Courses spiritual and religious life

AM-01 – Towards a New Jewish Art!

Zoe Cohen

Jewish tradition prohibits making graven images.  This prohibition may have prevented a full blossoming of Jewish art besides ritual objects and documents. But isn’t God present in every beautiful thing on the planet?  What would it look like for us to go back and reclaim symbols and imagery for a new Jewish art? In this course, participants will develop a new Jewish iconography, based on our research into historical Jewish art, as well as reflection on what images and symbols communicate our current understanding of our own Jewishness.

Through discussion, visual brainstorming, self-reflection, and visual research, collaboratively we will create a large visual mixed media art piece portraying both historical and contemporary Jewish life and spirituality. The artwork will be on display for the community; each participant will be able to take home a section of the final product at the conclusion of the Institute.

Photo of Zoe Cohen Zoë Cohen has been teaching visual art to children and adults for almost 15 years.  She encourages her students to make their own connections with the material and projects and takes inspiration from seeing her students’ minds unfold in the process. As a visual artist, Zoë works conceptually in a wide range of materials and modalities, creating drawings, sculptures, installations, and public participatory projects. She creates images and events that address contemporary concerns and issues, and resonate with the thousands of years of our cultural heritage.  

AM-05 – What did we Lose When we Lost the Temple?

Avi Garelick

The Temple is a central element of our learning and liturgy, not only on Tisha B’Av, but also at weddings and even at funerals. The echo of lament and yearning for this ruin can seem very strange, remote from both our experience and our values. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud faced a similar disconnect. They were apparently fascinated with the Temple, devoting scrupulous attention to the details of its daily existence. In this class we too will attempt to make the Temple less remote. What did it feel like to be there?  Was that feeling different on Erev Pesach compared to regular Tuesdays? What did it smell and sound like? While involving ourselves with in-depth study of the rabbinic Temple imagination, we will also try to determine why this utopian nostalgia was of such value to the rabbis, and what it can offer us today.

Photo of Avi Garelick Avi Garelick teaches Oral Torah at Pre-Collegiate Learning Center of New Jersey and is an editor in chief at, a monthly magazine of essays both conceptual and timely. He likes to teach in ways that provoke participation and to guide students  into  conversation with each other.

AM-07 – Jewish Spiritual Direction

Sharon Pearl

Jewish Spiritual Direction has a rich history and is referenced in Pirke Avot  1:6, which states, “Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend.”  Our sages suggest that this “friend” is one who serves as a spiritual guide. Viewing your joys and struggles from a spiritual perspective is incredibly empowering.  In this class you will experience Jewish Spiritual Direction,  a contemplative practice that will support your connection and understanding of the Holy in your everyday activities and in the extraordinary events of your life. You will have opportunities for deep listening to spiritual narratives, both your own and those of other participants, for the purpose of understanding, exploring and deepening God’s role in your life.

Photo of Sharon Pearl Sharon K. Pearl provides individual and group spiritual direction. A veteran teacher of adult education at area synagogues, Jewish service organizations, Sharon  is a lay leader at P’nai Or Philadelphia.  Sharon leads enriching workshops that support participants’ spiritual growth.  She is an ordained Mashpiah Ruchanit (Spiritual Director), having studied in a three year mentorship with Sandra B. Cohen, DSW, and is a member of Spiritual Directors International.  This is her first Institute.

AM-08 – The Constant Prayer of the Soul: Rav Kook’s Ecstatic Vision of Prayer

Louis A. Rieser

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook articulated an expansive and poetic vision of prayer.  He describes prayer as a dynamic force that flows from heaven and acts through the soul in order to affect the cosmos.  We will study and discuss passages from his prayerbook commentary, Olat R’ayah, on the purpose and action of prayer.  Rav Kook’s notions of prayer will serve as background to a discussion of our own experience of and desires in prayer.

Photo of Louis A. Rieser Writer and teacher, Louis Rieser, is the author of The Hillel Narratives. His writings are found in a variety of journals, as well as online in the blog, NuViewTalmud, and on the website, Jewish Values Online. Louis regularly teaches at synagogues and in the Melton Program in Palm Beach County, among other venues. He is the Rabbi Emeritus of Etz Hayim Synagogue in Derry, NH and is married to Connie Rieser, a nutritionist in private practice.

