Alison Laichter, 29, and Yael Shy, 28

Bringing spirituality to Brooklyn — hippies need not apply

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

For Yael Shy and Alison Laichter, sitting down together for a morning meditation was just part of their daily routine as roommates. Two years ago, nearly a decade after meeting on a Birthright Israel trip, Shy and Laichter both got jobs in New York — Shy as director of development and education at the NYU Center on Violence and Recovery, and Laichter as an urban planner for the city — and they decided to room together.

“It was through [meditating together] that we began to feel sorry for people who didn’t have this,” Laichter said. “So we thought there should be a center like this in Brooklyn for people.”

And so they joined forces last year to co-found the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn, located in Park Slope, which provides weekly meditation sessions, events and workshops. Some of their favorite activities have included holiday mood workshops, evenings with guest teachers, happy-hour drinking meditations and walking meditations across the Brooklyn Bridge. The center hosts Jews of all stripes and now has nearly 600 people attending sessions, with 80 percent returning at least twice.

“The idea is that you don’t have to be on a mountaintop monastery — you can be in a bar in Brooklyn and be in a ‘present tense,’” Laichter said. “It’s about being awake in your present moment.”

For Laichter, who has studied Buddhism, a meditative strain can be found in many religions, including Judaism. Shy agreed: “The holiday of Shabbat has ideas that are present in meditation. It’s the idea that the world is perfect as it is.”

Laichter wants to expand the center in Brooklyn, as well as hone a replicable curriculum for Jewish meditation centers nationwide, and now has the means to do so — thanks to a two-year grant of $80,000 from the Joshua Venture Group. Meanwhile, Shy is refocusing her energies on a campus-wide Jewish mindfulness initiative at NYU, where she works. She plans to kick off a multifaith spirituality project this fall.

Did you know? Laichter is perfecting the art of cold-pressed coffee and is working on becoming a morning person. Shy loves hiking, thrift stores and swimming in Brooklyn pools. According to family lore, Tom Selleck is her distant cousin.

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Staff Writer

Comments

Apparently they never heard of shuls.

well, shuls aren't exactly places that we have been taught equinimity. the good thing is we can learn to be mindful outside of explicitly 'jewish' places and take that anywhere, including those places like shuls. Remember, the origins of the word Shul is anything but a place that promotes protracted silence. There's a lot of words and thinking and business. There's a lot of judgement. And I sense a hint of that in your one-liner ;) There is a reason that my people have an an ongoing stereotype that is unspeakable for so many of us to admit: neurotic, overly intellectualizing, reactive and almost hysterical and shovey (see Cartman's mom in South Park), always talking (and quickly), and best yet, JAPpy—to say these are true will get the anti-defamation league on your case.

And to say there's a spiritual lack of foundation underneath these manifestations of fear-in our emotions, our ways of living- just means we don't usually have a venue to engage with something different. We generally know what we know, because we're hermetically sealed in a way of thinking. Jews have been fleeing crusted over conservative and orthodox worlds for generations, and leaving the shul for India or Tibet or whatever ashram here. A seed of spiritual hunger gets planted but not watered, so the thirsty feel they have to go elsewhere. They may come full circle, the may leave Judaism altogether. Just be clear—Alison is just building on something already there and bringing people perhaps into a more active Judaism. The hippies' Aleph movement did not survive on the west coast. There isn't anyone without grey hair at services. Where do the Jews go? Not shul. They go to yoga or meditation class. Accept this truth, and you'll see—we have all heard of shuls. We just don't go there anymore because they don't work anymore. If they did, they'd be stacked. Jewish names stack the roster of mindfulness teachers at major institutions. The seed grows where there's water. As Zalman Schecter said, if the suitcase is too heavy, it's probably the wrong suitcase. Your shul is simply not the right suitcase for most of us anymore, and something has to change.

I'm sorry to say, but all the years around conservative and orthodox, and even renewal or reconstructionist streams exposed me only a tiny bit to people who had acceptance, calm, and the kind of quiet practice I know I need in my life. A decade of going to shul in a brittle shell of a conservative school and community didn't once get into the spaces between the lines. All it did is do what most of my generation has experienced: keep us from coming back. We can try to find solace in material success, and business, but it doesn't work. The shul for my generation is, unless one is 'religious', a place to gather in community—hardly a place to practice meditation. They have heard of shuls, and are opening a doorway to something that one day might feed back and reinvigorate them, you never know. Try it out, my friend—anger feels great to let go of ;)

Ali, you never cease to amaze me!!!

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