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Divinely Inspired: Through Meditation, Rabbi Teaches Human Vulnerability as a Source of Strength

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Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg has faced her fair share of challenges (some might say heartbreaks) in life.

In Weinberg’s 2009 spiritual memoir Surprisingly Happy, she detailed her alcohol abuse and 30 years of hard-earned sobriety, as well as divorce, single parenthood and her struggle with an eating disorder stemming from childhood. Also in its pages, she recalled the trauma of living in Israel during the traumatic Yom Kippur War and its aftermath.

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Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg dressed in a winter coat and scarf
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg
Yet were it not for these soul-pounding experiences, the 1986 Reconstructionist Rabbinical College graduate might never have delved into silent meditation. She almost surely wouldn’t have been among the first to adapt the Buddhist practice to a Jewish context or train a generation of rabbis and lay leaders in a broad range of mindfulness practices. And it’s also possible that she wouldn’t have taught with the same empathy, patience and vulnerability that is her hallmark.

Did Weinberg, 73, ever consider that a Divine hand might have played a role in her life’s trajectory? Or, more likely—since most Reconstructionists don’t believe God actively intervenes in individual lives, but view God as a natural force for good—did she see her response to life’s challenges as Divinely inspired?

“You could say that it was in a way Divinely inspired,” said Weinberg, who will receive the Keter Shem Tov Award (“Crown of the Good Name”) at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s June 2 commencement ceremony. It is the Reconstructionist movement’s highest honor.

“I didn’t learn to meditate in a Jewish way. I was taught to meditate by the Buddhists,” she continued in a recent interview at her Philadelphia apartment, which she shares with her husband, Maynard Seider, an author and sociologist.

“For me, it was just something that emerged from my heart and soul. And I was inspired by Mordecai Kaplan, who said we have to live in two civilizations. I used to wonder: What is the other civilization? Is it American capitalism? I don’t think that’s what Kaplan thought. Consumerism? Militarism? Racism? Then I thought: One of the other civilizations could be the permeating Eastern culture of deep self-reflection, silence and opening to the interior and seeing it as a reflection of the exterior. As contemporary Jews, we had been cut off from that kind of spirituality.”

 

A Full Career

Weinberg’s son, Rabbi Ezra Weinberg, RRC ’09, describes her as a “rabbi’s rabbi.” She is receiving the Keter Shem Tov Award in recognition of an entire career spent in Jewish communal service. For 13 years, she served as the spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Amherst, a Reconstructionist congregation in Massachusetts. Before that, she led Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation in suburban Philadelphia. In the 1970s, the New York City native was a teacher and community-relations professional in Scranton, Pa. Later, she worked with college students in a variety of Hillel positions in the Philadelphia area.

In Reconstructionist circles, Weinberg may be best known as a commentator for the Kol Haneshamah prayerbook series, edited by Rabbi David Teutsch, Ph.D. Identified by her initials SPW, her poetic commentaries on the liturgy have informed prayer for two decades. Currently, she is involved with Reset, a Reconstructing Judaism initiative that focuses on resilience and teaches spiritual practices to staff members of Jewish social-justice organizations.

Weinberg said that receiving an honor from RRC is “humbling.”

“I was totally surprised,” she said. “I’m glad that the work I’ve done is being highlighted and appreciated. It’s not so much me, personally, but the work I’ve done that is important.”

She relates how she identifies “very strongly with the philosophy of Reconstructionism, the vision. I’ve always been a card-carrying member of the Reconstructionist movement and been proud of that.”

 

The Early Years

Weinberg’s life as a spiritual seeker began in the Bronx, N.Y. Her parents owned several stores and worked constantly; they had a strong Jewish identity, though warned their daughter not to be “too Jewish.” Inspired by Camp Ramah, she dove into Judaism; her classmates at Hebrew school called her the “little rabbi.” She begged her parents and was eventually allowed to spend a gap year after high school, when she was 16, in Israel.

“She was a seeker at a young age—seeking to bust out of her family’s rigid views about success and assimilation,” said Ezra Weinberg. “The ethos driving them was very intense, and she needed more meaning in her life. Judaism became that early refuge. Eventually, she found meditation as a way to go deeper, to really understand why she was put on this planet, to not feel compelled to keep creating. She was able to do more by doing less.”

Weinberg’s religious observance waxed and waned during young adulthood. She married while still in college, joined the Peace Corps with her husband and served in Chile during a tumultuous time in the nation’s history. She had two children, made aliyah to Israel and returned to the United States, first to Scranton and then settling in the Philadelphia area, where she attended rabbinical school.

Her excessive drinking began while still in her 20s, before the breakup of her marriage, and continued into her rabbinate, though few seem to have noticed. At age 40, she confronted her alcoholism and became active in Alcoholics Anonymous. “She really came out as a recovering alcoholic,” said her son. (When he graduated RRC, they were the first parent-child pair to have done so; several others have since followed.) “She certainly managed to live her rabbinate from a place of courage and desire for transformation. I can’t help but think of her as the real deal.”

Weinberg has described her sobriety as “one of the most important, if not the most important, thing I did in terms of whatever spirituality I would uncover. Letting go and getting sober was hugely empowering and a tremendous education. I learned so much that I use always in my life.”

