After the Most Shattering Day in Jewish History Since the Holocaust, Can a Timeless Jewish Practice Help Us Heal?

The Israel-based organization Or Halev – “Light of the heart” – offers an answer: the hard but fulfilling work of a meditation practice rooted in Jewish text and tradition, and designed to unburden the suffering Jewish soul.
May 8, 2024
A group at Or Halev Photo by Amir Ganum

“We were in Greece for Sukkot and it was Shabbat … someone in my extended family looked at their phone and said, ‘Something crazy is happening in Israel …’” 

“First it was just disbelief … This couldn’t happen to the Israel we know. The Israel we know is invincible.”

“I run every Saturday morning and I see all the regulars running with me. But on Oct. 7 it was 6:30, 6:45, and I don’t see anyone on the street, and I wonder, ‘What happened? Where is everyone?’ And then close to 7:30 I see this man pass by and he’s doing a gesture like, panicking. So I called my wife. She was asleep. But she looked at her phone and told me, ‘Come quickly, there is a war …’”

“The first overwhelming emotion I experienced was fear. You never expect something horribly tragic like this to happen … I was surprised by how much it brought up every time in my life I had felt unsafe in the past.” 

“It was disorienting, horrific, heartbreaking, terrifying. There was a profound sense of being betrayed.”

“That day took everything – the core of what we believed Israel is about – and cast it into doubt …”

The morning of Oct. 7 and the days that followed charged and changed the course of Israeli and Jewish history. The event marked every identified and committed Jew with a scar on the soul that will never fully disappear. Taking its place among other great tragedies that have stained Jewish destiny, we know that what happened that terrible day cannot be undone.

But can we heal from it?

Is there a place we can go, a prayer we can say that could heal our shattered hearts? Are there arms big enough to hold our grief, our trauma and possibly tame it or tamp it down? Perhaps most urgently, as we collectively bear the continuous cascade of antisemitism and anti-Zionism infecting already open wounds with their dark and dirty poison, many are wondering: How can we find safety in the world again?

The Israel-based organization Or Halev – “Light of the heart” – offers an answer: the hard but fulfilling work of a meditation practice rooted in Jewish text and tradition, and designed to unburden the suffering Jewish soul. It is not a magic cure and there are no guarantees, but the testimonies of practitioners vow that a week on Or Halev’s immersive silent retreat, which accommodates all levels of Jewish observance or none at all, can be life-changing. (Full disclosure: This writer is a regular attendee.) It can restore a sense of wholeness in a broken world, a capacity for wonder in a God that sometimes hides, and a general feeling of safety, stability, or just plain “okayness” even in the most crushing circumstances. And it’s coming to the Brandeis-Bardin campus in Simi Valley on June 3.

“Within the first week [of Oct. 7], we said, ‘What can we do? What can we offer?,’” Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, the founder and spiritual leader of Or Halev, said during a recent interview from the northern Israel kibbutz he calls home. “We started with short, 3-5 minute daily grounding practices in Hebrew” – which they pushed out to their Israeli WhatsApp group – “Just, like, ‘Be with us and do this.’ How can we calm the system? How can we find safety right now? Can we feel that there is some beneficence in the world and not just threat?” 

Jacobson-Maisels, 50, known to his students as “Rav James,” has been a devoted practitioner of mindfulness meditation since his student days at Brown University. Having grown up in a traditional Jewish home, he turned to meditation as a practical way to address what liturgical prayer couldn’t: sleeplessness stemming from anxiety and depression. As his personal practice deepened – in tandem with increasing Jewish observance – Jacobson-Maisels discovered that meditation not only subdued his emotional pain, but that there was a striking if somewhat underappreciated tradition of meditation practice found within Judaism itself, particularly in Hasidut and Kabbalah. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s Hitbodedut practice is one such example, but more extensive explorations can be found in the work of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczno rebbe, who led a secret synagogue in the Warsaw Ghetto, and whom Jacobson-Maisels considers his foremost teacher and guide. What would it look like to combine Hasidic wisdom, Jewish mysticism, Torah and ritual observance with what is traditionally thought of as Eastern-dominated Buddhist meditation practice? Or Halev was born in 2011.

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels (Amir Ganun Photography)

Still, despite years of dedicated practice, Jacobson-Maisels found himself reeling in the days and months following Oct. 7. Suddenly, he was experiencing a kind of overwhelming, intense emotional state he had not known since his youth. It wasn’t until he arrived in the U.S. last January to lead a retreat on the East Coast that he realized just how dysregulated he was. “I flew to America and as soon as I landed my whole system just calmed down,” he said. “The minute I stepped off the plane I was like, whew. The difference was palpable, and kind of shocking. It was like, ‘Oh. That’s what I’ve been carrying.’”