AM-10 – Who are the Jews? Contemporary Sociology of American Jews

Talya Weisbard Shalem

This course will dive into the vast world of current surveys of American Jews, from Pew to the National Jewish Population Surveys. We will contextualize these studies by looking at the broader world of current American religious trends. We will compare quantitative and qualitative types of analyses, examining an in-depth analysis of individual Jewish journeys by Bethamie Horowitz. We will look closely at data on intermarriage and children’s upbringing, using studies from and the Jewish Outreach Institute.

We will explore how definitions of who is a Jew, and the choice of which survey questions to ask, can massively shape outcomes and conclusions. At the end of this course, you will know how to read handwringing articles in the Jewish press with a hermeneutic of suspicion, and you will be well-informed for engaging in contemporary debates about the future of the community and where to best direct energy and funding.

Photo of Talya Weisbard Shalem Talya grew up attending the Institute with the rest of the Weisbards.  She is a Reconstructionist Rabbi and active member of Havurat Shalom in Somerville.  She has taught at several prior Institutes including in Kids Camp, is a former NHC Board member, and serves on the Fellows Committee. Her day job for the past four years has been with the US Census Bureau, where she currently supervises employees collecting data for many important surveys, including the American Community Survey, and the monthly unemployment statistics (CPS).  Her bachelor’s degree from Harvard is in Anthropology, and she has always loved interviewing people, crunching numbers, and drawing conclusions.

AM-11 – Yitgadal v’Yitkadash: Jewish Rituals of Grief and Mourning from Aninut (Mourning) to Yahrzeit (Annual Remembrance)

David Stearman

The journey from the intense mourning of Tisha B’Av to the comfort of Shabbat Nachamu reminds us not only of the Jewish people’s communal loss of the Temple, but also of our own personal experiences of loss. In times of loss, particularly the deaths of loved ones, each of us goes through a process of grief, mourning, and, ultimately, healing.

We will explore how the Jewish rituals of mourning track or reflect Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief—and how they differ.  Some of these rituals are derived from Halakha (mitzvot); others are traditions (minhag). Some we observe strictly; others we put our own spin on. We will look at these rituals through text study and sharing of personal experiences, whether as mourner or comforter, and across variations in observance. Together, we will seek  both a better understanding of these rituals and a greater appreciation for how they support us.

Photo of David Stearman David Stearman grew up in a Conservative Jewish home and had a traditional Bar Mitzvah. Since then he has gone through periods of atheism and total non-observance, dabbled in Reform Judaism, learned to keep kosher, and encountered Orthodox and Chasidic Judaism. In the past year he has lost both parents, so he has been embedded deeply and personally in the Jewish rituals of mourning. Although he remains unaffiliated, he davens and says Kaddish for his parents at the local Chabad.

AM-12 – Text and Interpretation: A Series of Journeys through Time

Aryeh Wineman

A tradition cannot be grasped simply by reading its sacred text, and certainly Jewish tradition requires, along with the Torah-text, serious understanding of the ongoing interpretation, which often transforms and gives new life to the text itself.  That process of interpretation is an exciting story, often a process of highly creative, even radical, understanding of the literal text itself.  We will examine, each day, a different kind of textual passage(s) from the Torah along with some representative and sometimes startling re-readings of the same passage. We will look at passages concerning law and society, cultic practices, the creation of light, and revelation.

Photo of Aryeh Wineman Aryeh Wineman has taught at several Havurah Institutes over the years, as well as having taught at an Israeli youth-village and later at SUNY-Albany, and having served as a congregational rabbi. He has written various studies in the areas of Hebrew literature and Jewish mysticism, including The Hasidic Parable: An Anthology with Commentary and Ethical Tales from the Kabbalah.

AM-13 – Rebuilding through Song: Making the Zemirot our Own

Jonathan D. Zimet

The Zemirot are our people’s folk music, expressing the themes of our tradition and Jewish experience.  They rest on allusions and inside secrets, which we will unlock and explore.  We will also look at the authors’ social circumstances that resemble those of our contemporary folk artists, examine the ways we can embrace these poems even if we do not agree with all their themes (such as rebuilding the Temple), sample the wide variety of melodies, and discuss how these songs can enhance our Shabbat meals and bring people together.

Photo of Jonathan D. Zimet

After avocationally doing diverse celebrations and programs and leading a community Jewish chorus, lawyer Jonathan Zimet received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion. He offers programs especially in zemirot, Shir Hashirim, and nusach for lay people, and is currently writing an English commentary, “Zemirot are for Everyone:  An Invitation to the Shabbat meal and the songs that adorn it.”

