Manayunk congregation's Yom Kippur service will take a nontraditional, meditational turn

Rabbi Yael Levy calls use of yoga poses and stillness "totally anchored in Jewish tradition."
Rabbi Yael Levy calls use of yoga poses and stillness "totally anchored in Jewish tradition." (STEVEN M. FALK/ Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 26, 2012

Among the greatest prayers of Judaism is the  Amidah  , a recitation of 19 blessings that devout Jews say three times a day.

Jews all over the world will recite the  Amidah   Tuesday night and Wednesday as they mark Yom Kippur, the solemn day of atonement when God is said to decide who will live or die in the coming year. Many will bow deeply as they face Jerusalem.

But as members and friends of Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Manayunk gather Wednesday for this holiest of days, hundreds will recite the Amidah not by bowing, but lying still, on their backs, in the yoga position known as "the Corpse."

"It's the one day of the year where we invite people to say it lying down," said Myriam Klotz, one of three rabbis who direct the Reconstructionist congregation's "mindfulness and meditation" program, the Way In.

"It's done so that we may die to who we've been" throughout the year, Klotz said, "and be reborn."

"The Corpse" is a pose familiar to practitioners of yoga, a system of body stretches whose origins are Hindu.

And while it might sound like rainbow-in-the-sky New Ageism to traditionalists, Klotz and her fellow rabbis are emphatic that their use of yoga poses and stillness meditation are truly Jewish.

"It's totally, totally anchored in Jewish tradition," said Rabbi Yael Levy, rabbinic director of Mishkan Shalom, where she has worked for 18 years.

The synagogue's meditation-mindfulness program has been in development for years, she said, but has blossomed in just the last three with the founding of the Way In, which conducts weekly yoga-style services as well as occasional retreats.

"What we try to do at Yom Kippur," Levy said, "is look at what is the essence of this holy time, and how we can bring it forth in a meaningful way."

Yom Kippur, she said, is "about forgiveness and allowing ourselves to be forgiven so that we can live in full relationship with others and with God."

By joining "body movement, meditation, stillness and song" with traditional prayer and rituals such as blowing the shofar, or ram's horn, "we're not just thinking about these things. We're making it a visceral experience."

The "mindfulness" service that Levy, Klotz, and their colleague, Rabbi Margo Stein, the music leader, will conduct Wednesday will run from 9 to 11 a.m. on the campus of the Haverford School.

Participants may also join Mishkan's main - and more traditional - service at an adjacent building at the school, which is used to accommodate the large High Holidays crowds.

Wednesday's service will be more solemn than last week's Rosh Hashanah observance, according to Levy, which she described as "very joyful, with lots of singing and dancing."

In advance of that service, which marked the onset of the Jewish year 5773, she and her colleagues noted that "73" has associations in Jewish tradition with the idea of joy. So they built their Rosh Hashanah celebration around words uttered by God in the Book of Numbers, in which he says, "I have forgiven you, as you have asked."

"So we did meditations and movements whose intention was to plant seeds of joy: to notice what we are grateful for and what we love, and come back into realignment with creation," she said.

The service included reciting a prayer that names the 13 attributes of God - compassion, love, patience, truth, and acceptance, among others - and distributing sunflower seeds, symbolic of divine radiance, which participants could eat or take home to plant "as a way to take them in."

The "Corpse" pose that participants will assume on Yom Kippur is by no means a Jewish tradition, said Klotz, but it echoes the full prostration that many observant Jews make when reciting the prayer known as the Aleinu, a token of surrender and subordination to God.

It will come at the close of the morning service, she said, when she and the other rabbis invite participants to "absorb all the work you've done and letting the body die to what you've been, so that you emerge new, fresh, reborn."

While such novel liturgies might offend some sensibilities, the Rosh Hashanah service "has stayed with me throughout the week," said member Bea Leopold. "It's been so powerful."

"I look at yoga as part of my practice to go inward to look for wholeness," said Leopold, who said it had helped in her decision not to wear a wig to disguise her recent hair loss, a condition known as alopecia sometimes experienced by women of Eastern European Jewish descent.

"It's helped me to be authentic to who I am," she said.

Levy said it does not worry her that some people see her and her colleagues as drawing on non-Jewish traditions, such as yoga or Buddhist and Quaker meditation.

"Judaism has always learned from other traditions," she said. "But what we do here is still a Jewish experience."


Contact David O'Reilly at 610-313-8111 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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