Jewish meditation confab bringing top leaders to S.F.

Nearly half of those planning to attend an upcoming Jewish meditation conference in San Francisco have never before closed their eyes and intoned, "Ommm."

That they would spend a weekend exploring the practice, and in some cases travel from out of state to do so, points to a growing hunger among Jews for spiritual sustenance. Meditation helps to satiate that hunger, say conference organizers.

"There is an inherent need in everyone's soul for spiritual connection, and that needs to find voice," says Avram Davis, founder and co-director of Chochmat HaLev, the Berkeley-based adult Jewish learning center that is co-hosting the Saturday and Sunday, April 5 and 6 conference with San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom. Nearly 600 are expected to attend.

The conference, believed to be the first of its kind, will draw Jewish meditation teachers from around the country and as far away as Israel to lead group sessions, discussions and workshops. Topics include "The Power of Stillness," "Lovingkindness through Meditation" and "Ecstasy and Discipline: Applying the Power of the Chant."

In one workshop titled "Creative Borrowing: Using Non-Jewish Meditation to Enhance Jewish Spirituality," Beth Sholom's Rabbi Alan Lew, former director of the Berkeley Zen Center, will discuss and demonstrate how to bring hatha yoga, Zen meditation and breath and posture meditations into Judaism.

Other conference leaders will include Nan Fink, a Chochmat HaLev co-director and a co-founder of Tikkun magazine; Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, founder and head of Metivta: a Center for Jewish Wisdom in Los Angeles; and Rabbi Shefa Gold, a philosopher, poet and musician and a teacher of Jewish chant.

"This is the first step in reintegrating Jewish meditation into the Jewish mainstream," says Davis, adding that the conference is open to Jews of all movements as well as non-Jews. Meditation in the Jewish tradition aims "simply to unlock the heart, unlock the soul. We want people to feel invited regardless of where they're coming from."

Though Jewish meditation can be traced as far back as the fifth century, it was something of a lost practice until relatively recently. While a small number of teachers have always continued to teach the traditions to devoted students, the Jewish mainstream remained largely unaware of the practice.

Davis says Jewish meditation, performed with regularity, offers the same mental and physical rewards as Zen meditation, yoga and such practices as Transcendental Meditation. It can focus and relax the mind, calm the nerves and, according to some evidence, provide such health benefits as a lower heart rate.

Still, Jewish meditation has a flavor all its own.

Often it begins with the humming of a niggun (a wordless Chassidic tune), and the meditator visualizes Hebrew letters or Jewish motifs such as the kabbalistic image of a Divine throne of mercy.

Davis believes meditation essentially originates in the soul rather than the mind, an approach he thinks appeals to many Jews today.

"Prayer is difficult for a lot of modern Jews because there's a lot of explaining that has to go with it," he says, adding that prayer often evokes complex questions. Meditation, he says, is less cerebrally focused and thus offers "a fairly immediate spiritual doorway."

In the last several years, Jewish meditation workshops and classes have begun to pop up around the country, particularly in the Bay Area, which is home to a confluence of teachers and meditators from all movements of Judaism.

"We are on the cusp of this very great reawakening of contemplative technique within the Jewish world," Davis says. "I believe it will strengthen and increase the spiritual heart of the Jewish people."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.