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Helping to Find God in Everyday Life, Jewish ‘spiritual Directors’ Catch on

October 7, 2004
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A candle burns in Rabbi Amy Eilberg’s study. It’s early afternoon, but the room seems as calm as midnight. Eilberg sits silently with her hands clasped in her lap. In the large picture window behind her, verdant trees sway in a light breeze. For the moment — for an hour, at least — this room in a leafy suburb of Minneapolis has become sacred. It has become a place of spiritual direction.

In a phenomenon that is just beginning to catch on in the Jewish community, growing numbers of Jews are training to become “spiritual directors” — therapists of a sort who work with clients to discern God’s presence in their everyday lives.

Meeting with clients about once monthly for sessions that contain many elements of psychotherapy, spiritual directors are trying to bring to Judaism a tradition that has been practiced by Christians for centuries.

Its Jewish proponents say the practice is a new and more formalized way of seeking spiritual counsel, which always has been part of Jewish spiritual seeking.

“We’re borrowing from the Christian model, but spiritual guidance has a history within our religious tradition as well,” says Eilberg, who is both a spiritual director and co-director of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction. “There’s a long history in the Jewish tradition of people turning to rabbis or rebbes for spiritual guidance.”

But critics say these new spiritual directors are blurring the line between Judaism and Christianity, more often than not lack the qualifications to offer genuine Jewish spiritual guidance and simply are catering to the narcissistic impulses of the modern age. Critics also worry that the directors operate free of legal or theological supervision.

Three Jewish institutions now offer training programs in the practice, including the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. But many of the estimated 100 or so Jewish spiritual directors in North America were trained in Christian programs. That is because the oldest of the Jewish programs has only existed for about five years.

“Spiritual direction really answers a couple of main questions,” says Sandy Jardine, a spiritual director and psychotherapist from Phoenix. “Where might I sense God’s presence in my life? In my daily life, how can I seek God’s hand or God’s voice or God acting in my life. Who is God calling me to become?”

Many spiritual directors start their sessions with silence, or “prayerful silence,” as they describe it. The goal, Eilberg explains, is “to be open and attentive to God’s presence with us.”

Then, the director might offer a prayer, or wait for the client — known as a directee — to start talking. In addition to conversation, sessions may include meditation, chanting of a Jewish melody and, sometimes, tears.

Directees discuss many of the things psychotherapy patients typically share — stories of family conflict, professional pressures, relationship woes, grief over lost loved ones — but the focus is on where God fits into the picture.

“It’s very clarifying,” says Nancy Post, a management consultant from Philadelphia who has been receiving spiritual direction for about three years. “It puts a kind of power behind one’s minute-to-minute commitment to a relationship with the divine that is just wonderful. It’s a very powerful and motivating process.”

Post, a Reconstructionist Jew who describes herself as a “regular davener,” started seeing a spiritual director shortly after her mother died and when she was fighting a severe medical problem of her own.

Many directees start their sessions after some sort of traumatic life event, says Eilberg, who worked in pastoral care as a hospital chaplain for many years before founding Yedidya.

The first woman to graduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school, Eilberg said she was reaching her burn-out point when she discovered spiritual direction.

“Spiritual direction started calling to me,” she says. “More and more Jews started coming to me and asking me to listen to them.”

Many directees start seeing a spiritual director because they are themselves interested in becoming one; the Jewish director training programs all require that students be spiritual directees.

Sessions usually cost between $60 and $80 per hour.

A minority of Jewish spiritual directors actually are rabbis.

Many are therapists, and others are cantors, Jewish educators, lay leaders, meditation teachers, hospital volunteers or mental-health professionals.

The overwhelming majority are women, and they tend to be in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Spiritual directors come from the liberal Jewish denominations and the Jewish Renewal movement, and many describe themselves as post-denominational. There are no known Orthodox spiritual directors.

Rabbi Howard Avruhm Addison, a professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University, is one of the founders of Lev Shomea, a spiritual director training program that started in 2001 and is affiliated with Elat Chayyim, a Jewish spiritual retreat center in Accord, N.Y.

Addison’s first spiritual director was a nun in Florida. He says there really weren’t any Jewish spiritual guides at the time for non-Orthodox Jews.

