Jewish Meditation retreats are gradually becoming more and more popular.
Here’s everything you need to know about them, from what we do during a retreat to what we eat, and how to conduct ourselves.
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Why Join a Jewish Meditation Retreat?
There are various reasons to participate in Jewish meditation retreats, but the one thing common to all is the need to retire from our daily routine.
When we say “retreat” ’ we mean it on two levels:
On the one hand, retreating is getting away from daily life. Away from cars, computers, notifications, alerts, phone calls, work, and our usual relationships.
On the other hand, retreating points to an orientation of the being. An inner retreat, during which we can reconnect to our true, inner self, to our soul (Neshama).
In the words of the great 12th-century sage Abraham Maimonides:
“There is an outward retreat, and there is inward retreat. The purpose of the outward retreat is to achieve the inward retreat, which is the highest step toward encounter (with the Divine)”.
Getting away from a crowded and busy environment becomes just a preliminary step in order to turn within, calm our senses, and reconnect with the Divine from a deeper place.
When we run our daily routine, it’s easy to lose sight of who we are, our true spiritual nature.
Cultivating a meditative practice means also working on our capacity to live from a place of awareness, referred to as Da’at, in the Jewish tradition.
And this is the main purpose of participating in such retreats- to enhance our capacity to be present.
This enhanced quality of presence can be brought back to our daily lives, making our own practice a gift to others and to the world.
What Do You Do in a Jewish Meditation Retreat?
Jewish meditation retreat schedules can vary, but you will often find the following elements.
Sitting meditation- these are formal meditation sessions, usually, 30-60 minutes long depending on the length of the instructions.
You will practice various types of meditations:
Mindfulness meditation is one of the most common techniques practiced in Jewish Meditation retreats today.
It is a way of training our attention and our presence, which will help the cultivation of Da’at, awareness.
This usually entails mindfulness of the breath, mindfulness of the body, and mindfulness of thoughts.
Formal mindfulness practice comprises sitting meditation, as well as mindful walking meditation.
But you may also practice traditional Jewish meditation techniques, such as Hitbonenut (contemplation) meditations, and Hesed (loving-kindness), which are inspired by the metta meditation in the insight meditation tradition.
Teaching- The retreat leader will give talks on various subjects, from meditation techniques and guidelines to Jewish wisdom, Torah, and Hasidism- depending on the retreat’s theme.
Q & A- Daily questions and answers with the teachers, where students can share their personal questions, thoughts, and deliberations regarding their spiritual practice.
One-on-one interviews- Private interviews with the teacher, sharing your personal experience, asking questions, and getting more tailored in-depth practice guidance in a private context.
Chanting- Prior to the morning prayers, there is a time for collective ‘chanting”. Singing a few verses repetitively from the prayer book, as a way of entering more deeply into the meaning of prayers.
Prayer- There’s time for three personal prayers every day. These are non-compulsory, people that prefer to meditate at this time are welcome to do so.
Depending on the type of retreat, sometimes there will be a minyan prayer (a prayer with at least ten participants), but if this is a priority for you, you should check this with the retreat organizer before you sign up.
Yoga- Usually, there will be yoga in the schedule, ideally once a day depending on the length of the retreat. But If this is a priority, you should check in with the organizers before subscribing.
Code of Conduct
The purpose of meditation retreats is to look inward with as few distractions as possible so that we can meet what is alive in us and learn to be more present and welcome our emotions.
In addition to learning to be more mindful, this may also help generate insights and healing.
However, a meditation retreat shouldn’t be confused with therapy.
Teachers usually recommend therapy in addition to a meditation practice, when there are deep patterns or issues to be dealt with.
Much like Vipassana retreats, participants are to keep silent at all times (except talking with teachers if needed).
Silence means not communicating with others, so that we can give ourselves an opportunity to experience ourselves outside of our usual social persona, and really meet ourselves. There’s a known saying that suggests retreat is about being alone with other people.
So silence on retreat also means avoiding eye contact and also interactive modes such as holding the door to someone, as we usually do in everyday life-what we call common courtesy.
When we start interacting with people again as the retreat closes, we usually find ourselves meeting others from a place of greater truth.
