The Most Overlooked Transformation of the Crisis

Screen capture: Or Halev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation.

By Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, PhD,
and Rabbi Jeff Roth

In their list of ways the Coronavirus pandemic may upend and transform Jewish life, the insightful team at the Reut Institute points to an array of changes and opportunities. They range from the cessation of travel to Israel to the possibility of offering Jewish education via distance learning at drastically reduced cost.

Yet in this otherwise solid list, we note at least one major omission. If the experience of our organizations in the Jewish spirituality sector is any indication, the crisis represents a potential spiritual transformation of Jewish life.

Since the crisis began, Jewish spirituality organizations including The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Or Halev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, The Awakened Heart Project and others have seen a surge in demand. Participation in our online programs have more than doubled, with people flocking to online Jewish meditation sits, Jewish yoga classes, contemplative text study sessions, and online retreats. Our email lists and social media followers are up over 15 percent.

Likewise, Jewish spirituality teachers and organizations like ours have been approached by a wide range of networks, from the Union for Reform Judaism to Hillel to JPRO to PJ Library, to lead webinars on mindfulness and spiritual practice for educators, parents, clergy, Jewish professional staff, and regular folks who need and want our help. Between the various webinars, live streams, and other offerings, we conservatively estimate that the Jewish mindfulness and spirituality field has directly helped at least 250,000 Jews around the world in recent weeks.

What’s driving all this interest? One answer is that spiritual practices like meditation are an accessible way for people to manage the anxiety of these times. As one participant shared recently, “I have tried meditation before, never successfully. But these daily meditations have been so very calming during this time of physical distancing, anxiety, and stress.” As a mental health practice, meditation is a low-cost tool available without a prescription. It can be done more or less from anywhere. If you have a body and a mind and an ability to focus even just a little bit, you can meditate.

Another answer is that people want not just connection, but soulful connectionc – with themselves, with others, with the world, with the divine. We don’t only want to see others on a Zoom call or to hear brilliant insights from the many great scholars who are teaching seemingly non-stop these days. No, we’re hungry for something deeper, too. We want a chance to sit together, to be quiet together, and to tap into the powerful spiritual energy we can feel when we slow down enough to sense it.

There’s yet another reason, which has been particularly revealed in this moment: Many of us want our spiritual lives to be not only about performing, but actually experiencing something powerful and transformative. One participant in an online meditation sit, a retired physician, wrote that, “Your instructions on how to engage with Jewish prayers were so incredibly powerful for me. I am taking the time to slow down the AM liturgy, spend time with meditation between sections, sing heart-opening niggunim at the start, and add a long and unstructured hitbodedut [personal reflection] session as part of the Amidah. I now have an inkling of what prayer might be.”

Taken together, all this adds up to the emergence of a potentially widespread spiritual awakening in the Jewish community during this moment of global shmitta, this cessation from our normal rhythms. When you can’t go to synagogue, when you can’t host friends and family for holiday meals, what’s left of your religious life? When we strip away the social performance from Jewish experience, what remains? That question is being thrust into high relief during this crisis.

In addition to the need we all have for human connection, to say nothing of the social and communal infrastructure to provide for our basic needs, many of us are discovering just how much our mental, physical, and spiritual health are interconnected – on an individual, communal, and global scale. Likewise, we are discovering the transformative potential of Jewish spiritual practices like meditation, yoga, tikkun middot (personal character development), chant, and niggun to deliver powerful results.

So in addition to the changes this crisis will bring about in so many other areas of our lives, let’s not overlook perhaps the most basic and essential of them all: a transformation in consciousness, a reconnection with ourselves and one another, and a reawakening to our sacred purpose as tenders and keepers of Creation. And let’s work to ensure that, as the crisis endures and ultimately abates, we remember this lesson and act on it.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, PhD is Founder and Spiritual Director of Or Halev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation. Rabbi Jeff Roth is Founder and Director of The Awakened Heart Project.

© 2020 by the authors