We Are Building American Buddhism

Institute for Jewish Spirituality

330 Seventh Avenue, 19th Floor
New York, NY 10001
Telephone: (212) 774-3608
Website: www.jewishspirituality.org
Attn: Rabbi Lisa L. Goldstein

Description of Organization

The Institute offers transformative, contemplative programs that help people reclaim traditional Jewish wisdom and deepen their relationships with God. This helps them become stronger, more effective teachers, preachers, and leaders, which in turn helps build healthier communities and enriches everyday life for all Jews.

Our challenge is to reestablish a connection between Jewish practice and teaching, and the lived lives of Jews. We need teachers, grounded in authentic Jewish spiritual practice, who can help Jews connect their own deepest experiences to the language, imagery and compelling power of the Jewish tradition. If we are to inspire our people and sustain our vision, we must tend to our own inner life, drawing from Jewish spiritual tradition.

Grant(s) Awarded

A grant of $10,000 was made to support the work of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

According to Lisa Zbar of the Institute, "The contribution is vital to our work to reinvigorate the Judaism to which we are all committed. This donation will enable us at the Institute to work with other Jews to make real our vision of a vibrant, transformative Judaism which is rooted in tradition, attuned to contemporary sensibilities, and invigorated by practices integrating mind, body, heart, and soul. We have seen that this work can inspire Jews to connect meaningfully with each other, with their communities, and with the Divine - ultimately creating a more just and compassionate world."

Results / Updates

2018 Update

In mid-2018, Institute for Jewish Spirituality received a $10,000 grant for their Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training course. The program consists of three intensive retreats (18 days total over 15 months), as well as a curriculum of weekly study with a learning partner and monthly assignments and check-ins with a faculty mentor. Each month of the curriculum features a theme for investigation through an integrated path of study and practice. This includes readings from Jewish and Buddhist sources; practice instructions and guidance for integration of Jewish thought, language, and mindfulness; and pedagogic instruction and practice.

2012 Update

In 2011, the first year of the two-year grant, the Institute completed the initial cohort of the Jewish Meditation Teacher Training program (JMTT). There were 27 participants who reported substantial fulfillment, new-found expertise as mindfulness meditation teachers, and the confidence to teach the practice in their communities. As further testament to the success and relevance of the program, more than 35 people signed up for the second 16-month cohort, which began in spring, 2012.

Click here to read a blog, written by a participant who is a geoscientist and professor of earth sciences at Vassar College. In this writing she weaves together dharma, Jewish spiritual practices, and the earth.

Program goals

We identified several goals for this program, which are stated below, along with the related accomplishments.

  • Create a cadre of well-trained Jewish mindfulness teachers in various sectors to respond to deep yearnings in the community for meaningful practice that speaks to suffering, burnout, and the desire to live with love and compassion.

The program graduates are situated in varied settings, weaving mindfulness meditation into their professional lives and using it in volunteer activities. The professional roles include rabbis and cantors; founders of meditation centers; the director of the Undergraduate Education Field Placement Office at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass.; a professor of geology at Vassar College, another of literature and poetry at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and a professor of Middle East history at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass.; an attorney in the Environmental Enforcement Section of the US Department of Justice; a veterinarian; a music therapist who works in an assisted living facility; a retired businessman; the founding director of the Spirituality Project and director of development and education at the Center on Violence and Recovery, both at New York University; an organizational development consultant; and a lawyer who directs the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office. In most cases, the participants report that their work and lives are being informed, directly and indirectly, by mindfulness meditation practices.

  • Expand the capacity of the Institute to teach.

We have certainly achieved this goal, thereby creating new teachers for the Institute and enabling our core rabbinic staff to turn their attention to other important projects. One JMTT graduate has become the Director of Lay Programming for the Institute. Another is a meditation teacher at our retreats. The new Executive Director of the Institute graduated from JMTT and now teaches during our retreats and in other settings. As a result our core faculty members are expanding their focus: Rabbi Sheila Weinberg can concentrate almost exclusively on the development of JMTT; Rabbi Myriam Klotz is developing Jewish Yoga Teacher Training; Rabbi Jonathan Slater can pay more attention to translating Chasidic texts and the launch of a new rabbinic leadership group.

