Ever started a campfire by hand, without matches? You work and work until you finally see a spark. You can feel your heart race as you see the small piece of brush you brought perhaps start to smolder slightly, a few puffs of smoke floating upward. You keep at it, perhaps starting over again many times, until you come to believe that your little fire has a chance, and you nurture it and give it all your attention until it finally roars to life in a sustainable way. This could describe FJMC’s efforts in the summer and fall of 2019 to start a Jewish mindfulness service.
“I found the chanting technique particularly moving. I'm beginning to look at prayer differently. It isn't something that is hitting me all at once. It is key to experience the technique and see how it affects you over time.” -FJMC Mindfulness Service training class participant
It could also describe my emotional experience as a member of the Mindfulness Service training class. FJMC's first online mindfulness class training used materials developed by the Institute of Jewish Spirituality (IJS), and was held simultaneously online throughout Canada and North America over five weeks in December 2019. The goal of the Mindfulness Service training, a follow-on activity to an enthusiastically received session at the FJMC International Biennial Convention in Toronto, Canada in July 2019, was to give participants an experiential introduction to mindfulness prayer, and help them discover which of the many prayers in the siddur might serve as a vehicle for their own native expression techniques back in their own congregations.
“I have some experience with mindfulness practice, and I've been interested in learning more about the Siddur, so this new way of integrating traditional prayers into my life is just what I am looking for.” -FJMC Mindfulness Service training class participant
As part of the process of education, becoming comfortable with a mindfulness service, and building a mindfulness community, FJMC partnered with the IJS, which had developed an online class called Jewish Liturgical Prayer: Finding our Authentic Service. The online class is part of IJS’s Prayer Project, which was developed by Rabbi Jonathan Slater, who wrote the forward of FJMC’s Mindfulness Service Guide. The latest FJMC training class was organized by FJMC International Vice President of Communications David Singer with assistance from 2019 Ma'asim Tovim Seaboard Honoree Greg Gore and was facilitated by Rabbi Daniel Liben.
The FJMC training class was four weeks long. On Sundays, a weekly video was released, along with some short texts. We were asked to watch the video and read the texts, and to perform a short daily prayer practice Monday through Thursday. On Thursday night Rabbi Liben facilitated the class via a live online video chat conference.
IJS begins its description of the online class in this way: “One of the greatest treasures of Jewish religious life is the siddur, the prayer book. It reflects generations of spiritual struggle and exaltation, expressed in prayers of great poetic richness and nuanced theological reflection. While it is ‘one book’, it is made up of layers of texts, each one articulating its own way of expressing the deepest cares and yearnings of the Jewish heart. Yet, for many Jews this same book is an impediment to prayer. Forced to say someone else’s words of prayer, to live into someone else’s experience of God, to follow the flow of someone else’s heart, many people feel stymied, silenced.”
“Although I enjoy prayer, I’ve never before made it part of my daily ritual. I'm still working on remembering the prayers when I awaken; however, I am now being ‘mindful’ of the steps to awakening and I recite them in my head.” -FJMC Mindfulness Service training class participant
The online class investigates modes of praying through body, heart and mind. Over the course of the month, through individual practice and collective investigation, participants begin a process of sketching out what might become their own “matbe’a,” the “fixed” structure of prayer, for the sake of nurturing their own deepest kavvanah, their true intention in prayer, and for the sake of connecting in truth with the Jewish tradition.
The next FJMC Leadership Development Institute (LDI) in early 2020 will incorporate the Mindfulness Service, but rather than David Singer leading the whole thing as he has done in 2017 and 2018, Singer intends to have others take part so they will be more comfortable doing that in their respective shuls.
“I felt more mindful this morning by focusing on breakfast. Overall, I felt more grateful while eating the exact same breakfast that I eat every single day.” -FJMC Mindfulness Service training class participant
In an exciting development, Rabbi Daniel Liben has graciously volunteered to facilitate another class in Spring 2020.
If you have ever looked down to secretly check how much time is left until services are over, consider contacting David Singer (firstname.lastname@example.org). Perhaps it could even lead you to discover how to kindle your own inner fire.
“…You can't teach what you don't know, and don't know in an intimate and personal way…[Bring yourself] back with a commitment to practice, learning about [your] own experience…and owning that, invite others to join [you] in a personal investigation of what prayer (and Jewish rituals/mitzvot) might mean to [you] as ongoing Jewish spiritual practice.” - Rabbi Jonathan Slater, IJS Teacher
For material for this article, grateful acknowledgement is made to Rabbi Jonathon Slater of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality (https://www.jewishspirituality.org/), FJMC organizers and facilitators Greg Gore, David Singer, and Rabbi Daniel Liben, and training participants Bob Braitman, Paul Bratt, Marc Gorenstein, Norm Kurtz, Martin Paley, Alex Romano, Karl and Jacob Rubin, Gerald Sakol, Bruce Tomar, Steven Wolfe, and Eric Yegelwel.
For generously volunteering to facilitate the class, grateful acknowledgement is made to Rabbi Daniel Liben. This act, and a generous donation to further mindfulness study enabled the class to be offered at a small fraction of its normal cost.
About the Author
Gary M. Smith (not to be confused with the well-known FJMC VP Dr. Gary Smith, DVM) is a member of Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon, Virginia. Gary is Principal Technical Writer at the Hammers Company in Greenbelt, MD, which develops flight software for NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. Gary is a former Nationally Certified Massage Therapist, and is married to Debbie, an Adoption Social Worker. They live in northern Virginia with their adult children Justin and Talia, and grandson Leo.