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Rabbi Ezra Weinberg studying with his mother, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg
Rabbi Ezra Weinberg studying with his mother, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg

Religious Simulcast

About three years after becoming sober, she attended her first 10-day silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Center, a Buddhist retreat in Barre, Mass. While she complained (to herself) of a sore back and berated herself for a lack of focus, something clicked. Immediately she began, in her mind, “religiously simulcasting” the Buddhist ideas into Jewish language. Though she was introducing something new to Judaism, she also tapped into a contemplative Jewish tradition displayed most prominently by the early Hasidic masters.

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Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg teaching meditation. Photo courtesy of Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg teaching meditation. Photo courtesy of Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
Before long, teaching meditation and mindfulness became the central focus of her rabbinate. In 1998, she joined luminaries such as Rabbi Art Green (a former president of RRC), Rabbi Rachel Cowen, Rabbi Nancy Flam, and psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher Sylvia Bornstein in founding the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) a retreat-based program for Jewish leaders. According to its website, the IJS serves those “seeking a deeper, richer and more meaningful experience” through Jewish spiritual practices and mindfulness techniques.

What is mindfulness? In a recent Evolve essay, Weinberg described mindfulness as “telling the truth to ourselves again and again. The formal practice (which is a big part of what I teach) may involve eliminating other distractions in order to pay attention to a simple and unified focus.”

Dictionary.com describes mindfulness as “the state or quality of being mindful or aware of something” and “a technique in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings and sensations but not judging them.”  Meditation, then, is one avenue to achieve mindfulness. Torah study, prayer and social action can, and in Weinberg’s view, should all come from a place of mindfulness.

Through IJS, Weinberg has offered mindfulness and meditation instruction to hundreds of rabbis, who have in turn taught thousands of lay people. In the process, IJS has also demonstrated how Judaism—perhaps infused with practice adapted from other traditions—can help people lead fuller lives. This proliferation has offered a path to Judaism for many who were previously alienated from Jewish tradition, especially for individuals drawn to Eastern religious philosophies and practice.

“Those who gravitate to this practice, it leads to a serious spiritual awakening that translates into a greater commitment for Jewish spiritual life. It opens the door for Jewish spiritual experience,” said Rabbi Jeff Roth, RRC ’89, who for years ran the Elat Chayyim Jewish Retreat Center in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where Weinberg taught.

Rabbi Marc Margolius, RRC ’89, a former student of Weinberg’s who is now senior program director at IJS, said that her kindness, humility and vulnerability make her an unforgettable teacher.

“Her secret ingredient is her capacity for being honest and vulnerable and human,” said Margolius, the former spiritual leader of West End Synagogue. “She helps people understand human vulnerability as a source of strength. And mindfulness, at its essence, is about getting real.”

Fran Zamore, a therapist and member of Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Bethesda, Md., leads a meditation group at the congregation. She has practiced meditation since the 1960s, but had felt little connection to Judaism before attending a seminar at IJS and studying with Weinberg.

“I always had this vision that to study Torah you had to be a man, preferably with a beard,” said Zamore. “I had a real problem with God language. At my first retreat, my teacher looked at me and said, ‘Fran, skip the word.’ It ended up being very freeing. I learned I can have a personal relationship with God; I just used different words.”

 

Social Action

Zamore was struck by Weinberg’s articulation of the link between “internal work” and “external work.” Meaning: Social action can also be a form of spiritual practice. Though Weinberg is known primarily for internal work, she has for decades been an advocate on causes ranging from civil rights to demonstrating against the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and nuclear proliferation to, more recently, the Poor People’s Campaign. She’s active in a local group called “Be the Change,” a study and activism havurah that focuses on issues of environment, race and class. Weinberg continues to advocate for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as such, supports organizations such as Combatants for Peace and the New Israel Fund.

“It is important to integrate whatever we do in our inner minds with the conditions in which we live,” she said. “A lot of impulses that are actually destructive are related to systemic forces that are destructive.”

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Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg with husband Maynard Seider, seated with lake and mountains in the background
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg with husband Maynard Seider
While she continues to teach, lecture and write, these days she focuses on being a grandmother to her six grandchildren. Later this year, she and Seider will celebrate 25 years of marriage with a weekend in Cape May, N.J. (A spiritual pilgrimage to India remains on her bucket list.)

“My project now is being an elder, the work I do supporting people who are out there and being a grandma,” she said. “I’m constantly asking myself, ‘How can I be called upon to be of service to the next generation, which is inheriting a tough world?’”

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From right to left: Abigail Weinberg, Nathan Martin, and their children Hadassah and Yehuda Weinmartin
From right to left: Abigail Weinberg, Nathan Martin, and their children Hadassah and Yehuda Weinmartin
Still, she doesn’t have to travel far to mentor the next generation of Jewish leaders. In addition to Ezra Weinberg, who serves as the Jewish life and enrichment manager at the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood in New York City, her daughter Abigail Weinberg serves as associate director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Abigail’s husband, Rabbi Nathan Martin, serves Congregation Beth Israel of Media, a Reconstructionist community in suburban Philadelphia.

“She has been a model for me for what it looks like to live an open-hearted and compassionate life,” said Martin, RRC ’06. “She is still learning and growing; she is not slowing down. She is still living her Torah and bringing it out there into the world.”

 

Check out Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg’s appearance on the podcast Hashivenu, created and hosted by Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of Reconstructing Judaism. Weinberg discusses her integration of meditation and yoga into Jewish spiritual practice.

Assistant Director of Media and Development Communications, Reconstructing Judaism