The world today is not still. Phone screens light up with a constant stream of breaking news notifications. Our computers ding with unread emails and messages. There are work demands and family demands. And we try to fit friends, hobbies and vacations in there too.
Sometimes, there are small, often unintentional, moments of stillness — zoning out on the Metro, that time in bed right before falling asleep, driving on a long stretch of unoccupied road (one thing this Midwest native greatly misses since becoming an East Coast transplant) and even, paradoxically, vigorous exercise, which can bring with it a certain stillness of the mind.
But more and more people are seeking out and cultivating moments of stillness in a busy world and many of them are turning to mindfulness to do it. The popularity of mindfulness, the practice of being more present in day-to-day life, has grown exponentially in recent years. A 2012 survey from the National Institutes of Health, the most recent available, showed a near-doubling of yoga practitioners since 2002 (6 to 11 percent). It also found 18 million people (about 8 percent) meditate. It seems fair to assume the numbers have only increased since 2012 in these two practices, the most popular forms of mindfulness.
There is no shortage of yoga in today’s world, even in the larger Jewish community of the DMV. The Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington hosts about 15 yoga classes every week and the JCC of Northern Virginia has been offering yoga for more than two decades — just two examples. But the finer points of mindfulness, particularly meditation and exercises in being more present, are just starting to come into their own.
Mindfulness more generally comes from the Eastern tradition, particularly Buddhist practices, and, at least here in the United States, is frequently associated with a New Age vibe. But many Jews are adopting the language of modern mindfulness even as practitioners say the practice itself has a long history in Jewish tradition.
“Many people in our society today are really, really overstretched,” said Jennie Litvack, a member of the board of the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington at Adas Israel, which she helped conceive. “Even if you are managing to balance work and family, balancing work and family and spiritual life is very difficult. [But] when you quiet your mind and do it in a Jewish context, there’s the opportunity to reach the divine.”
And that’s something Jews have been doing since forever, say spiritual leaders who embrace mindfulness, pointing especially to the longtime practice of chasidic rabbis to spend time quieting the mind before they can pray most effectively.
Maharat Hadas Fruchter of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, a modern Orthodox synagogue, said the shul is very intentional about its use of the language of mindfulness because it can provide another “access point” for people wanting to explore their faith. Beth Sholom has a lay-led meditation group as well as a regular series of events featuring niggunim, or repetitive chanting and singing. During the High Holidays, the congregation will also have a guided service that will emphasize meditation, reflection and study.
“I do think mindfulness is adding a burst of energy to what we do,” Fruchter said. “We’re responding to people saying they need it.”
Beth Sholom isn’t alone in adding mindfulness to the way it explores the Jewish faith. Among others: There’s Elul yoga at Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation; Shabbasana (a play on Shabbat and shavasana, a yoga pose) yoga at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue; Jewish meditation at the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, a Reform temple in Reston; and a series on meditation at D.C.’s Tifereth Israel Congregation, which is Conservative.
Some are one-off classes while others are part of series. Cantor Allen Leider at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church has been leading a monthly meditation series that will start back up in September. Two years ago, Leider introduced mindfulness and meditation to the congregation, including his guided meditation group centered on Jewish learning and themes.
“People feel funny about God and about their ideas about God and it causes them to pull away, but they’re still wondering about spirituality — and Judaism has the answers,” he said. “And I think meditation and mindfulness and reflection are core to Judaism.”
For many congregations that have introduced some aspect of mindfulness into their services or as groups and classes within the last couple years, the idea frequently came from a clergy member or congregant who had been involved in the practice for many years, but only recently started to introduce it within more traditional Jewish institutions. Leider, for instance, came to mindfulness about 15 years ago though brought it to his congregation only recently.
One of the region’s earliest forays into mindfulness through a Jewish lens came from Adas Israel, the large Conservative synagogue in Washington. Litvack became one of the motivating forces behind it after she was turned onto meditation by the congregation’s Rabbi Gil Steinlauf. Steinlauf, she said, had envisioned incorporating more mindfulness into the synagogue and asked her to lead the task force to figure out how to do it.
“My soul needed more space,” she said about deciding to leave the World Bank, in part to concentrate on this project. (Interestingly, Litvack is one of two people WJW talked to for this article who left jobs they liked at the World Bank to be more active in mindfulness.) “I felt like it was time for me to go forth. It’s a bit of a different orientation than ‘Oh, I had time because I left’ because there was a more meant-to-be-ness.”
In 2012, that work became the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, which hosts classes and services that run the gamut of mindfulness practices.
“In the beginning, it was a little — no one was against it, but there was a lot of skepticism,” said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, the current spiritual leader for JMCW. “On the East Coast, there weren’t any synagogues doing this. There was a sense of ‘What is this California voodoo?’”
Now, however, the center is a fully integrated part of Adas, she said, and some of the services started through JMCW have even become a part of the congregation at large. Holtzblatt and Litvack both pointed especially to the Return Again to Shabbat service, a monthly outdoor Kol Nidra service that emphasizes reflection and music and has become one of the most popular services at the synagogue.
Like the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, Minyan Oneg Shabbat, a Jewish Renewal gathering started by Rabbi Mark Novak in 2012, was created to tap specifically into mindfulness through a Jewish lens. A couple years ago, Novak added mindfulness practitioner and instructor Klia Bassing, who came to mindfulness practice in the process of recovery for food addiction.
“I had no exposure to it prior to that,” she said. “I thought it was kind of New Age-y and weird. But I was desperate for help.”
Bassing found herself feeling more alive, being present and having more compassion for herself and others and, in 2004, decided to quit her job in international development at the World Bank to devote herself full time to bringing mindfulness to others.
With Novak, she helps lead the Minyan Oneg Shabbat’s “Mindful Mosh” gathering held the first Shabbat of each month. The service includes elements like meditation, remarks from Novak about the theme of the week’s Torah portion and mindfulness exercises from Bassing meant to incorporate Novak’s Jewish lens. During the most recent gathering Aug. 5, for example, Bassing led the group of about 12 (including this reporter) through various “games,” as she calls them, meant to change the group’s perception or force them to be more present.
One of the games involved partnering up and noticing the initial thoughts and observations that came to mind and mentioning them to the other person, whether that was noticing the glare on someone’s glasses or a particular feeling in the moment. Another had each person describing to a small group a time he or she was “in the flow,” or “in the zone” for the more sports-oriented — when time seems to slow down and it’s like watching yourself from the outside.
At the end, Rabbi Novak brought the group back to that week’s phrase: “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” chanting it several times while imagining it through different scope — a call from God, a call to yourself, a call for someone else and a call to your own mortality.
“The kingdom of God is here,” he said. “We just have to open our eyes.”