Jewish spirituality at meditation retreats across the world

“Meditation was something I was aware of, but I hadn’t engaged in it at all at that time,” Jacobson-Maisels says.

Spirituality together on a recent retreat (photo credit: Courtesy)
Spirituality together on a recent retreat
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels is not a guru, or a mystic sitting cross-legged atop a mountain. He is a man who believes deeply in the human capacity for compassion, particularly self-compassion; for growth, and for uncovering our truest nature. In this way, perhaps we can be free from suffering. Perhaps amid the hustle and bustle of a world ever-busier and more frenetic, we might find some peace and an inner sanctuary of loving awareness.
This was Jacobson-Maisels’s belief when he founded Or HaLev in 2011 with fellow spiritual seeker, meditation practitioner and teacher, Danny Cohen. Since its founding, Or HaLev has engaged over 2,000 people in Jewish spiritual practice. So in a sense, it’s quite possible that Jacobson-Maisels is indeed a guru – the secondary definition of the word being “an influential teacher.” It is thus equally possible that Jacobson-Maisels is a mystic, “a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with the divine.”
Jacobson-Maisels grew up in rural Pennsylvania, in a family where Judaism was a major part of life. Spiritual singing and prayer always held something for him, and he became engaged in powerful and experimental prayer services in his undergraduate years at Brown University.
“Meditation was something I was aware of, but I hadn’t engaged in it at all at that time,” Jacobson-Maisels says. “At the end of my junior year of college, I hit a very difficult place. I had chronic pain from various body injuries, as well as depression and anxiety. I was suffering a lot. There was a lot of stuff buried in there; childhood wounds and ways of relating that hadn’t been properly dealt with. So my response was to shut down and close off. That’s what depression and anxiety was – me shutting myself off to the world.
“My physical therapist recommended meditation, so I bought a cassette tape (which still existed at that time) and I began basic mindfulness meditation. I started with five minutes a night and it was helpful. Then after the first month, I went up to 10 minutes a night, then 15. Pretty much right away, there was something revolutionary for me about meditation. It gave me a way to be with my experience; to welcome it, rather than to shut it down and to shut off. It allowed me to open up. I didn’t even know that I was shutting down before. Soon after, I went up to 45 minutes a day and I’ve had a very stable meditation practice for 23 years now. But that’s how it began.”
WHEN HIS time at Brown ended, Jacobson-Maisels went on to Oxford University in England to do his Masters in Jewish Studies. Still emerging out of the depression that had held him in its grip; he felt himself shifting focus and re-engaging with his Judaism. He wrote his thesis on hassidism, which was his first time delving into Jewish mysticism. It spoke to him deeply, and at the same time, he was developing his own meditation practice. Afterward, he obtained a doctorate at the University of Chicago in Jewish mysticism, specifically on Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (otherwise known as the Piaseczno Rebbe). Following this, Jacobson-Maisels attended the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, the Hartman Institute, and finally Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, where he received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Daniel Landes.
“That whole time, my meditation practice was going strongly; beautifully supporting me and my Jewish practice, but it wasn’t yet integrated with my Jewish practice. When I started teaching at Pardes, I began integrating my meditation and Jewish spiritual practices. I offered a Jewish meditation class at Pardes, which was the first of its kind. It was a course that integrated Jewish text learning and spiritual practice together. Each week, we would explore a different practice from the tradition and then do that practice. We would study the text on it and reflect together. That was really the beginning of the integration of those two worlds.”
In 2009, Jacobson-Maisels was approached by Rabbi Jeff Roth (founder of the Awakened Heart Project) to lead a meditation retreat in Israel. The opportunity to take his practice further and help teach others was exciting. Jacobson-Maisels recalls feeling lucky to be able to engage in such deep work with people and to help facilitate their experience of working powerfully with themselves.
“To be able to give a teaching from Jewish sources in the way you can do on retreat, it’s just so different,” Jacobson-Maisels explains. “On retreat, people are so present and their hearts are so open, that you can impact them and touch them in a radically different way. They see it directly in their experience in practice; it’s not theoretical at all. They can incorporate that teaching into their next sit. It was very powerful and exciting for me. I knew I wanted to do more of it, which is how Or Halev was born.”