PM-02 – Enter the Temple: Discovering the Inner Sanctum

Elyssa Joy Auster

Out of destruction comes transformation and the opportunity for wholeness. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, and other tragedies the Jewish people have experienced over centuries, yet it leaves the door open for something new. We will explore the joy and creativity that are released by breaking open through four paradigms: the Temple of the Body (Yoga), the Temple of Emotion (Meditation), the Temple of the Mind (Text Study), and the Temple of Beyond (Chanting).

Photo of Elyssa Joy Auster Elyssa Joy Auster has served as the rabbi for a Conservative congregation in Florida and a Reform congregation in Alaska; she has brought inspiration to other congregations in Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, and Maryland.  She has published in The Forward and in Jewish Philanthropy, is a trained mikveh guide, has led Hallel with Women of the Wall in Jerusalem, and has written and illustrated two children’s books.  She a certified yoga teacher, and has been a teacher of contemplative Judaism in diverse venues.

PM-03 – Shmita! Designing a Year of Radical Cooperation, Economic Justice, and Ecological Sustainability

Laura Bellows

What can the Torah’s ancient Shmita practice teach us today?  This Tisha B’Av begins the next High Holiday season and, with it, the once-every-seventh-year radical rest of the sabbatical cycle.  Through collage, text motifs, and creative design, this timely course will explore contemporary perspectives on three of Shmita’s core practices: letting the land rest, forgiving debt, and resource sharing.  Participants will use a collaborative art process and resources from The Shmita Project to develop a Havurahnik’s Guide to Shmita Practice for community use in 5775 / 2014-2015.

Photo of Laura Bellows Laura Bellows is a life-long havurahnik and artist, and is now entering her third year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Boston.  Most recently Laura served six years designing and directing experiential Jewish environmental education programs for communities across the country through the Teva Learning Alliance.  She enjoys praying outdoors and playing at the intersection of ecology, Judaism and justice.

PM-04 – Praying With Song: Hasidic Spiritual Melodies And Our Spiritual Selves

Robert Cohen

We’ll study Hasidic spiritual melodies (niggunim) in Hasidic philosophy and spiritual practice and explore how they — and contemporary, ‘quasi-Hasidic’ melodies — can enrich our own spiritual practice. We’ll learn melodies from various Hasidic traditions and sing some of them; learn and sing contemporary spiritual melodies; and perhaps touch on the tradition of borrowing melodies for prayer — experimenting, if we have time, with our own, new shidduchim (matches) of melody with traditional or original prayers.

Photo of Robert Cohen Robert Cohen has produced and hosted over 100 Jewish radio programs, including “One People, Many Voices:  American-Jewish Music Comes of Age” on NPR.  He has pursued Graduate Education at JTS, where he created the first Jewish music curriculum, written on Jewish music for magazines and newspapers, edited all music (and Hasidic rebbe) articles for the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, and produced  Open the Gates! New American-Jewish Music for Prayer (compilation CD).

PM-05 – Tisha B’Av Through the Midrash

Richard Friedman

Tisha B’Av is the first day of the Institute; on that day and the next three days, we’ll study midrashic texts that address the problems it raises — what caused the destruction of the Temple(s)?  what was lost?  how did that destruction affect the Jewish People?  how do we respond to that destruction?  and is there hope for the future?  We will begin with the classic account in the Talmud of how the destruction was caused by an erroneously-delivered invitation; other texts will come from Midrash Rabba on the book of Eicha (Lamentations).  Time permitting, we will finish with a text about the festive day Tu B’Av, which comes six days after Tisha B’Av.

Photo of Richard Friedman Richard Friedman has taught text classes at several Institutes.  He also teaches Talmud and Rashi’s Torah commentary at his shul.  He studied at Pardes, and he is a lawyer with the federal government.

PM-06 – Darosh Darash: the Masoretic Journey

Sherry Israel

Pirke Avot reports that “Moshe received Torah from Sinai and passed it on….” How did this passing on happen? Sacred texts were believed to have been received directly as Divine words or under the influence of the holy spirit, so they had to be passed on correctly, with everything exactly right.  But even the most careful scribes make errors, so an apparatus called the masorah was devised to insure the correct transmission of our sacred texts.  In this class, we will examine the evidence for scribal errors (or improvements?), and study the origins and development of the masoretic database; we’ll encounter some materials that are familiar and others that are esoteric and fun to decode.  Along the way we’ll explore our own understandings of our Text and its holiness, and experience the sacred tension between attention to details and attention to deep meaning.

