people in practice.”
He said his goal is to help people achieve wellness — which he calls “shleimut” — in a Jewish framework. Acknowledging that the Hebrew word “shleimut” is usually translated as “wholeness,” he said, “I call it wellness — it has to be achieved holistically.”
He believes four “realms” are integral to shleimut: the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.
The center is being established, Perlmeter said, “to deliver the message and the services necessary — that really getting there requires all four realms.”
To that end, the center offerings include “Jewish Yoga,” individual and group counseling, text study, and meditation and prayer instruction.
The center has no independent bricks and mortar address, beyond Perlmeter’s Montclair home. And that’s exactly how Perlmeter wants it, at least for now.
He has structured the JWC to provide mindfulness services, like ongoing classes and scholar-in-residence stints, to area organizations and congregations like Ner Tamid, where he is a congregant, without competing for membership. For the same reason, he will not perform life-cycle events or offer sessions on Shabbat.
He can, however, imagine a physical space “where people seek services that are not available elsewhere,” he said. In the meantime, “We can help existing institutions rethink themselves.”
Perlmeter served as a pulpit rabbi for 21 years, much of that at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, but became increasingly interested in spirituality in congregational life. In 2008 he retired from the pulpit, and in 2010 began working as a spirituality and worship specialist at the Union for Reform Judaism in New York.
Meditating “on and off” for nearly three decades, he has been affiliated with the New York-based Institute for Jewish Spirituality during the last seven years, while his practice has become, as he put it, “more focused and intentional.” He sees the Jewish Wellness Center as a kind of independent local iteration of the IJS.
The JWC lists a faculty that includes Sandweiss, a founder of the Jewish Meditation Center of Montclair, and Shelley Levine, a yoga trainer affiliated with the JMC; Rabbi E. Noach Shapiro, former rabbi at the Conservative Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair; Beth Berns, a social worker who has worked with Jewish Family Service of MetroWest; and Rabbi Leana Morritt, the founder of Thresholds: for the Jewishly Curious. Also on the roster of staff members is Rabbi Rachel Hertzman, Perlmeter’s wife, who has experience in pastoral counseling as well as outreach to intermarried families. The couple has two daughters and a son.
The meditation session at Ner Tamid opened with a Hebrew chant from Proverbs (“My soul is the flame of God that searches the inner chambers”) and included an unplanned teaching from the week’s Torah portion — in which God reveals himself to Moses as “Ehiyeh asher Ehiyeh” — “I’m going to be what I’m going to be.”
“In mindfulness practice, we are learning, in large part, to be with what is,” Perlmeter explained later. “Learning to be with what is, and simply be present to it is huge…. As I often say to my kids, ‘This is what it is. Deal with it.’”