  • Focus on the needs of Jews in their 20s and 30s who want to build communities of relevant, meaningful Judaism where spiritual values translate into both study and social action.

While JMTT does not exclude Jews in their 40s and older, at least a quarter of the graduates of the first cohort are in their 20s and 30s. Three of them started meditation centers; one participant is a social justice activist who is now in rabbinical school; and another is an organizational consultant who focuses on social justice leaders. JMTT has given them a new means for interacting with their age cohort, speaking in a language that is relevant to their values as Jews and activists.

  • Further develop and refine Jewish thought and practice as seen through the lens of Buddhism.

From a Buddhist point of view we are covering a particular curriculum that is adapted from the Integrated Study and Practice Program at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies where Rabbi Weinberg studied under the guidance of Andrew Olendzki, one of the foremost Buddhist scholars and teachers. As we plan for JMTT2 we are refining the pedagogy by incorporating the Four Noble Truths and Eight-fold Path. This will provide a systematic presentation of the dharma and Buddhist path from which we will approach Jewish life, the Jewish year, Torah and key texts, and other Jewish teachings. Please see the section on future directions for additional details about plans for refinement. (We will provide the written curriculum when it has undergone necessary revisions.)

Specific challenges, both external and internal

We faced one profound external challenge and several internal challenges. The external challenge was that one of the participants, Rabbi Sandy Roth, died of cancer between the second and third retreats. She was very ill on the first two retreats and asked for a healing service in the context of the silent retreat (as these are silent retreats, there is no socializing and a minimal amount of talking even while engaged in teaching sessions). Before Sandy died, the practice of Jewish mindfulness enabled the participants to fully experience their sadness about her illness and still be present for themselves and each other. In this regard, the participants benefited from the Jewish practices and vocabulary they were learning.

The internal challenges took several forms: 1) the amount of time that the co-directors, Rabbis Weinberg and Jeff Roth, were required to allocate to the students, especially in the interim periods between retreats; 2) the three-retreat requirement was a challenge for some participants although most attended and no one dropped out; and 3) people felt that the silence created a barrier to getting to know each other.

The first of these internal challenges, the capacity of Rabbis Weinberg and Roth, will be of special concern during the second cohort, as we already have 35 accepted applicants. However, a graduate from the first cohort will be a third staff member, able to expand the team's ability to respond to the students. In addition, the program directors are committed to the three retreat structure and the silence on retreat. There may be more explication of the rational for this framework during the introductory period.

Quantitative and qualitative evaluation

We used Survey Monkey to perform a post-cohort evaluation and, more recently, to collect data on the number of secondary beneficiaries as well as anecdotes about impact. Overall, the participants estimate that they are having an impact on 3,500+ people through their mindfulness teaching. More specifically, the post-cohort assessment revealed the following (100% of the participants responded):

  • 56% meditate several times a week;
  • 47% teach meditation on a weekly basis;
  • 52% called themselves "very confident" as teachers of mindfulness meditation from a Jewish perspective;
  • 50% said that they have a strong connection to a community of fellow teachers of meditation from a Jewish perspective with whom they can share resources, practice, and ideas;
  • 47.8% report that there is an "extensive connection" between mindfulness practice and the work of social justice and community building in the Jewish world and beyond; and
  • 58.3% found the integration of social justice issues into the program to be "somewhat" helpful.

We also asked for anecdotes about JMTT's effect on their personal and professional lives. Here are several responses.

"Because I was in the JMTT, I started incorporating meditation into the tutoring I was doing with elementary school children. I was tutoring them in math and had some kids who were troubled. I started teaching them to meditate. A mother of one boy in particular called the teacher I was working with during the summer, commenting on what a change she noticed in him. He had started meditating by himself at home."

"Based on my training at JMTT I was able to convince the Jewish Community Center in which I work to allow me to offer a weekly meditation group, combining mindfulness and Jewish practice. After three sessions, the meditation group now has 40 people in it."

"Last April, I co-founded the Center for Jewish Mindfulness (CJM) in Chicago in large part because I was inspired by what other JMTT participants were doing. It has been very successful! One 20-something who is a regular participant at the CJM, told me that in the world that he lives in, so much is virtual. Friendships can feel virtual, his work is virtual, entertainment is virtual. He feels like this virtual world has a certain allure and ease, but ultimately it is bereft of deep meaning and human connection. Our CJM sessions, he told me, are 'real.'"

