Chochmat training a generation of meditation teachers

A retreat center for Catholic nuns in the Bay Area's woodsy hills seems as good a place as any to hold the inaugural session of the world's first Jewish meditation teachers' certification program.

Forty-two Jews from across North America met there earlier this year for a five-day workshop, the launching pad for a three-year program that will teach Jewish meditators how to teach that skill to others.

The students are sprawled on the carpeted floor of a darkened room, legs crossed, pillows scattered behind and under them for support. In the front of the room, also sitting on the floor, are program co-directors Avram Davis and Nan Fink Gefen of Chochmat HaLev, an independent Jewish meditation center in Berkeley founded in 1994.

"We are deepening our meditation practice," Fink Gefen tells the group. "We are deepening our Jewish knowledge base. But the third thing we'll work on here is deepening who we are, as people. We have three years to work on that, and become more fully revealed people."

The students are a mixed group — split about halfway between men and women, mostly in their 30s and 40s. They are rabbis, synagogue administrators, social workers, therapists, a couple of business entrepreneurs and even a firefighter.

The students will spend the next three years meditating, talking about meditation and teaching meditation, under the supervision of Davis and Fink Gefen.

At the end of the program they will be issued certificates that proclaim them fit to teach.

"The more people who become teachers, the more people who can learn this practice," Fink Gefen says, explaining Chochmat HaLev's interest in sponsoring the certification program. "We want to train intelligent lay people to be able to lead meditation."

Centered in a handful of congregations in key cities — Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, the Upper West Side of Manhattan — the interest in Jewish meditation has become a "movement" led by Chochmat HaLev and its teachers.

Chochmat HaLev has sponsored international conferences on Jewish meditation in California and New York for the past two years, attended by nearly 1,000 participants. They have just begun sponsoring regional conferences for teachers of Jewish meditation. And they have compiled a list of almost 200 meditation teachers in order to form an organized network.

The next step, says Davis, was to set up a training program for people who want to teach Jewish meditation.

"A lot of folks are teaching Jewish meditation who have not really sat in meditation themselves," he says. "They may have read a book or two, and they start teaching. There need to be some borders, so people have a sense of who knows what."

Last summer, Chochmat HaLev announced its teachers' certification program and received nearly 100 applications. The students are all practicing meditators, most of them already leading courses in meditation at synagogues or Jewish community centers.

About half live close enough to Berkeley to attend weekly classes. The others are "distance learners" who will follow the classes on videotape. Weekly mentoring sessions with Fink Gefen and Davis and two week-long retreats every year round out the course.

Meryl Joblin, who is 48, lives in Birchrunville, Pa., a small town 45 minutes from Philadelphia. She holds a master's degree in speech pathology and uses meditation to help treat people suffering from physical disorders and fear of public speaking.

She works as a real estate agent "to make money" and says she "has no idea if I can make money teaching Jewish meditation, but I want to reconnect to my Jewish roots in the context of Torah study."

Students have varying levels of Jewish knowledge.

"Some know more Hebrew, some know prayer, some are stronger in interpersonal skills," Fink Gefen notes.

So they read. In addition to primary sources in Torah and Jewish mysticism, students will read the existing secondary literature about Jewish meditation, which is, Fink Gefen admits, "still a small field."

Her own book, just published, and Davis' three books comprise a good portion of it.

But writing books and setting up study programs are part of developing a more rigorous approach to what many people consider a fringe, Eastern-influenced fad. Davis and Fink Gefen, however, assert it is a practice with a long and respected history in Jewish tradition.

"The parameters of Jewish meditation remain unclear, the content is disputed, and ethical and training guidelines haven't been set," Fink Gefen wrote in the first newsletter of the newly formed Network of Jewish Meditation Teachers.

"Because of this lack of stability Jewish meditation could end up as a fad that passes quickly rather than becoming integrated into Jewish spiritual life." And that, Davis and Fink Gefen maintain, would be a terrible mistake.

"There's a tremendous amount of anger and pain in the Jewish community," Davis muses. "You can tell a spiritual practice [of meditation] is working when it helps a person feel more joy in life, more compassionate toward themselves and the people they meet, more inclusive of people."

In a corner of the temporary classroom, study partners Mimi Rogers and Raziel Ross are quietly getting to know each other, as part of the workshop's introductory assignment.

Rogers a 37-year-old mother of four and a former sociology professor, is currently leading meditation sessions "at all the synagogues" in Omaha, Neb.

"I just started," she admits. "I'm doing it as a hobby now, volunteering, and I'd like to become more competent, more professional."

Ross, at 60, is one of the oldest students in the course. An administrator in a Conservative synagogue in Reston, Va., she teaches meditation to adults and teenagers in her congregation. She praises her rabbi for "allowing" her to teach what is still a controversial practice.

"It's the first time anyone has taught Jewish meditation in my area," she says. "I work by myself, and I need the support. I need a mentor, a 'spiritual army.' Here, we're all working together for tikkun olam," or repairing the world.

Both women acknowledge that their interest in Jewish meditation has been met with suspicion by many.

"I've been warned of the dangers of teaching too much Kabbalah," Rogers says. "People don't want it to be 'too Christian, too Buddhist, too Eastern.' They want a taste of it, not more."

Despite such concerns, movement leaders say that meditation represents a new energy in American Judaism.

"Meditation is taking root in different traditions in different ways. The Orthodox are familiar with it from text study and from davening. The Reform know it from books about it," Davis says.

"Judaism is in the midst of a great transformation. Where it will lead, I don't know."

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].