Rabbi Lavey Derby (center) of the Peninsula JCC leads a group meditation class before the pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy PJCC)
Rabbi Lavey Derby (center) of the Peninsula JCC leads a group meditation class before the pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy PJCC)

How Jewish meditation is helping people silence the pandemic anxiety

There’s a check-in, a chant, and then silence falls. After 15 or 20 minutes, a bell brings meditators at Congregation Kol Shofar’s Center for Jewish Spirituality back together, and the Zoom session ends.

“It’s a way to give yourself moments away from everything else,” said Andrea Zanko, a member of the Tiburon synagogue. “It’s a scary world out there now, and it’s a very uncertain world. So these are moments you can just be. And I think we all need that right now.”

With fear about Covid-19 seeming to spread faster than the pandemic itself, Jewish meditation is providing a way for community members to take a break from their worries and tension while connecting with Jewish traditions  and community.

“People really need a way to deal with their fears and anxieties,” said the Peninsula JCC’s Rabbi Lavey Derby, who has been teaching meditation during shelter-in-place. “And they’re absolutely looking at a way to tap into their [Jewish] wisdom.”

Meditation is practiced a little differently everywhere, but can involve chanting, focusing on the breath or sensations in the body, allowing thoughts to pass through the mind and staying present in the moment.

“This is not about achieving any particular state,” said meditation teacher Rabbi Zac Kamenetz, director of Jewish living and learning at the JCC of San Francisco. “This is about being with yourself, your breath, your thoughts and emotions, and seeing them as they are.”

Research has found that meditation, done regularly, has many benefits, including alleviating anxiety and reducing stress. These feelings have “become more acute,” Kamanetz said. “We’re living in an incredibly stressful moment.”

Rabbi Zac Kamenetz, director of Jewish living and learning at the JCC of San Francisco.
Rabbi Zac Kamenetz, director of Jewish living and learning at the JCC of San Francisco.

Larry Yermack, who with his wife, Diane, leads the meditation at the Center for Jewish Spirituality, said it’s natural that the pandemic and its uncertainties are causing distress.

“People are worried about a lot,” he said. “About Covid and coronavirus, and about their lives.”

Yermack said meditation can help with the kind of thinking that might start innocently enough but then spiral into a negative cascade of what if’s: What if I go to the market and someone breathes or coughs on me? What if I get the coronavirus? How sick will I get?

“They can be on a fast train, from planning to preparing, from rehashing to rehearsing,” Yermack said.

Larry Yermack
Larry Yermack

He said mindfulness helps with these kinds of thoughts by keeping the mind grounded in what is real and true: “Right here and right now, I do not have Covid-19,” he said.

Rabbi Dorothy Richman, rabbi at Makor Or: A Center for Jewish Meditation in San Francisco, compared the pandemic to “a masterclass in being in our present reality.”

She said Zoom meditation sessions still bring the benefits of community, even if it’s through a screen. “It strengthens our practice to know other people are doing it with us,” she said.

Richman, who guided an Urban Adamah “mini meditation retreat” on Zoom in the early days of the stay-at-home era, is so confident of the benefits of online meditation that she’ll be one of the leaders during a five-day virtual retreat (about 14 hours per day) starting on May 17; for details, visit tinyurl.com/orhalev-retreat.

“If we come together with a common intention, we can truly build community, virtually,” she said.

More people than ever seem to be looking for that sense of community. Derby, whose title at the Peninsula JCC is director of Jewish life, said participants in his meditation sessions, or sits, have doubled to about 50 since they went online after shelter-in-place orders in mid-March.

His guided meditations on Mondays focus on mindfulness and on Thursdays on lovingkindness.

Practicing meditation can be transformative, he said.

“It invites us to actually welcome whatever it is we’re experiencing, no matter how difficult or challenging,” Derby said. “And that’s what blows people’s minds.”

Burlingame resident and author Jonathan Freedman found meditation life-changing when he first tried it a few years ago, with Derby, after being injured in a bicycle accident.

“I used to ridicule mindful meditation,” he said. “Just ridiculed it based on the words.”

But he found the practice to have deep resonance. Meditation taught Freedman to make a space where he can observe his thoughts and not grapple with them or try to push them away. Rather, he lets them pass like clouds reflected in a mirror, he said.

“I would say it’s a profoundly meaningful and life-changing, or life-adjusting, experience,” he said.

Rabbi Dorothy Richman
Rabbi Dorothy Richman

Since then Freedman has been a regular attendee and now connects with Derby over Zoom.

“I can step into that same depth of meditation on Zoom” as in person, he said, “and for that I’m very grateful.”

Freedman also values the way the rabbi puts meditation into a Jewish frame — something that comes naturally for Derby.

“Mostly what I do is guided or mindful meditation that is set up in a  context of some Jewish teaching that informs the meditation,” Derby said.

Even though he uses Jewish texts, not all of his meditators are Jewish.

“Just about 50 percent of the people who come to my meditation sessions are not Jews,” Derby said. “What they’re finding is a spiritual language that touches them, and they can use in their practice.”

New meditators are always welcome. There are multiple options online through Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, and no prior knowledge of meditation is necessary.

“Just enter in gently,” Richman suggested. “It’s actually a very simple practice. It may not be ‘easy,’ but it’s very simple. Many people are finding it to be a grounding practice.”

That’s definitely true for Zanko, the Kol Shofar member who looks forward to the moments she can connect with her community in meditation.

“When I sit with [meditation leaders] Larry and Diane, I am quiet,” Zanko said. “I find that beautiful pause that is so essential. And then I go on.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.