Yoga center offers new slant on Rosh Hashanah rites

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LENOX, Mass. (JTA) — New England Jews will have the chance to perform downward dogs, sun salutations and triangle poses together on Rosh Hashanah this year.

These common yoga stances will likely be incorporated into a first-ever High Holy Day program at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass.

Mindy Ribner, founder and director of the Jewish Meditation Circle in New York, will lead the program taking place Oct. 1 to 5.

Ribner will be joined by Naomi Padeh and Rabbi Zvi Padeh, who heads the Shlomo Carlebach Yeshivah in New York.

Although most Jews might consider synagogue a more appropriate place to spend the holiday, Ribner said the yoga center is an ideal place to spend Rosh Hashanah.

"The goals are to provide a modified traditional service with Torah reading and shofar blowing," she said.

Participants will also spend time in meditation.

"We hope to facilitate people in tshuvah [repentance], to impart the highest understandings of Rosh Hashanah."

Ribner hopes to attract at least 40 people.

"I expect people who are connected with Kripalu and people who have not yet felt comfortable in the Jewish world but have a desire to connect Jewishly. And I'll get people who are connected Jewishly but are looking for something a little bit new on Rosh Hashanah," she said.

The program never would have happened if Ribner herself hadn't strayed from and returned to Judaism.

She became involved with yoga and meditation in the 1970s, working with two gurus, including Kripalu.

Studying meditation and yoga led Ribner to reconnect with the Judaism of her youth.

"Through that experience, I really felt a deeper calling to find that experience — the spirituality, the love — within Judaism."

Carlebach, known to many as the "singing rabbi," became her door back into Judaism.

"I was a student of his for 20 years. It was through him that I became observant. He was kind of my guru-replacement."

Ribner began teaching Jewish meditation after a trip to the Jewish state in 1984.

"God opened a gate for me when I was in Israel," she said.

"I was invited to participate with a small group of people experimenting with Jewish meditation. This was absolutely thrilling to me because meditation had been so precious. As happy as I was Shlomo, I felt deprived of the meditation experience."

Returning to the States, Ribner began teaching meditation in New York and ultimately opened the Jewish Meditation Circle. The group has Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Chassidic and non-Jewish members.

A Manhattan resident, Ribner believes that the practice of yoga and meditation fits in perfectly with a Jewish life.

"Yoga is a physical discipline, so there's no conflict with it and Judaism. If anything, it's a mitzvah to take care of one's body and yoga is a very powerful way to increase one's physical house," she said.

"There's no conflict in meditation, if you're doing Jewish meditation," she adds. "If you were using Hindu mantras, that would be difficult to integrate in Judaism."

Ribner is excited to be inaugurating the Rosh Hashanah program at the Kripalu center.

"It's really a powerful growth experience. A lot of Jews go to Kripalu. On Friday nights, we'd light candles and say Kiddush. We'd all gather and say it would be nice if we could really celebrate our Judaism in such a loving, powerful atmosphere."

Ribner already has been asked to lead a weeklong Jewish meditation program at the center in March and to conduct a Passover program in April.

"Kripalu has assured me that we'll have a kosher-for-Pesach kitchen."