In the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, Or Halev focused on comforting distraught and disoriented Israelis, among them evacuees from the kibbutzim lining the Gaza Envelope and survivors of the Nova Music Festival. They did not anticipate, however, the desperate outpouring from their students in the Diaspora.

In the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, Or Halev focused on comforting distraught and disoriented Israelis, among them evacuees from the kibbutzim lining the Gaza Envelope and survivors of the Nova Music Festival. They did not anticipate, however, the desperate outpouring from their students in the Diaspora – who were also heartbroken over Oct. 7 and dealing with a very visible surge in global antisemitism. For this cohort, Or Halev organized a “daily sit” on Zoom, where community members from all over the world could come together, share some words of Torah and sit quietly together over a screen. 

Michael Rosenzweig, a lawyer, nonprofit leader and the former CEO of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, attended his first weeklong retreat with Or Halev last summer in Big Bear. “I’m not the kind of person that would normally be open to this kind of stuff,” he said during an interview from his home in Atlanta. “I’m a hard-nosed, critical, cynical, skeptical person. I like to be in control. But one of the things that I discovered at Big Bear is that, actually, that doesn’t have to be who I am all of the time. And it might not even be who I want to be most of the time.” 

Rosenzweig described the experience as “transformational,” “insightful” and “emotional,” but within a few months of his spiritual breakthrough, Oct. 7 happened. Rosenzweig said he found it impossible to reclaim the intense focus or bliss-feeling that can transpire on a weeklong retreat. He even signed up for another – which Or Halev facilitated in Sharpsburg, Md. – but something wasn’t clicking. In addition to the emotional upset of Israel at war – especially having lived and worked there, and with a son who currently lives there – Rosenzweig found himself in the hospital recovering from surgery. As he convalesced, he tuned in to an online class Jacobson-Maisels taught ahead of Pesach, which included time for a group sit. “That was the first time since Oct. 7 that I had a meditation experience that transported me, that achieved what I had come to expect after the Big Bear retreat,” Rosenzweig said. “It allowed me to move to a different place; I felt transformed. And I was enormously grateful.”

As Rabbi Nancy Flam explained when she co-led Or Halev’s first weeklong retreat on the West Coast in 2016, retreat is not vacation, but hard work. Meditation is a practice, like any other; the more you work at it, the better you get, the more effective the impact. Yet even the most diligent practitioners can experience difficulty sometimes, because the condition of a meditation only reflects the condition of a person’s mind. And minds change, emotions ebb and flow, physical sensations arise (some pleasant, some unpleasant) – constantly.

Aaron Rosenthal, 50, had been meditating for the better part of 33 years when the horrors of Oct. 7 triggered post-traumatic effects from his own history and knocked his practice routine off course. “It was really overwhelming,” he said during an interview from Nova Scotia, Canada. Rosenthal had long been accustomed to extended sits but in the days following Oct. 7 he said he could manage only 10-15 minutes at a time. And yet, he said, “even during that first week, those minutes were like these little islands of refuge when it felt like there was nowhere else to turn. It was helpful to have a place to go when the outside world didn’t feel safe.”

Despite his extensive history of practice, Rosenthal only recently discovered that he could meditate Jewishly — meaning, in Jewish community, with Jewish teachers, grounded in Jewish learning. Over the past four years, he enrolled in classes with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and Or Halev, and is now on track to become a certified Jewish meditation instructor. After Oct. 7, he offered to lead some of Or Halev’s daily online sits and saw firsthand how many people in the community were feeling upset and alone. “It’s a very tender space,” he said of the meditation Zoom room. “You can see a lot of sadness in people’s faces when they arrive. There’s a lot of sighing. You can just see people coming in with a lot of stress, a lot of heaviness.”

Amir Ganun Photography

Rosenthal knows from his own experience of severe childhood trauma how meditation can temper distress by – somewhat counterintuitively – allowing it in. “When PTSD is really strong and it’s kind of taking over, so much of your life and character seems to be a reaction to the pain and trauma,” Rosenthal said. “Those experiences have to be reprocessed, but through a less traumatic lens.” Therapy is essential, Rosenthal said, “but meditation was really, really key to that process because so much of [meditation practice] is learning to be with what is there, learning to be with your feelings. It’s like there’s a whole bunch of really noisy guests in the apartment of your head and they can cause all kinds of chaos until we learn that they’re there for a reason and we can make space for them. And just that acknowledgment brings relief.”

Nir Penso lives in Modi’in, Israel and directs the young leadership program for Bina, a Jewish educational and social change organization founded in 1996. He and his team are responsible for running a gap year program for Israeli teens who wish to defer army service and develop leadership skills through community service. Two months after Oct. 7, Penso, 51, was concerned that his staff was overwhelmed by the traumatic effects of the massacres in the south, as well as the war in Gaza, and decided they needed a day to regroup and process the changed country they were living in. If even the adults were out of sorts, how could they properly guide the young adults under their tutelage? 

