Create the Conditions for Embodied Judaism

PWP Studio 2014
Friday night at Jewish summer camp; screenshot My Jewish Learning

By Zachary Lasker, Ed.D.

Nothing is quite like Friday evening at Jewish summer camp. Routine activities wind down, cabins and campers are hosed off in an extra scrupulous round of clean up, and the community gathers for whatever combination of song, dance, storytelling, and prayer fit the minhag of the camp. The legacy of summer camp is in the magic of this experience. Transformative. Shabbat is ushered into the gates of the camp and her spirit fills all who dwell in that place and settles into their souls too make a permanent imprint. During my many years of camp I enjoyed Shabbatot where this magic was undeniable and I felt swept up my encounter of Shabbat. I can also recall Friday nights that were a struggle. Energy was low due to fatigue, unbearable heat, disinterest, and hunger, participation was weak, and the homesick bug bit deeper than the mosquitoes. How do we get the pendulum to swing away from struggle and towards ease and fulfillment?

May and June are months of incredible movement in Jewish education. Synagogue and day schools wrap up, early childhood centers shift to a summer schedule, Hillel slows down, adult learning programs conclude, and Jewish camps and travel programs start to flood with campers and staff members. Leaders and educators in each of these settings work hard to engage children, teens, and adults in learning experiences that will ignite a lifelong commitment to Judaism. In other words, we want learners all over to have positive encounters that parallel the strength of Shabbat celebration at camp.

As leaders and educators we want our community members to have positive, safe and meaningful encounters with Jewish ritual and practice. Notice the combination of all three – positive, safe, and meaningful. Encounters of this type are more likely to inspire people to commit to and embody their Jewish practice. I use the word “embody” as a succinct way of saying that I want my community members and learners to be able to:

  • explain the mechanics and significance of their practice,
  • physically engage in their practice with regularity, and
  • share how their practice makes them feel

Embodied Jewish practice can occur when we activate a person’s mind, body, and spirit.

There are days when the quest to design and facilitate Jewish encounters that draw on the mind, body, and spirit seems akin to the reach for the unreachable star – I’m sure that’s what Don Quixote de la Mancha was singing about. A person’s mind, body, and spirit are so … well, personal. I cannot determine what another individual will know, her physical activity, and whether he will feel positively towards Jewish tradition and practice. If it were God’s plan for human beings to live a pre-programmed, auto-pilot life then free will would not have been among our gifts. Rather, my job as a leader and educator is to create the conditions through which a person can grow physically aware, focus her thoughts, and open up to his feelings.

When I focus on the conditions that my learner needs then I keep her at the front and center of my work. Too often our starting point in Jewish communal and educational settings is on “the program” or “the lesson.” Let’s set our gaze on the individual as the starting point. Imagine that each individual in our community was on a journey through his Jewish practice. How can we create the conditions our congregants, students, campers, parents, staff, and lay leaders need for a positive, safe, and meaningful mind-body-spirit experience?

Think of one particular person you are guiding on this journey and imagine for a moment that he or she is similar to a Russian doll composed of five descending sizes, each concealed in its larger outer shell (this might be hard if you grew up in a house where this doll was stored out of reach because the space cadet son who dismantled it would lose the pieces … but I digress). Our goal is to design and facilitate encounters with the potency to penetrate through each layer and reach the precious doll at the center. It is in this fragile space that mind, body, and spirit fall into alignment and true embodiment can occur. Most shells are tightly sealed. When I create the conditions the learner needs to grow then I am effectively providing the grease needed to loosen the seals on each shell so that the individual can access their core or sense of self.

Shell #1: Physical Body

The outermost doll is the physical body we each inhabit. Our bodies grow hungry, tight, and tired unless we attend to our physical needs. The first condition we can create as leaders and educators is to care for the physical needs of our learners and ensure they are well nourished, stretched, and alert. This might mean incorporating healthful food and physical movement into our work and arranging space in a manner that invites active participation in an accessible, easeful manner.