Part of it was of course quite practical. Jacobson-Maisels knew that he had found what he wanted to do and he couldn’t do it by himself. He needed an organization and a structure. Or HaLev was launched with the goal of giving people access to a deep meditation practice and to this approach to Judaism, which is cross-denominational. Jacobson-Maisels views it as a way of transforming oneself – granting access to that transformation by offering retreats was and remains Or HaLev’s core mission.
DANNY COHEN, Or HaLev’s co-founder and former director, found that his passion was for teaching on retreats, which he still does.
Sara Brandes is now Or HaLev’s executive director. Brandes, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is also a certified yoga instructor. She joined Or HaLev in 2016. Though she and James had been students at Pardes at the same time, it was only after she first experienced him on retreat that she knew she wanted to be involved with Or HaLev.
“Before finding Or HaLev, my spiritual life had been all about jumping between East and West; i.e. traveling to India to live at an ashram at the midpoint of Rabbinical school,” Brandes states. “At Or HaLev, I have the privilege of helping to share, and of benefiting myself, from a non-dual Jewish spiritual path. What I love most about my work is regularly experiencing how similar we all are, in spite of our apparent differences. Or HaLev creates retreats in Israel, the US and Europe, with Jews who call themselves haredi and Jews who call themselves Buddhist, and in spite of all of those apparent differences, our participants are basically hungry for the same things. On retreat, we really become one community.”
Or HaLev currently offers three retreats annually in North America, one in England, and six in Israel. When asked about the organization’s name, Jacobson-Maisels responds that he wanted it to capture the sense of touching into the heart’s luminosity; the power of our essential nature.
“We don’t have to go anywhere, or make it happen; it’s there and it’s shining. Our task is just to uncover it and to bring ourselves back into contact with it,” Jacobson-Maisels shares. “The name, Or HaLev, tries to capture that warmth, openness, and clarity, which is who we really are.”
Or HaLev, as far as Jacobson-Maisels is aware, is the only organization offering Jewish meditation retreats in Israel. They recently offered their first family retreat in America, with a program for children created by Or Halev participant and Pardes student, Rebecca Schissler. Jacobson-Maisels taught the adults. It was an integrated program, with adult time and children’s time, and then designated space for everyone to be together. Jacobson-Maisels’s two eldest children joined and they loved it.
“The most meaningful aspect of running Or HaLev for me is how many lives we get to touch and having such a deep impact on people,” Jacobson-Maisels adds. “Hearing how this practice has touched people’s lives; it’s incredibly gratifying. Also, as we grow, we get to expand beyond me and have other teachers come in and then they get to grow and flourish; sharing their wisdom and distinct approach. That’s incredibly meaningful. We’re creating a community of people and a wave of this happening in the world. It supports growth, wisdom and love.”
One of those teachers is Rabbi Daniel Silverstein, who will be co-leading (along with Mira Neshama Niculescu) Or HaLev’s upcoming pre-Hanukkah retreat from December 19 to 21. Silverstein’s first experience with meditation was in college, when he found that he had outgrown the Judaism he grew up with and began searching for meaning and connection in Buddhism, which he experienced through meditation classes and retreats. Silverstein’s meditation practice was never especially regular, but he knew that it was something from which he profoundly benefited. A few years later, he felt deeply called back to Judaism, beginning with prayer. This coincided with a period of depression and chronic back pain that brought his daily routine to a standstill.
“It was a very hard time in many respects, and it began to turn around when I discovered the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. I went there to live, work and meditate. For the first time, I entered deeply into joyful, meaningful Jewish practice, and also into meditation,” Silverstein says.
“The two were bound together for me, and have been ever since. When we meditate, in any way, we develop our ability to focus and deeply appreciate the richness of each moment of aliveness. This is especially rewarding when we turn our attention to ritual acts. To observe the mitzvot without cultivating kavana (intention) as our predecessors did feels like a missed opportunity for connection (another meaning of the word mitzva), growth and healing. Prayer without meditation, for me, is a perfunctory task.
“I discovered Or HaLev around 10 years ago, and began attending retreats in Israel and the US. The way that Or HaLev has always integrated Judaism and meditation has worked for me intellectually and spiritually. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to teach on Or HaLev retreats, and also that they have given me a platform to offer online classes in Torah related to meditation to people around the world, through its online learning site, Applied Jewish Spirituality.”