Photo of Sherry Israel Sherry Israel, a founding member of the Newton Center Minyan, is a past Chair of the NHC Board.  She retired from teaching in the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University in 2007, and has since been trained for a new vocation as a spiritual director. She is a lover of Jewish texts, a cook and baker, a walker, a member of a local Jewish community chorus, and a friend, mother and grandmother; now she is trying to learn to do tai chi and to knit.

PM-08 – Our Lives are in our Songs: Yiddish Voices Moving us Forward!

Susan Pearl Leviton

Using Yiddish song as a roadmap, we’ll travel through social justice activism, yearning for actual and abstract homelands, the world of women’s voices,  the experiences of dreams and realities of America, and an examination of our culture through foodways.  Shake off any images you have of dusty old chestnuts (the Yiddish ‘top ten’) and prepare to encounter songs of the aguna and domestic violence, developing class struggle among children and I. B. Singer’s magical literature as interpreted by his illustrators.  Translations and archival images will be provided.

Photo of Susan Pearl Leviton

Susan Leviton’s joyful embrace of Yiddish arts is matched by her enthusiasm in sharing.  As an interpreter of song, and one of few who are reviving women’s a cappella singing today, she dips into a treasure trove and weaves programs of unexpected beauty.  Her naturally clear instrument and background in theatrical (Sign) interpreting brings story-telling magic to her teaching.

PM-09 – How Much Christianity is There in the Talmud?

Micha’el Rosenberg

The Babylonian Talmud has shaped Jewish life for over a thousand years, but it’s easy to forget–or never to have considered–that the Talmud was produced by a Jewish community living in multicultural Iran, where Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, and a host of other religious groups lived side by side. In this course, we will look at talmudic passages that have striking parallels to texts written by Christians in the surrounding area; they wrote in Syriac, a language very similar to talmudic Aramaic. These will help us make sense of passages in the Talmud that otherwise would be impossible to understand, and will show both the competition with and the allure of Christianity for the Babylonian Jews who shaped the future of Judaism. What does it mean that there’s so much Christianity in the quintessential Jewish text?

Photo of Micha’el Rosenberg Micha’el Rosenberg is assistant professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College in Boston. Formerly the rabbi of the Fort Washington Jewish Center in the Washington Heights section of New York, he has taught at JTS, and the Northwoods Kollel and Beit Midrash of Ramah Wisconsin.

PM-10 – Embodied Teshuvah: A Journey from Brokenness to Wholeness

Josh Schreiber Shalem

Teshuvah can begin not at Rosh Hashanah or even at the first of Elul, but at Tisha B’Av, when the walls we build to shield ourselves from our own fragility collapse like the walls of Jerusalem. What follows is a period not always of rebuilding, but of confronting what is actually there behind those walls; perhaps one can learn to live with one’s self and one’s God with honesty and vulnerability. Through the Awareness Through Movement® developed by the Israeli physicist and Judo master Moshe Feldenkrais, we will follow this path through the experience of our body, learning to attend to, accept, and transform the feelings of brokenness and inadequacy we carry within us.  This class is open to anyone with a body; no prior movement experience or ability is necessary.  Mats will be provided.

Photo of Josh Schreiber Shalem Josh is an active member of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, MA, a certified teacher of the Feldenkrais Method® of Somatic Education, and a performing musician. He loves combining all these interests in the experience of Jewish prayer both privately and as a shaliach tzibur.

PM-11 – Preparing to Do Teshuvah

Darius D. Sivin

This class will explore Rambam’s Laws of Teshuvah, a classic Jewish text, and Rabbi Alan Lew’s This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, a modern work, influenced by Buddhism, about the spiritual practice of Teshuvah.  Through chevruta  study and class discussion, each student will develop a personal Teshuvah plan based on class materials and life experience.

Photo of Darius D. Sivin

Darius D. Sivin, PhD is an occupational health and safety professional with the United Auto Workers.  Much of his work involves teaching health and safety to adults.  His family belongs to Fabrangen Cheder where he led the adult discussion seminar for several years.  He has studed at the NHC Institute and at the Jewish Study Center in Washington DC.  He has developed his own spiritual practice of Teshuvah based on the works he will be presenting.

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