"As a Rabbi, I have recommitted myself to the value of just being present to someone's pain, without having to fix or solve. Sitting on retreat reminds me of the palpable presence of an open heart, and of its power. Recently, a person with a grave illness asked me to just sit with her, because she finds that presence calming. I hesitate to say 'my' presence, because it really feels as if it's coming from a greater place."

"I have been able to co-lead Shabbat afternoon mini-retreats (4 hours long) with my co-leader who also took the JMTT course. There has been a lot of positive feedback from this. Individuals who had not been able to sustain a personal meditation practice, as well as individuals who had not found much meaning in attending Shabbat services, have found their way back to temple and to meditation through these retreats."

We also measure the success of the program by the extent to which the graduates are now teaching mindfulness in their communities. We are pleased with the results. Here are some examples. Rabbi Dan Liben, a congregational rabbi, will be one of the meditation teachers in the Institute's seventh rabbinic cohort, an 18-month program with 36 participants, beginning in January 2012; incidentally, this is one of the examples of participants who are now expanding the Institute's capacity. Several graduates who are professors or directors of programs on college campus are integrating the teaching in classrooms, student organizations, and with their peers. Several other participants are teaching in or have founded Jewish meditation centers in Brooklyn, Boston, Buffalo, and Chicago.

Lessons learned

We see that there is tremendous demand for this program, regardless of whether the applicants work in the Jewish or secular world. Moving forward, we will make these programmatic changes:

  • Give better instructions on the writing assignments related to the Torah portion;
  • Refine the interim curriculum so that it is more consistent with the material in the retreats;
  • Feature yoga teachers who are more attuned to Jewish mindfulness practice; and
  • Examine how to better introduce and integrate the social justice material.

These revisions to the program will 1) strengthen the participants' ability to teach meditation from a Jewish perspective and 2) deepen the connection to social justice which is a priority for the students, the co-directors, and the Institute, as we weave that emphasis into more and more of our work.

The future

As noted, JMTT2 will begin in the spring of 2012, concluding a year later, in 2013. We will maintain the 16-month, three-retreat format. We will add an assistant staff member who will be chosen from among the graduates of the first cohort and will lead some of the prayer services and teach some of the meditation sessions. This is an important accomplishment as an internal goal for the Institute was to expand our capacity by expanding our staff.

As noted above, the new curriculum is a significant aspect of the near- and long-term future of JMTT. It will contain essay material explicating and interpreting the Jewish calendar in light of the dharma. It will also contain key dharma resources; an essay guiding students in their practice of applying the dharma to their essays on Torah; concrete and guided practice suggestions related to the dharmic ideas taught each month and on retreat; and guidance in producing instructions for practice with Jewish groups. All participants will write a short essay every week based on these instructions and their own insights, to be used with the mentor.

In addition, we will have students organized in groups according to their special interests, including social justice, wise aging, working with children or teens, working with prayer and in synagogue settings, and establishing new centers for mindfulness in the Jewish world, to name a few themes. The groups will meet monthly on the phone or via Skype to discuss their practice and consult with each other, inviting mentors as needed. We will incorporate more practice teaching opportunities into the retreat time. As in the first cohort, Rabbi Jonathan Slater will be a guest on the last retreat. To teach and model the integration of spiritual practice and social justice, Rabbi Lisa Goldstein will be visiting faculty on the second retreat.

We will continue to sustain the program, in part, by fees. We will also raise funds to support the staff involved in the program, seeking underwriting from foundations and individuals in cities in which participants live and work. The latter is an effective strategy. as these participants will bring the teaching back to their communities.

To conclude

The Jewish Meditation Teacher Training program resonates within the Jewish community, both for those whose professional lives are in the Jewish communal world and for those who work in the secular world. People who want to focus deeply on Buddhist texts while maintaining a Jewish frame of reference find this program to be profoundly relevant. We continue to see that long-term programs that combine intensive experiences with interim practice, mentoring, and peer support, transform participants and yield benefits for the larger community. This structure has become a signature of our mindful leadership development programs.

We thank the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism for supporting this innovative program and being our partners in bringing it to the Jewish community.

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