Wrap mind, and body, around Holy Days prep

Traditionally, the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days are a time of account settling for Jews, marked by personal reflection, repentance and prayer.

But how about some Jewish yoga to get the ball rolling? Why not try some visualization exercises or Jewish meditation?

About 30 Angelenos will gather Sept. 23-25 for a preholiday regimen of spiritual tuning at the Shalom Institute Camp in Malibu, featuring an eclectic tour of holistic healing arts with a Jewish flavor. Hosted by Judaism by Choice, the weekend spiritual retreat aims to prepare newly converted Jews by choice — and spiritually seeking Jews by birth — for the metaphysical plunge that marks the Days of Awe.

There are still a few signup spots left for the program, which boasts an itinerary of introspective, communal and nature-based activities that organizers hope will put participants in the mood for righteous transformation.

“The whole concept of the High Holy Days is teshuvah — to return to the self,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, founder and rabbinic director of Judaism by Choice. “We have to know the self in order to properly get back in touch with it.”

Many of the goals of yoga and meditation — self-awareness and soul-searching — echo what the High Holy Days are about, Weinberg said. Teshuvah, the scriptural term for repentance, literally means “to return” to oneself, just as yoga and meditation refocus the practitioner’s eye inward in hopes of personal improvement.

If ideas like Jewish meditation and visualization sound a bit “out there” at first, look closer: Spiritual pursuits are actually grounded in core Jewish values, said Miri Weinberg, a Hebrew instructor and event coordinator with Judaism by Choice and Rabbi Weinberg’s wife.

The Weinbergs founded Judaism by Choice to provide classes, Shabbat services, holiday parties and an annual trip to Israel that would resonate with Jews by choice, a niche that is often underserved by the Jewish community, Rabbi Weinberg said. Judaism by Choice creates a social network for converts to the Jewish faith, he said, where they can find a sense of community.

But the spiritual retreat is not only intended for Jews by choice. Registration is open to all members of the Jewish community, regardless of spiritual fluency or yogic flexibility — anyone seeking an alternative to the customary Selichot prayers as a means to access a place of self-knowledge and forgiveness.

The retreat will begin Friday evening with a traditional Shabbat dinner at which attendees can get to know one another and their teachers for the weekend. At night, Sinai Temple educator Richard Weintraub will lead a discussion on Jewish spirituality, including visualization exercises. The most mysterious of the weekend’s activities, this session will employ symbols found in nature to better illuminate areas of participants’ lives that need improving.

After breakfast on Saturday, Zack Lodmer, founder of Om Shalom Yoga, will lead an energizing session of Joga (Jewish yoga). The attorney-cum-yogi, who teaches classes monthly in Santa Monica, will have students practice asanas to an original soundtrack Lodmer composed that blends hypnotic electronic music with Shabbat prayers. This will take the place of a traditional Shabbat morning service, as the prayers are already incorporated into the yoga.

“The arc of the yoga class mirrors the arc of the service — the Barchu before the Shema and so on,” Lodmer said. As in davening, he added, participants can conduct their own personal prayer experience in a collective space.

Scheduled after yoga, fittingly, is lunch and a Shabbat afternoon nap. Activities resume with Jewish meditation led by Sara Lederer. Although the form of meditation will resemble that found in Eastern religions, she said, the content, concepts and vocabulary will all be Jewish. Lederer will first give a talk on “how to stop and tune in,” and will then lead her audience in exercises and a meditation session, she said. She plans to discuss questions like, “Why do we even have the High Holy Days to stop and reflect? What can we get from that?”

“Doing this helps people get out of here” — the head — “and into here” — the gut, said Lederer, a psychologist and professor at Argosy University. “It’s about heart-opening, listening to yourself, feeling and knowing your intuition.”

Meditation will be followed by a nature hike, allowing guests to soak up scenic Malibu vistas for the remainder of the afternoon. After dinner, the group will hold a Havdalah service under the stars and gather around a campfire for an old-fashioned, guitar-led ruach session with song leader Jenni Alpert. The weekend will conclude Sunday morning after breakfast.

“This will be an intimate way to nurture people,” Miri Weinberg said. “The spirit of the weekend that is so powerful and significant is togetherness — eating, singing and sharing the magic of Shabbat.”

The Weinbergs hope to make the retreat an annual event before the High Holy Days to put people in a teshuvah frame of mind. “Even if we follow the letter of the law all the time, we may still be wound up internally,” Lodmer said. “Sometimes it takes visualization and meditation and maybe even Tree Pose to tell your mind to slow down.”

For more information or to register, visit www.judaismbychoice.org or call (888) 539-2924.