I spent last week at a retreat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. A group of 35 rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and lay leaders spent five days studying texts, meditating, practicing yoga, singing, worshiping, and (I don't exaggerate) revitalizing North American Judaism.
Whether we care to admit it or not, Judaism is in crisis. The number of Jews who have an adult-level understanding of Judaism, a heartfelt attachment to Jewish tradition, and a regular Jewish spiritual practice is dwindling. The reason why most Jews know little and do less is truly depressing: No one has ever inspired them to seek more.
There is a tremendous need for Jewish leaders who can engage today's Jews in meaningful study of Jewish tradition that speaks to the spiritual concerns and challenges of people's lives. There is a need for leaders who can create worship experiences that are lively, passionate and joyful to make people want to come back to the synagogue regularly. There is a need for leaders who can teach practices like meditation and yoga in a Jewish context to draw today's seekers into a renewed awareness of Judaism as a source of spiritual inspiration.
Filling that need is what the Institute strives to do. It does so, first, by helping Jewish clergy develop and nurture their own spiritual lives. It is not possible to inspire others if your own spiritual life is uninspired. The Institute's retreats give rabbis and cantors the tools they need to become exemplars of vibrant, living Judaism.
Last week's retreat in rural Connecticut included teachings by Rabbi Edward Feld on the poetry of the High Holy Days liturgy and by Rabbi Rolando Matalon on using the music of Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities to revitalize worship. Meditation with Rabbi Jonathan Slater, yoga with Rabbi Myriam Klotz, and beautifully led worship services by retreat participants created an experience that has me feeling recharged and renewed.
Every rabbi and cantor needs to do something like this on a regular basis. Every Jewish spiritual leader needs to tend to his or her own spiritual fire in order to stoke the flames of a Jewish community that is in need of revitalization.