I am a spiritual director, Jewish by birth and deeply committed to sustaining my relationship with God — mindful that I am created in God’s image — and adhering to Jewish practices and ongoing study.
My parents, of blessed memory, transmitted their understanding of Judaism to my sisters and me. They said that it was our responsibility to discern how we would live that transmitted tradition, how we would make it relevant to our lives and if we had children, how we would pass it on. They also taught that it was our responsibility to be mindful of those who affiliated with other religious traditions or no tradition. We were to be true to ourselves while being respectful to the religious, spiritual and meaning-making commitments of others.
Well-grounded in my own tradition and probably a bit more aware of other traditions than many Jews of my age, I still had never heard the words spiritual direction until I was a graduate student in the school of theology at Boston University in the early 2000s. As a spiritual director (trained 2001-03 in the initial cohort of the Lev Shomea program), I commit to accompany those who seek direction, to listen attentively, to be mindful that it is their journey and not mine, and to invite them to hold the sacred space with me as they seek to be more aware of the movement of the Sacred (one of my names for God) in their daily lives. It’s a gift to be invited to witness another’s spiritual seeking and to note movement and deepening even in the midst of disappointment or frustration. It is a holy endeavor. I acknowledge God, however the Divine Source is named, as the ultimate director, but in gentle ways, I serve as a discovery guide.
As much as I relish sitting with a single directee, my heart is particularly invested in convening small groups of seekers who join me in accompanying one another. Participants learn to listen deeply — limiting their own discoveries to invest in the deepening of others — and receive the gift of being deeply heard without judgment by others also invested in spiritual discernment. I have been facilitating such groups for 20 years.
A quick summary of my journey: I have a Ph.D. in psychology and practiced as a therapist for 36 years, closing my practice in 2020 in order to focus more attentively on my work as a spiritual director. In 1998, I completed a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). I was aware that my calling was not to be a chaplain but identified through the CPE experience that I had many theological questions and a desire to approach those questions both intellectually and at a practical level. This insight led me to Boston University and the introduction to the practice of spiritual direction.
By 2003, I had accumulated new information and skills and recognized that I had a deeply felt calling to use both on behalf of others. Reflecting on how I trained as a therapist, I became curious about how clergy and other Jewish spiritual leaders cared for their own spirits, enlivened their spiritual practices and managed inevitable spiritual yearnings, doubts and struggles. I also suspected that the role of clergy in particular could be a lonely one. Could a rabbi, for example, share theological doubts with a colleague, or a sense of distance from God? Could spiritual joys be amplified if shared? Could “professionals” in matters of God, ritual practice, belief and faith find comfort and sustenance in conversations rich with sharing and discernment?
I did a lot of networking and eventually found three brave clergy persons who formed my first group. Presently (2023), I facilitate seven groups, each meeting once a month for two hours after making an eight-to-10-month commitment to be present during the academic year. It is designated as “sacred time” by the participants. They agree that only ill health or the need to conduct a funeral will cause them to miss a meeting. The group is only as strong as the combined energy of all the participants. Group size ranges from three to seven persons. Three groups are clergy persons. Two groups are “Jews in the pews.” One is interreligious — Jewish and Christian. One is Jewish persons with training or previous experience in spiritual direction.
Whenever I talk about my work in group spiritual direction, I give credit to Christian persons, particularly Sister Rose Mary Doherty and Reverend Marlene Kropf, who have written about their creative work in this field. It seemed to me when I began that how they did it, not that they did it, would not work in the population that I sought to serve. As Jewish persons, we learn about God through studying God’s Torah and by various practices that we consistently do. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about what God is or who we are with God or even — except for moments of great urgency — what we might want God to do. God talk is not easy. So, I created scaffolding with some support structures to get the conversation going. Over the past two decades, I have refined it, but my initial scaffolding has held.
In 2001, Spiritual Directors International published my book on this topic, Seeking in the Company of Others: The Wisdom of Group Spiritual Direction. In it, I unpack in some detail my approach to the work: how it fits into the “canon” of work in group spiritual direction and how it differs. This space does not permit me to go into great detail, but I can offer a brief overview.
Each meeting begins with a check-in. This is an opportunity for the group members who haven’t seen each other in a month to share whatever it is that they feel at that moment, whether good or bad. The intent is to set it aside through giving it voice. This effort might permit them to be more fully present in the group. The goal is to build a spaciousness into the experience.