To help us stay away from distractions and stay in our own “aloneness”, Mobile phones and other electronic devices are usually collected at the beginning of the retreat.
However, a phone number will be available for your relatives to use in case of an emergency.
Weekend retreats include Shabat which is to be respected in common areas (not using electricity for instance).
Retreats are usually either vegan, or vegetarian and vegan friendly.
To avoid distractions (physical and psychological), meals are kept light, healthy and simple.
They are often Kosher friendly (vegetarian food without a supervision of the kitchen, for instance).
However, you can find retreats that have a Kosher certificate (if this is an issue, make sure to ask about it before you sign up).
Weekend retreats will include all Shabat meals and prayers.
Duration and Costs
Meditation retreats have various durations, but the three most common durations for Jewish meditation retreats include
Weekend retreats, the most common and usually last 2-3 nights.
Week retreats, usually last 4-7 nights.
Ten days retreats or more are rarer, but do take place from time to time.
Depending on the style and location of the retreat, prices can vary a lot.
Usually, the price will change depending on the type of facility and on sleeping arrangements (single room, shared room, etc).
The price usually only covers the logistical costs of the retreat (food, sleeping arrangements, etc).
The teachers’ remuneration is based on Teruma (donation). Meaning that each participant can contribute anonymously, to the best of their ability.
How to Prepare For a Retreat
Some recommendations for how to prepare for retreats include:
Look the Teacher Up
Try to see what information you can get about the teachers online. Are their teachings corresponding to your practice? If you’re not sure, you can always reach out and ask them questions directly.
In any case, try looking within, finding out why exactly you’d like to participate in the retreat? What is the need you’re trying to attend to? What would be a successful retreat for you? If possible, it’s recommended to write it all down.
However, once you’ve decided to come, you should make sure to come with an open heart and let go of any expectations regarding the retreat itself, the type of people you’ll meet, the landscapes, the food, etc.
Safety and Precautions
If you have any kind of history of mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, stress, and other similar disorders, make sure to notify the retreat manager prior to your registration, and of course, consult with a healthcare professional.
Bring Your Own Gear
Though you’re likely to find meditation cushions or stools and Yoga mattresses in the retreat, if you have your own equipment that you are used to, it would probably be better to bring it with you, to ensure you can practice comfortably.
Choose the Right Clothing
Make sure to pack comfortable clothes, as you’ll spend a lot of time sitting. It’s best to avoid tight clothes that can cut off circulation.
As temperatures can change between day and night, you should consider loose clothes that can be layered easily.
In order to respect your fellow meditators, you should avoid wearing anything that is particularly eye-catching.
It’s also best to avoid wearing perfumes or scented creams or lotions.
Dietary and health restrictions
It is best to reach out to the retreat manager early on and make sure they are aware of any restrictions.
For example, if you’re gluten intolerant, they could talk to the kitchen and make sure you have gluten-free meals.
Prepare for a Digital Detox!
As you’re going to spend lots of time off-grid and with no access to electronic devices, if this is your first time doing that, it is recommended to give it a few tries in the weeks before the retreat.
This way, you can avoid the discomfort of going cold turkey, which can sometimes cause mild anxiety.
You can spend a few hours without your phone on the weekends and gradually increase the time you do that.
Jewish Meditation Retreat centers
IJS- The Institute for Jewish Spirituality
Founded in 1999, IJS is among the leading establishments in Jewish spiritual teachings.
Focusing on mindfulness meditation, prayer, yoga and contemplative Torah study, IJS also offers meditation retreats from time to time.
For more than a decade, Hamakom has been “a place for contemplation, reflection and mindful meditation.”
While Hamakom literally means “the place” in Hebrew, it also refers to the Divine presence that exists in every place.
Hamakom offers various meditation activities and events, including Jewish meditation retreats.
Or Ha Lev
Or Ha Lev is among the leading Jewish meditation institutes in the world.
Founded in 2011, the organization “has touched thousands of people so far, across five continents, regardless of prior meditation experience or Jewish background.”
Meditation retreats are one of the core activities of Or Ha Lev, and they offer them regularly over the year, online and offline.