Last January, Penso arranged for Or Halev to facilitate a day-long retreat for him and his staff at a community center in Ramla. “It was a little bit weird at first, to sit together and be quiet, and concentrate on ourselves in the middle of hell,” Penso told me. “Just putting our phones aside for six or seven hours was a major aim to reach.”

As the day wore on, though, his staff settled into the program, despite varying levels of interest or experience in contemplative meditation. “There were different levels of ripeness or maturity to deal with these kinds of activities,” Penso said, “but at the end, when I asked them ‘What was the day like for you?,’ they told me it was a great opportunity to stop, look inward, and breathe into the  pain and see the big picture.” 

Penso recalled one powerful activity when the team paired off into groups and he and a colleague engaged in a “welcoming practice,” verbally welcoming whatever emotion arose in the moment. “For the final question, she asked me, ‘How do you feel right now?’ And I said, ‘Lonely.’ And she said, ‘Welcome loneliness.’ And suddenly you see the reaction of her eyes to my eyes, and you see how many walls and barriers your face contains, and how, in fifteen minutes of concentration, you can show to the world a totally different face.”

“It’s okay. Welcome sadness, welcome stress. All of your feelings are legitimate.“- Nir Penso

Penso said the practices he learned on retreat have helped him be a better parent, making him more sensitive to whatever his children are going through – he tries to actively “welcome” their emotional turbulence. “I realized that you have the right to choose how to address every situation, and you have the responsibility to hold yourself accountable and make adjustments. To consider how you are treating the events we are all facing here,” Penso said. “Sometimes when I feel really bad news is coming, I remember the face of [my colleague], who looked back at me and said ‘It’s okay. Welcome sadness, welcome stress. All of your feelings are legitimate.’ The experience somehow changed my thoughts of how to deal with conflict, how to react when things are challenging.” 

One of the most difficult realities Israelis are confronting now is that their trauma isn’t exactly in the rearview mirror yet – the assault is ongoing. The war with Hamas continues. The hostages are still captive. Soldiers keep dying. Hezbollah launches missiles daily. Even Iran, which until recently was content to battle by proxy, launched their first direct attack on Israel in history. How do you begin to heal when the wound hasn’t stopped bleeding?

As Rachel Goldberg-Polin, mother of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, put it during a recent podcast interview, “Normative trauma is that the truck hits you out of nowhere … every bone in your body is broken … the truck has driven off. And you have to figure out, ‘When am I gonna be okay to sit up?’” she said to Dan Senor on “Call Me Back.” 

“What we are dealing with is the truck is still on us … I’m in the middle of being raped … I’m trapped under this truck. So my focus is, ‘Ohmigosh, don’t move the wrong way and die.’”  

After Iran launched its unprecedented missile attack and Jacobson-Maisels had to carry his 8-year-old daughter to their bomb shelter in the middle of the night, he was somehow calm and composed, despite the existential threat. He told me that within the same 24 hours, he had been hovering in a bomb shelter with his family and then watching the most beautiful sunset with his daughter. Both experiences were equally real, equally true. “The sunset doesn’t care what happened last night,” he said. 

The turbulence of these times has given him yet another reason to appreciate Jewish history and survival. He noted that his beloved rebbe, Kalman Shapira, endured unimaginable circumstances in the Warsaw Ghetto. And yet he reached for light, for transcendence, even in the darkness. In fact, Kalman Shapira’s best known work, “Esh Kodesh” (“Sacred Fire”) is a collection of the 86 sermons he delivered in the ghetto before he was sent to the Trawniki concentration camp and shot to death by the Nazis. His written sermons were found buried in a milk canister a year after the war ended. 

If anyone understood how to carry on a vibrant inner life while enduring outer torment, it was the Piaseczno Rebbe. 

“What we’re experiencing now is not unusual in Jewish history,” Jacobson-Maisels said, noting that even a tragic past can serve as comfort. “It’s painful, it’s horrible. But it’s not uncommon. And one thing I’ve found so powerful recently is that the wisdom of our tradition is speaking to us; and has spoken to us, again and again. So there’s this way we can rely on it. Not that it has solutions, but in the sense of acknowledging that this pain is real, this fear is real, and still, there’s a way we can find safety and connection in our reliance on the Divine, on the fact that we’re part of something deeper and broader. There’s a web of relation and history and feeling and community that I am held in. Even when external circumstances are terrible.”

Or Halev’s ‘Opening the Heart’ retreat takes place June 3-9 at the Brandeis-Bardin campus in Simi Valley. Register at Orhalev.net/opening-the-heart 

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