Spirituality and Activism

Meditation at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center; image courtesy of the Center

Spirituality and Activism: meditating on change

by Alison Laichter

My first job out of college was with a nonprofit organization that had an amazing vision statement, extremely high staff turnover, and a boss that viewed a “live-work balance” as lazy. It’s not a new story: Organizations built on missions of peace and justice often don’t have either in their work culture or staff relations. Activists burn out after years of work fueled almost entirely by outrage. We see cycles of activism and apathy generationally and in our own lives, but there seems to be something new happening. A younger generation of Jews is finding deep meaning and relevance in using contemplative and meditation practices not only to go searching for inner peace, but also to use that sense of rootedness and engaged Jewish spirituality to inform their work in the world.

I spent my teens and most of my twenties protesting, fighting for change, trying to save the world (whatever that means), and then at some point I got tired of being angry. Through my own personal meditation practice, I started to see that my outrage was not really serving me, or the world. As Rachel Cowan, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS), told me once, “anger is a great catalyst and horrible fuel.”

“In the kind of activism I’ve been involved in, the pursuits that have involved spirituality like candlelit vigils and interfaith relations have sharply contrasted with going to a Darfur or labor rally. The former aren’t motivated by anger,” says Lee Leviter, a 25-year-old law student and active participant at the Jewish Meditation Center (JMC) of Brooklyn. “I’ve seen the divisiveness that comes from activism fueled by anger, and it’s very distasteful. To the extent that our generation is more exposed to meditative practices and more willing to integrate it into our own lives, we’re looking for a new way to achieve the same results.”

Judaism has a very long history of practices that involve reflection and meditation. For thousands of years, there have been Jewish teachers in every part of the world teaching meditation, Kabbalah, mysticism, and deeply meaningful and personal Jewish contemplative practices. Reflective practices have been introduced into cutting-edge leadership programs such as Jewish Funds for Justice’s Selah program for Jewish social justice leaders, through retreats at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, and by organizations like IJS, JMC, Awakened Heart Project, and others. We’ve realized that we need leaders who have the capacity to listen and feel supported in their work and world.

“It’s totally a generational thing,” says Rabbi Brent Spodek, 35, founder and director of Emek Project. “In earlier generations, there was a sense of ‘I’m Jewish, but I’m not religious,’ meaning ‘I’m secular and have a history and cultural relationship with Judaism and a belief in justice through that.’… Our generation wants to mine the Jewish tradition for meaningful experience. We are interested in formal Jewish practice only if it brings us deeper spiritual meaning. We are much more comfortable with that language than previous generations.”

Many of us have been inspired by stories of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with MLK and “praying with his legs,” and Gandhi’s call to “be the change you want to see in the world,” but it’s difficult to figure out how to do it all without getting swept up in the fight and not feel the combination of the world on our shoulders and our inability to do enough. Operating under the Jewish framework of Rabbi Tarfon – “You are not obligated to finish the work; neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) – can be completely overwhelming and lead to burnout. Often burnout stems from not seeing results. “Burnout has a lot to do with not seeing the fruits of your efforts, not being able to measure your impact in meaningful ways. I can assume and take credit for whatever I want to imagine my activism being responsible for, but at the end of the day, you don’t know what impact you made. It’s hard to see what’s really going on, and I’ve questioned whether I’m wasting my time,” says Dan Sieradski, 31, a digital strategist for Jewish nonprofits, Jewish community activist, and NYC PresenTense fellow.

Meditation is one way to prevent or mediate burnout. “Generally, practices that heighten awareness of mind and awareness of body encourage a heightened ability to track stress and exhaustion,” says Benjamin Ross, chief of field operations of Jewish Funds for Justice. “My meditation practice has become the grounding from which I act in the world. As my practice has deepened, so has my capacity to hold tension and uncertainty, communicate authentically, and be more compassionate. All of this has made me a more skillful and effective leader for change.”

“[Jewish contemplative practice] can remind us that we are not alone and that everything is not up to us alone to fix,” Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, a leading Jewish meditation teacher, activist, and faculty member of IJS, says. “Spiritual practice nourishes our ability to ride the storms of life, to assess when to act and when to relax. There is a rhythm to life that we learn and develop through our practice, which can be nourishing when engaged in challenging and demanding work.”

This idea of being nourished and engaged by activism is very different from the typical image of a martyr willing to sacrifice everything for a cause. Meditation doesn’t necessarily replace the motivation of outrage; it helps channel that impetus in a healthier and more effective way. Contemplative practice may seem very individual-focused, but when you feel connected to your source, to divinity, there’s no disconnection between you and every other being in the world. Learning to live fully in the present tense strengthens your ability to truly see the whole picture, to approach injustice with compassion. Through that practice comes the strength to sustainably practice tikkun olam and hold suffering along with hope. By creating lives and work infused with reflection, we are creating the world in which we want to live.

Alison Laichter is the executive director of the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.