GRATITUDE IS something this writer also feels for Or HaLev and all that they offer. My decision to go on the pre-Passover retreat in 2018 was the result of a friend’s strong recommendation that I join her; saying in no uncertain terms that it would change my life for the better – a phrase not thrown around lightly between us. My meditation experience up to that point was minimal. I had been on one retreat before, but not in a Jewish context, not silent, and not for six days.
I was scared. It was the social silence that felt most intimidating. I have since learned that this is the most prevalent fear for newcomers, and the least mentioned challenge once the retreat actually begins. For me, the first half of that first retreat was one of the most difficult experiences I have ever had. I encountered so much resistance; it felt as though my mind would never settle down.
The instructions were just to pay attention to my breath, and when I noticed that my attention had wandered, to bring it gently back to the breath. As the days went on, the scope of awareness widened, but my breath remained the anchor. The problem was that my mind, or rather my thoughts, were working overtime against me. I felt my attention being dragged away like a rip tide in the ocean – pulled back to review the past, flung forward to plan the future, with songs playing intermittently like a radio whose dials were woefully out of reach.
Somewhere around the halfway point, I began noticing that I was able to be present more and more. The 45-minute sitting meditations began to open themselves up to me, and I found space in between my thoughts where I could just be. What a relief – to be without having to do. There was this quiet inner space that I had never been privy to before and from which a more expansive me could observe thoughts as they arose without becoming entangled in them. Then I was able to notice emotions rising and falling away. Sometimes, I could also notice where those emotions were felt in my body. It was as if I had woken up inside myself, with love and compassion as my tools.
It is astonishing, and even sad, that most of us spend so little time within ourselves just being; getting to know what’s really going on. I’ll never forget that first retreat and I knew before leaving that it would not be my last. The main teaching I took home was that we cannot close ourselves off to sadness without also closing ourselves off to joy. I emerged from those six days feeling truly alive.
IT HAS been a year and a half since that first retreat, and my life has in fact changed. I now have a daily meditation practice, where I sit for a half an hour every morning. I find my overall sense of clarity has improved, my trust in my own intuition, as well as my ability to respond to situations rather than just react. I am a better wife, friend, daughter, and sister because my spiritual practice has cleared away so many of the blockages that were keeping me locked in old behavior patterns that were no longer serving me (and certainly not my loved ones). I am freer than ever before as if I was unlocked from within.
“The language of tikun in our tradition tells us that we can slowly, step by step, take part in our own redemption,” Jacobson-Maisels adds. “That awakening is very important to have in mind, and to be very clear that it’s just next steps. It happens person by person, community by community, country by country, and then big shifts can happen. But it starts with each person making a commitment to change. These shifts are not easy – shifting the way we talk to each other and to ourselves; the way we relate to each other and to our experiences. Human beings are wonderful and incredible, and it’s shocking how difficult it is to change.”
The other aspect of the Or HaLev retreats that for me has been so very impactful is the morning chanting. For those unfamiliar, chanting is not the same as singing songs, even though chants are sung. It is the prayerful repetition of one line, over and over, from tehilim or tefilah, in a way that allows entry into the words; to sing them and be sung by them. Chanting has become a core part of my spiritual practice, something I engage in daily. Through chanting, I can soar to the highest heights and harmonize with the divine in me, in those I’m chanting with, and in the words that once may have been uttered hurriedly and without feeling. Chanting goes beyond opening up a siddur; it opens up the heart asks the infinite to enter.
“Something that’s really important about what Or HaLev does is the real depth in practice and also in Jewish sources and learning, both academically and religiously,” Jacobson-Maisels explains. “That kind of rigor, commitment, knowledge and depth in Jewish tradition is really important. One thing that’s so beautiful about our work is the tremendous diversity of people who come on retreats. We want to give you a deeply meaningful tool of transformation, but we have no stake in what your Judaism is: Orthodox, secular, Conservative, or Reform. I want people to know that they are welcome here. It’s not just tolerated, we genuinely respect and honor all the different places people are coming from.”
To learn more about Or HaLev and upcoming retreats, visit: