Shal — Ohmmm
Fri, 01/30/2009
Special To The Jewish Week

Aimee Beyda steals away for 45 minutes every morning to the quiet of her second bedroom, where she engages in an ancient practice that has transformed her life. Wrapped in a soft blanket, Beyda focuses on her inhalations and exhalations, the ebb and flow of her breath. She allows thoughts to wash over her, but not to drag her in or under.

“Meditating is like a pill. It takes the edge off things a little bit,” says Beyda. “If I’m down, I just say it’s OK. I can deal with that.”

When she doesn’t meditate at home, Beyda, a psychotherapist and writer, tries to attend the daily morning meditation at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan. Because of meditating, she says, “my whole attitude has shifted.” Beyda says she no longer races from activity to activity. She passes her time more selectively — and serenely. Beyda says that people remark that she used to be such a wreck, now she’s much calmer. To top it off, she feels closer to God than ever before.

For at least three decades, researchers have explored the health benefits of meditation. The potential upside of regular practice is remarkable. Rewards include better sleep, reduced stress, fewer headaches, improved mood, and lower blood pressure, to name a few.

“After eight weeks [of daily meditation], participants will see up to 36 percent change in whatever ailment brought them there,” says Bernice Todres, who trained at the famous center for meditation study at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and now teaches at Makom.

One would seem almost a fool not to try it out. And in an era of job loss, stock market woes and mortgage foreclosures, more people may be tempted. For those looking for a Jewish experience of meditation, the options are several — and since a surge of interest a little more than 10 years ago, growing in number.

In New York City, the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan would be a logical place to start one’s tour of Jewish meditation sites. The JCC features an inviting, oval-shaped room specifically designed for contemplative practice. Called Makom, which is a name for God and literally means “The Space,” the room is home to a panoply of classes — from the free drop-in meditation sessions offered mornings and afternoons, to multiple-session courses like an eight-week class tackling stress-reduction, to one-day programs such as the upcoming “Day of Mindfulness” on Feb. 22, which will be held mostly in silence.

At the JCC, as at other venues, “Jewish meditation” blends Eastern practice with Jewish texts, images or values. But the JCC also occasionally offers a more authentically Jewish style of meditation rooted in kabbalistic tradition. One such upcoming program, “The 5th Annual Day of Kabbalah” will be hosted by Rabbi Naftali Citron and held on Sunday, Feb. 15.

Makom, which opened even as workmen were still hammering out the finishing touches on the JCC building in 2002, has been held up as a model for other JCCs and Jewish healing centers around the country, according to Susie Kessler, the program director of Makom.

“My job is teaching Jewish people how to be quiet and teaching New Yorkers how to relax,” says Kessler. “We are so bombarded by the overwhelming space constraints, by noise, by not being connected to natural environments, by high-stress jobs. We are stressed out all the time. And that was even before the current economic crisis.”

Kessler cuts a striking figure, her hair flowing in long gray waves, her tone calm and kind. As she tells it, with practice the benefits of meditation can be brought into everyday life. “It can make you more present in every relationship, develop and cultivate gratitude in every moment, and see the ways in which we are all connected. We become calmer, more compassionate.”

On a frigid afternoon in mid-January, I leave the chaos of my children’s dinner to sample a dose of meditation. At 5:45 p.m. the JCC is hopping with activity, with a post-work crowd heading for the gym and pool. Even the seventh floor smells faintly of sneakers. But inside the oval room of Makom, the atmosphere shifts abruptly. There is a hush — and also the whistle of exhalation, as one woman is already beginning to concentrate on her breath.

After I remove my shoes, slip a pillow under my bottom and prop my feet up on another cushion, I join the circle of participants. One student smiles warmly, welcoming me, I think. Bernice Todres, the instructor, speaks softly, slowly, and I am already lulled by the melodic accent of her native South Africa before we even begin.

When we do, when we close our eyes and Todres reminds us of the gift of this day, I’m flooded with images of my son’s embrace, and of a snowy Central Park. When Todres stops talking, I drift along on a happy wind of thought, opening my palms to the universe, planting my feet on the floor and enjoying the prickles of joy that run up and down my scalp. And then, I get restless. I squirm. By the time Todres reads us an inspirational poem by William Stafford, I am ready to leave.

But afterward, and for the rest of the week too, during days when I learn of more magazines shuttering, when a virus drags down all of our spirits, when job loss suddenly hits close to home, I remain ever grateful. There is something from those still moments at Makom that stays with me.

Learning To Exhale

If you’re in the mood for mindfulness, there are several options besides the JCC of Manhattan’s Makom (www.jccmanhattan.org). Many synagogues offer classes as well as meditation-based services. In addition, you might explore one of the following programs around the country which focus on Jewish contemplative practice.

Iyyun: www.iyyun.com. Run by Rabbi DovBer Pinson, who has familiarized himself with the rich world of traditional Jewish meditation, this Brooklyn-based center can introduce even novices to the simple methods of chasidic meditation.

Makor Or: www.makoror.org. This program borrows techniques of Zen practice and meets at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Calif.

Elat Chayyim: www.isabellafreedman.org. Based at a lake-side setting in Falls Village, Conn., Elat Chayyim offers meditation retreats, often with holiday themes, throughout the year.

Chochmat HaLev: www.chochmat.org. A Jewish community in Berkeley, Calif., that offers meditation services and instruction.
Nishmat Hayyim: www.nishmathayyim.org. Provides resources for meditation classes and retreats throughout New England.

Institute for Jewish Spirituality www.ijs-online.org.  Runs meditation-centered retreats for Jewish leaders.