Then I offer a quote, something I’ve read usually in the past month. I select quotes that might evoke spiritual discernment. I read the quote twice, and people are invited to sit with it for as long as they need, usually several minutes. Then in any order, participants share what they perceived in response to the quote.
This is the instruction that is the heart of our work: Listen to the speaker and be alert for anything you think you could ask as a question that might help the speaker delve more deeply. Listeners must first filter out their own curiosity or something that stirs in them about their own journey. When a question is asked, the recipient of the question can use it as a springboard to more conversation or choose to hold the question for later time or politely say that the question, although appreciated, is not the direction in which the speaker was going. Each person can elect or decline to respond to the quote. No one is required to ask a question. In the initial months of meetings, I am often the only questioner. But as the group gains mutual trust and comfort in the process, members assume increasing responsibility for the questioning.
Part three is the heart of the day. It is my modification of an ancient Christian practice called Lectio Divina or Divine reading. Twenty years ago, my first group members were rabbis. I felt that if I followed the Christian practice of sharing a selection of scripture from the Hebrew bible (in a Jewish group), the rabbis might be drawn to text already learned or a sermon previously given. What might draw them to spiritual discoveries? I chose a piece of poetry, though I am not a poetry expert. I experience poems as evocative. I sense that a poem reaches our hearts first and then announces itself to our intellect. Thus, it may open soul-linked places in us that prose may not.
I read the poem twice. I ask listeners to notice whether, especially in the second reading, there are particular words that resonate. When I finish the second reading, people share their words. Then they sit quietly quiet to let the words sink down deeply and to notice what arises from within them to meet the chosen words. When people are ready to speak, they share their discoveries one at a time, and there is the same deep listening and the opportunity for questions.
For our fourth section, we turn to a short selection of liturgy. I select a phrase from the prayer book or the book of Psalms that might invite a deep dive into one’s inner being. I read it accompanied by a question that I’ve written. We are not analyzing what the prayer’s author intended, but seek to identify what stirs in the person who hears it. We repeat the same process of sharing, deep listening and thoughtful questioning on behalf of the speaker.
Sometimes, that’s all we have time for; particularly in the groups that have five persons or more. However, I also come prepared with open-ended questions. The questions may pertain to where we are in the holiday cycle, to God directly or a wondering emerging from my contemplative practice on behalf of the group. We follow the same format of receiving, sitting quietly, sharing and questioning.
Depending on the nature of the group, I might reserve time at the end of our meeting for a brief discussion of that meeting’s process. With a new group, it is important to ask for process reflections to give participants a sense of ownership of our process. These discussions are instructive. We learn what we might do as an intimate community to strengthen the meaning and depth of our gathering.
If a group bonds, the group continues for years. Three of the groups have been meeting for more than a decade. And the trust that develops comes quickly. Recently, a member of a new group remarked that she was surprised to notice how trusting she felt of the other members after only two meetings. She observed that perhaps it was because we were talking about important things that most people don’t give voice to but that our spirits need.
I am not arguing here that group work is better than individual work. Each has its blessings. But I note with delight that group spiritual direction demonstrates that human beings can be, and perhaps need to be, vulnerable with each other about spiritual and religious matters. Hearts and minds are opened to places of depth that were not recognized before. People learn to listen to each other differently. The need to repair or fix or change the other diminishes. The ability to witness and an inner sense of one’s capacity to listen well grows. Throughout, a shared awareness and appreciation of God’s presence through and within human interaction is magnified.
Gratitude to Professor Claire Wolfteich for her ongoing mentorship and collaboration.
Appreciation to Rabbis Avrum Addison and Zari Weiss, and Dr. Barbara Breitman.
, Rose Mary Dougherty, Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment, Paulist Press, 1995.
Marlene Kropf & Daniel Schrock, editors. An Open Place: The Ministry of Group Spiritual Direction, Morehouse Publishing, 2012.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God,” is an example.
Liturgy: Our relationship to it:
Who is like unto Thee, O Lord, among the mighty?
Who is like unto Three, glorious in holiness?
Fearful in praises, and doing wondrous deeds?
Do these verses reflect or not your present connection to God?
Can you think of a time when God’s unexpected action in your life left you amazed, delighted or even laughing?
What might you gain if you considered forgiveness as a spiritual practice? How could you do this?