“If you went to a yeshiva, there was a mashgiach; if you were a member of a Chasidic community, there was a mashpiah,” he said, naming two positions in the Orthodox world that sometimes are charged with encouraging spirituality among adherents. “We didn’t have that type of guidance available for us in the liberal movements.”

Allan Nadler, director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University, in Madison, N.J., says contemporary spiritual directors are not comparable to a yeshiva’s mashgiach ruchani, which literally translates as “spiritual supervisor.”

“The mashgiach worked within the context of the yeshiva — a highly structured, highly regulated, highly halachic environment,” he says. “The mashgiach was there to make sure you were learning. He wouldn’t meet with people one-on-one every couple of weeks or once a month and take their money. It’s very different.”

By contrast, spiritual directors “don’t work within any kind of theological or halachic structure,” Nadler says. “My suspicion is they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Barbara Eve Breitman, who helped found the director training programs at the Reconstructionist college and at Lev Shomea, rejects the notion that spiritual directors are not adequately trained.

“There’s nobody we’re training who is not personally deeply involved in the Jewish community where they live and who doesn’t actively participate in Jewish life,” Breitman says.

She noted that students at Lev Shomea must submit recommendations and undergo interviews to gain admission to the training program.

Except for the program at the Reconstructionist college, which is open only to rabbinical students, the Jewish programs for training spiritual directors are two-year distance-learning courses that rely heavily on Web-based learning.

At the Yedidya Center, the program costs a total of $2,000, plus the cost of two five-day retreats each year.

At Lev Shomea, the program’s total in-residence course of study amounts to four weeks. Graduates receive certificates; there is no licensing process.

“We study Jewish texts, we engage in Jewish prayer, we observe Shabbat together,” Breitman says. “We do as much Jewish teaching as possible in the time that we have.”

Marilyn VanPraag, a social worker from Lynbrook, N.Y., who is a student in the Lev Shomea training program, says broad knowledge of Jewish texts or Hebrew is not essential for successful spiritual direction.

“You’re like a midwife, helping to bring people to God — I love that expression, I love that thought,” she says. “It’s a natural outpouring of my social work.”

Jinks Hoffmann, a psychotherapist and spiritual director in Toronto who graduated from Lev Shomea, said one need not be an expert in Judaism to offer spiritual direction to Jews — or Christians. Most of Hoffmann’s clients are Christian.

“I don’t lay anything on them. My job is to listen closely to what they say to me and how God is moving in their lives. Even for the Jewish people, they sometimes don’t want too much of a religious perspective in their work.”

She incorporates some Jewish elements into her sessions with Christians, which they like, she says.

Elizabeth Bolton, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Baltimore who is a spiritual directee, says, “The difference in religious traditions is not at all a factor.

“This is not even remotely a conflict, because there’s really only one major question in spiritual direction: Where is God in your life?” says Bolton, whose spiritual director is a Benedictine nun.

It is precisely this aspect of spiritual direction that makes it so “distasteful,” says sociologist Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University.

“It is so amorphous in terms of the Jewish commitment piece,” she says. “It’s very dangerous.”

Spiritual directors readily admit that their practice borrows elements from Christianity and Eastern meditative traditions, and is part of a new-age spirituality movement in Judaism.

But, they say, spiritual seeking clearly has a place in the Jewish tradition.

“In some sense, it’s a little bit like asking: Is silence Jewish? Is reflection on the sacred in one’s life Jewish?” Breitman says.

At the Yedidya Center, Eilberg teaches trainees to use the siddur — the prayer book, which she called the quintessential book for Jewish spiritual direction — the works of the Chasidic masters and the literature of musar — the 19th-century movement that encouraged strict adherence to Jewish ethical behavior.

Nadler says he’s skeptical.

“The difference is the musar movement was about self-abnegation and devoting yourself to Torah and self-reflection,” he says. “This seems to be the complete opposite. It caters to narcissism and personal empowerment.”

Ultimately, Eilberg says, spiritual direction is a Jewish pursuit.

“Every moment in life has the divine present in it. It sometimes is probably obvious — at the cemetery, or at the Grand Canyon,” she says. “But for most of us, we need to develop special attention to bring it into the ordinary moments of life.”

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