This is a fascinating idea, as my colleague, Brittany Shoot, writes about in Good.
Alan Morinis is so busy crisscrossing North America teaching the Jewish practice of Mussar that for a while last fall he hadn’t spent two Shabbats in one place since. He founded the Mussar Institute nearly a decade ago, and the number of online classes and followers has exploded. He’s not a rabbi, but the 60-something-year-old has become one of the leading lights in North American Jewry, quite an accomplishment given the spiritual journey he’s travelled: growing up as a cultural, secular Jew, discovering the little-known discipline of Mussar in his 40s, finding a teacher at a yeshivah in Far Rockaway, Long Island, and now the author of three books (“Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” “Everyday Holiness,” and “Every Day, Holy Day”).
Yet in raw numbers, the Mussar Institute counts just over 800 students. “That’s the size of one big synagogue,” the institute’s executive director, Michael Burnham, who lives in Memphis, told me the other day. “That’s not much in the grand scheme of things.”
Burnham was hired just over a year ago, and he wanted to do something about increasing the numbers.
Mussar is a spiritual discipline intended to work on every possible trait that hangs up individuals. In religious terminology, the goal is to establish a closer relationship to God; the less religious say it helps one become a mensch. Students work weekly various character traits: patience, anger, order, enthusiasm, joy, willingness, silence, responsibility, trust, faith, generosity, humility, simplicity, gratitude.
This month, Burnham gets his chance to make good on his desire to better market Mussar and the Mussar Institute. He’s calling it “Generosity Week,” and the ironic thing is there’s no catch or cost. He says he just wants to help people be more generous by building what he calls their “generosity muscles.”
Apropos of 21st century Judaism, it has its own website and a Facebook fan page. As the great sage, Maimonides said, it’s not how much one gives but how often. Like weightlifting, it’s all about the repetition.
From Feb. 19-24, those who sign up, will be encouraged to give 18 times in six days. Participants will be encouraged to print out Generosity Week cards (from the website) to give with each gift. They’ll be supplied free journal pages to write about how they feel, where they notice resistance and how others react. They’ll even be asked to post their experiences on Facebook.
“Don’t keep goodness in your pocket,” says Burnham. Quoting the Chofetz Chaim, an influential Eastern European rabbi of the 19th century Mussar Movement, Burnham adds: “When you open your hand to others, you cultivate generosity in your heart.”
Infinity Hall is a stunning concert hall up in the tiny northwestern Connecticut town of Norfolk. The story of how the owners renovated an old building and turned it into a hall with incredible acoustics, a hip cafe, and a destination for music lovers is itself a great story. Now the owners are looking at opening another music hall on Front Street in Hartford. This is exciting news if it actually happens. Because the Front Street project, part of a massive attempt to pump new life into downtown Hartford, has sat vacant since it was completed two years ago just as the economy was tanking. Infinity Hall is teaching us all a priceless lesson. It takes more than buildings to re-make a city. It takes creativity, both ideas and energy. Let’s hope this idea works. It’s exactly the kind of idea that revitalized parts of Portland, Or., when indi bookstore Powells took over a warehouse. Next thing you knew there were brew pubs and restaurants and condos all over.
I attended an all-day Mussar retreat in New York yesterday. (If you asking, “What’s Mussar?” take a look at my article in The Jerusalem Report magazine from a few years back.) But here was my take-away, and it comes from Reb Eliyahu Lopian (1876-1970) in his book called Lev Eliyahu, which is a collection of talks edited by his students as Mussar lessons.
It’s this: the heart knows. In a chapter titled “Faith,” he writes this definition of Mussar: “Making the heart feel what the intellect understands.” To which I take that there are circumstances in life, indeed everyday events, that our heart gets. We feel the poignancy of an encounter, whatever it might be. A smile from a sales clerk, a question that shows concern from a loved one, a wagging tale of excitement from your pet dog. Mussar leaders like Reb Lopian didn’t want to take those moments for granted. As God-believers, they also saw in those moments a connection with the divine. And each evening, as they journaled in a practice called chesbon ha-nefesh, Hebrew for “an accounting of the soul,” they would take note of such encounters during their day. Or so I assume.
Amazingly, a similar practice is going on these days, not just in the Jewishly observant world, but in more liberal circles as well. That’s what I and 14 others were doing sitting around a table in the basement-social hall of a synagogue next to Gramercy Park yesterday. And my take-away was simply that the heart knows. Understanding that has all kinds of implications.
I love discovering cool new tools for organizing my life and career. And no better time than the new year. Here are two I read about today. One is TeuxDeux, which Fast Company called the best to-do app of 2011. The other is Accompl.sh, which helps hold you accountable to accomplishing your goals in the next 365 days.
I’m blogging again. Two years ago, I blogged about my year of saying kaddish, a blog that’s no longer “live,” which may be symbolic, since “kaddish” is a Hebrew (or more accurately, Aramaic) word said in memory of the dead. I said kaddish after my mom died, but that’s a another story.
This blog is part of my new and improved website. Hard to believe I lived with a website that hadn’t been updated since 2006. It was just too cumbersome, and this new site, built on a WordPress platform, allows me to update easily and regularly. Says a lot, too, about how technology has changed in a few years.
Another word about what I intend to do with this blog. I hope to use it as a way to communicate with you and/or people you know who may know something about a story I’m working on. Right now, for example, I’m working on a story about an amazing charter school. It’s just one example of how some educators, teachers, parents, and a host of other people are actually making real change in the lives of poor kids. More details to follow, but at the moment, I’m curious about articles that put the whole charter school issue in the U.S. into perspective. What are the big issues around charter schools? What are some of the standout examples? Send me links if you’ve read a good piece on charter schools.
I’ll try to update this blog regularly. Until then, stay tuned. Lots more to talk about.