Jewish Meditation 1995-2005

Here is an account from The Forward that parallels what I have seen in the field. In the early and mid nineties there was a great desire for the technical aspects of meditation and Jewish meditation. Then, after only 5 years it started broadening into all forms of spirituality especially musical forms and emotional healing. And finally right before our eyes, it all stops around 2005. People started coming to a class listed as Jewish meditation and assumed that it has something to do with guitars, bongos and chanting. In 1995, people wanted meditation and came with Zen or Vipasssana backgrounds and then flash it was gone by 2005, leaving revivalism in its wake.

Even the local Buddhist center here in NJ, gave daily and weekly meditation classes in 2000 and now only offers a once a month introduction to Happiness, saving any serious meditation instruction for biannual retreats.

Chochmat HaLev came to life in the 1990s… One of these teachers, Rabbi Avram Davis, proposed creating a Jewish meditation center that could be a community resource…. Chochmat HaLev was launched, first as a series of classes in 1992 to 1993, and then as a nonprofit organization in 1995… In focusing on Jewish meditation, Gefen and Davis were at the forefront of a wave of interest in training a generation of Jewish “spiritual leaders,” who could bring meditation to their own congregations and lead meditation retreats and workshops for nonaffiliated Jews. So in addition to holding its own retreats and workshops, Chochmat pioneered a year-long leadership program with an initial cohort of 40 students.

Something happened on the communal meditation cushion, however. Joined by their interest in Jewish spirituality, the initial group felt a desire to pray together — a development that took Gefen by surprise. Davis, however, had thought of offering services from the beginning, because for him, Jewish meditation could exist only as part of a larger practice.

From the start, Davis led Chochmat’s services, distinguished by the constant thrum of a six-piece band composed of guitar, bass, drum set, keyboards and vocalists, its musical direction owed in equal parts to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, American rock and Moroccan beats. During a typical service, continuing today, participants dance in the aisles, clap, stomp their feet and sway with hands in the air, in an atmosphere most reminiscent of evangelical rapture

From 2000 to 2005, Chochmat HaLev functioned much like a cross between an institute for Jewish spirituality and an independent minyan.  Holding these two very different organizations together was a tight-knit, supportive community.

The year 2005 marked a crisis for Chochmat. The meditation school had essentially vanished. Aside from one year-long distance-learning program, the school was not offering more classes than an active synagogue. And because of its regular religious services, Chochmat was no longer seen as a non-denominational resource center: Its original mission was gone.

In 2005, the Chochmat board decided to become a functioning synagogue, and Avram Davis chose to leave.

Full version

Now Jewish meditation is once again for the few.People still do visualizations – part motivational part Neo-hasidic as a way to get psyched or as a means of bringing a moment of silence or a visualization into a regular service.  People are very sympathetic, “lets do it for a few minutes or a mini-course” and then let’s move on.

More on the year 2000 from the same author.

The year 2000 would see the establishment of the New York-based Institute of Jewish Spirituality, a Jewish meditation center run by Rabbi Sheila Pelz Weinberg; Makor Or, a San Francisco-based center founded by Rabbi Alan Lew (z’’l) and Norman Fischer; as well as a new emphasis on meditation at Elat Chayyim under Rabbi Jeff Roth and a burst of books on the topic (among them books by Gefen and Davis).

Ten years ago there was a meditation moment.

UPDATE – see the detailed rundown by Len Moskowitz in the Comments section. The comment shows that there is no diminution.
Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

2 responses to “Jewish Meditation 1995-2005

  1. In my relatively well-informed opinion, there doesn’t seem to be a diminution of meditation opportunities nor attendance.

    Makor Or, the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, Elat Chayyim are all alive and doing reasonably well with their meditation and training programs.

    Rabbi Dorothy Richman has filled in for the late Rabbi Alan Lew at Makor Or, and Zoketsu Norman Fischer (“Everyday Zen” and San Francisco Zen Center) is still active in the leadership and teaching. They’re holding classes and sittings at the JCC in San Francisco. By the reports I’ve heard, they’re not quite thriving but they’re also not anywhere close closing their doors.

    The Institute for Jewish Spirituality just held their week-long training class in San Diego. Any news about attendamce?

    Elat Chayyim has had a reasonably full schedule of meditation retreats, including a week-long one with the Coopers a few weeks ago in December.

    In the Renewal world, the Coopers, Jeff Roth and Joanna Katz, Rami Shapiro, Gershon Winkler ,Shefa Gold and Nan Fink Gefen are all still in demand to lead weekend and week-long meditation retreats.

    Nishmat Hayyim up in the Boston area seems busy, with Jay Michaelson hosting a Tu B’shvat

    Makom (The Center for Mindfulness) at the JCC in Manhattan has a full schedule of meditation classes, and seems to have more teachers than ever.

    According to the folks in the Orthodox Jewish community in Boulder CO, there are still as many Jews as there ever were (if not more) enrolling at Naropa (Chogyam Trungpa’s Tibetan Buddhist university). They’re not attracted there for the food (though I hear that’s pretty good too).

    The Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn opened this past Fall, and I’ve seen them grow to have 18 people at their last Monday night sitting. Seems like healthy growth to me.

    In Israel, Pardes has Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaching a popular meditation program. Rabbi Natan Ophir is active too.

    Two of the local Zen groups in Northern NJ, one run by Fr. Robert E. Kennedy S.J. (in Jersey City) and another by Paul Genki Kahn Roshi (in Wyckoff, both are Dharma heirs of Bernie Glassman Roshi), are active. They sponsor daily and weekly zazen sittings, and regular weekend retreats. Neither seems to be shrinking appreciably.

  2. Thank you for a great report from the field.

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