Shell #2: Energy

Most of us can identify well with times of hyper stimulation or of lethargy. There are 5-shot-of-espresso days when the heart is racing and our energy seems boundless, bordering on explosion, and other days when our tank is near empty and we can hardly chug along. Mind-body-spirit encounters typically require that we operate in a balanced energetic state of conscious relaxation. The heart rate is steady and our senses are open to new experiences and ideas.

The most effective tool to regulate energy is the breath. Try it out. Inhale. Notice the breath entering through your nose and throat, filling your lungs and chest. Exhale. Observe your chest contracting as it pushes the breath back out your throat and mouth. Repeat this cycle two times and see if and how just three rounds of paced, full breaths can impact your energetic state. The breath is both literal, but also figurative – reminding us to move a space that is not too rushed and not too slow. A balanced energetic state is the force that loosens the seal to the third shell.

Shell #3: Focus the Mind

These days when want to get from point A to B most of us whip out a smart phone and use an app like Waze to identify the most efficient route. Technology lets us off the hook and navigates for us around the obstacles of rush hour, accidents, and closures. Waze is a gift to the driver but there is no such automatic navigation luxury on the journey to our core. Each individual must do his own heavy lifting.

As leaders and educators we can facilitate experiences that reduce some common distractions to encounters with Judaism. It is natural for our minds to wander off. We’ve all confronted roadblocks to clear thinking – a mental review of our “to do lists” during t’fillah, attachment to only one interpretation of a Jewish text, a negative memory of Pesach seders from the past, or festering anxiety or dread around Hebrew language. Fortunately we have an opportunity and responsibility to develop proactive strategies to reduce these mental barriers to entry in order to access the fourth shell.

Shell #4: Understanding

With the first three shells opened our learner can start to flex their reflection muscles. In this state we become increasingly aware of the significance of our Jewish practice from an array of perspectives:

  • Historical: Why was this ritual or value important to the generations that walked before me?
  • Communal: How does this ritual or value help me relate to others?
  • Personal: In what way does this ritual or value help me understand my own circumstances, responsibilities, and nature?
  • Spiritual: How does this ritual or value draw me deeper in my relationship with God or holiness?

We won’t always find answers, but the likelihood of engaging with these questions increases when we can help others to open up this shell and dwell inside with encouragement and support.

Shell #5: Wholeness/Integration

When the final shell pops open it reveals a space of pure experience or embodiment. As leaders we can take a big step back and trust that our learners will stand on their own two feet through the strength of their body, mind, and spirit and develop a personal connection with their practice.

Putting it Together…

Let’s return to Friday night at camp and put these ideas into motion. One of the most fulfilling and empowering jobs I’ve ever held is that of a unit head at Jewish camp. On erev Shabbat it was my job to gather my campers and staff into a circle for a transitional moment into Shabbat. Here is how I might loosen the shells if I were back at camp:

  1. Physical: Provide a snack and lead some body and vocal stretches to get the group warmed up for services.
  2. Energy: Ask campers and staff group to close their eyes and lead them through a breathing exercise.
  3. Focus: Address what I perceive to be common distractions for them based on their age group and the week we are wrapping up. For example, “I know that it can be really easy to let your eyes wander towards other people – how they look, their behavior, etc. – but instead focus your gaze on the word ‘Baruch’ each time it is recited. What blessing are you offering this Shabbat? For what are you thankful?
  4. Understanding: Ask folks what Shabbat means to them. How has their Shabbat observance evolved over time? How does our camp community change during Shababt compared to how we function during the week?
  5. Integration: Lead them into services and let them settle into the experience.

How might you apply this framework to your work?

Dr. Zachary Lasker is the outgoing director of Melton Research & Education Projects at The Davidson School of The Jewish Theological Seminary and incoming executive director of the Pico Union Project. Previously he served as camp director for Ramah in California and as a teacher in day and congregational schools. Zach is also a certified yoga instructor who facilitates workshops on how Jewish educators can adapt techniques in mindfulness through A New Pose for Practice.