Life & Culture

My Chanukah meditation retreat

Beverley Cohen's planning an unusual festive break


The huge and elaborate menorah that my grandma gave to my dad and my dad gave to me is going on a little trip this Chanukah — to a Catholic retreat centre.

St Cassian’s is in the village of Kintbury in Berkshire, and next weekend 42 people will arrive to practice Jewish mindfulness meditation with Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg. Entitled Revealing the Light of Awareness it is probably the first UK Chanucah meditation retreat.

I’ll be meditating alongside six rabbis of all shades of observance, Orthodox, Reform, Liberal and Reconstructionist. The people there will range from their early 20s to their 80s. It’s all organised by Rabbi Danny Newman, who founded HaMakom, which integrates Jewish teachings and traditional Buddhist meditation practices, five years ago. Past retreat have all been in the spring.

I’m excited at the prospect of sitting with Rabbi Sheila, one of the world’s leading teachers of Jewish mindfulness meditation, her books have such great titles, like my favourite God Loves the Stranger.

The title resonates with me because I’ve felt like that stranger. I’ve been practising meditation for more than 20 years, and the novelty and delight of finding Jewish people to share it with has still not worn off. I remember lighting the Chanukah candles alone in a silent Buddhist centre — although after the silence broke, two people I’d been eyeing up and thinking “you’ve got to be Jewish” told me it meant a lot to see my candles.

I’ve always felt a bit shifty about my practice in a Jewish environment, I’ve tended to shuffle my feet, mutter “meditation” and hope nobody heard. When I started doing it, my mum thought I was joining a weird cult and was worried for me. But nowadays, things are changing — yesterday I received an email telling me that Chabad is introducing mindfulness — Chabad, noch! I’ve trained as a mindfulness teacher with the NHS, I assist teaching at HaMakom and from January, I’ll be teaching at a shul. I’m out and proud.

Rabbi Danny says that the Chanukah retreat will help us to respond to events in healthy, wise, compassionate ways, rather than in our habitual patterns. Well, most of our habitual patterns. Because hopefully there will be lots of latkes.

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