Meditation: Jewish-style…550 contemplate at S.F. conference

The smell of a rose can be described in the most intricate, poetic detail. But unless one has inhaled the flower's essence, no amount of description will bring its fragrance to life.

Last weekend, at a first-of-its-kind Jewish meditation conference in San Francisco that drew some 550, Rabbi David Cooper relied on the rose metaphor to describe one of the challenges that lay ahead for conference leaders and participants:

Spiritual moments, which are often intensely personal and experienced alone, are hard to translate.

Nonetheless, through discussion and demonstration, conference teachers managed to convey the essence of Jewish meditation, a period of relaxed contemplation during which the practitioner focuses on Jewish imagery.

They also related what it has brought to their lives and the lives of the growing numbers who engage in it.

"I am not so interested in kashering meditation," said conference teacher Rabbi Alan Lew, a former Buddhist who is now leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, where the conference took place.

"I am extremely interested in the power of meditation to open Jews to the incredible richness of the normative Jewish spiritual tradition, of Shabbat, of daily prayer, of the sense of the presence of God one feels around a birth, around a death."

Cooper, co-rabbi of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles, offered this simple label for meditation's effects — "delicious stillness."

Such descriptions inspired Laura Giges, who said she wants to acquire attributes she observed in teachers at the event: "a sense of peacefulness, but joy also. I'm feeling myself wanting the place of comfort, richness I saw in them."

Giges, a Santa Cruz resident, has meditated erratically. Others who filled the city's Congregation Beth Sholom Saturday night and Sunday engage in the practice regularly.

Take Betsy Kassoff.

A member of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, she meditates daily or every two days. Like many practitioners of Jewish meditation, she does so by focusing on Hebrew letters, names of God, or prayers such as the Shema or Amidah. Sometimes, she lulls herself with a niggun, a wordless Chassidic chant.

Jewish meditation "pulls me into a more internal place, a more authentic place," she said. "I can then try to synthesize that with the practices of Judaism."

That synthesis was at the heart of the conference, which was organized by Chochmat HaLev, a Berkeley center of adult spiritual learning, and co-sponsored by Congregation Beth Sholom and a host of other organizations.

"If you want to do Jewish meditation, baseline, you've got to set up a Jewish day, infuse your experience with Jewish activities," said Shoshana Cooper, who co-directs Kehillat Tzaddi with husband David Cooper. The program for contemplative Judaism is in Boulder, Colo.

"If you are doing meditation other than to just relax," she continued, "you're going to need a whole set of guidelines of how to live your life."

Jewish meditation, it became clear, is indeed aimed at more than just relaxation, though the peaceful reflection and harmonious chants that accompany the practice often have that effect.

"I believe that Jewish meditation is completely dedicated to the idea of transformation," both personal and communal, Avram Davis, founder of Chochmat HaLev, told participants at the "What Is Jewish Meditation?" opening session.

Author of a book titled "The Way of Flame, An Introduction to Jewish Meditation," Davis told conference participants that fire is an important image to evoke when considering Jewish meditation.

"The Torah path is asking us not to detach from that which is, but to passionately embrace it," Davis said, "to make the heart not as a still and calm pool but to make it like a furnace, to become so red hot, as it were, that ego is burned up."

Throughout the conference, participants' passion for meditation was clear. During a Sunday morning group meditation session, they closed their eyes and lost themselves in the soothing, repetitive group chants. Some stood and swayed; others swirled their hands in the air to the beat of their internal rhythms.

Later, over vegetarian lunches and in workshops on such topics as "Lovingkindness Through Meditation," led by Chochmat HaLev co-director Nan Fink, participants continued to explore the ins and outs of Jewish meditation and the benefits and challenges of adhering to a regimen amid a busy schedule.

Sticking with it, said those who have, pays off.

"The longing is what led me on this path into Jewish spirituality; the longing is what causes me to put in a lot of effort," said conference attendee Rabbi Miriam Senturia, co-director of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco. "For most of us, the resistance doesn't go away. It's learning to work with it, bow to it, sort of stay in the game."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.