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It’s all about soul at the Neshama Center for Lifelong Learning

By Stacey Dresner

Rabbi Debra Cantor thinks we all should take a breather. Feed our souls. Partake in some “inspiring, creative, joyful Jewish learning.” “We live these super-connected, rushing around kind of lives, structured by technology and schedules,” Rabbi Cantor explained. “It’s all about doing, doing, doing. There is very little time and value placed on reflection and being.”

Rabbi Cantor’s solution is The Neshama Center for Lifelong Learning, a joint venture between B’nai Tikvoh Shalom (BTS) and the Mandell Jewish Community Center.

Neshama Center programming takes place at both BTS and the JCC and covers five areas: Jewish text study, social justice, interfaith learning, meditation & mindfulness, and the arts.

Rabbi Cantor says that while there are plenty of adult Jewish education opportunities around the greater Hartford area, she and JCC Executive Director David Jacobs were looking to broaden the idea of adult lifelong learning.

“This idea has been percolating, literally for years,” Rabbi Cantor said. “David and I are friends and we’ve been talking about deepening and broadening adult Jewish learning in our community for years…what would it look like if we really widened the parameters of what we think of as adult ed…what would it look like? What would it feel like? Who would it appeal to?”

Over the years Cantor has done a lot of research on adult Jewish education. Before returning to her native Connecticut in the 1990s, she worked as an education consultant for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston and as director of Family Education. “One of the other hats I wore was looking at adult learning in general and Jewish adult learning and best practices and programs around the country. I have continued to have a tremendous interest in that.”

She has looked to larger cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles where they are doing “really innovative adult learning …setting up these different kind of adult learning models that go beyond the straight adult ed in a synagogue” to areas like mindfulness and the arts.

“I have been admiring of and also a little envious of all of these things that are happening around the country and one of the things that David and I always say to each other is, ‘Why can’t we do it here?”

Last spring Cantor and Jacobs knew it was time. And unlike in larger Jewish communities where Cantor says this kind of programming can take a while to come to fruition, there is something to be said for Hartford’s size and close-knit Jewish community.

“I keep thinking of those Judy Garland and Donald O’Connor movies – ‘Let’s put on a show! My uncle has a barn!’” Cantor laughed. “I think there is some truth to that. If somebody has a good idea here, you can make it happen.”

“We are so thrilled to partner with Rabbi Debra Cantor on the new Neshama Center,” Jacobs said. “She has created a diverse, creative and accessible curriculum that provides many opportunities for our community.  It’s a warm and nurturing way for people of all backgrounds to learn together, and a perfect fit for the Mandell JCC.”

With the formation of the Neshama Center, Cantor says they are building onto “some of the successes we’ve had at BTS bringing people together with various lifelong learning programs and the success that the JCC has in terms of outreach to a much wider population and their involvement in the arts because that is one of the things we really wanted to emphasize.”

On Sunday, Jan. 28, as part of Neshama Center’s “Partners in Creation” series, Rabbi Cantor and art teacher Melinda Wright led “Exploring the Hamsa,” a hands-on workshop where Cantor shared the “origins of the hamsa and its place in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and mysticism before participants made their own metal hamsa.

On Thursday mornings the Neshama Center offers “Mussar Yoga” at BTS, led by Terry Wolfisch Cole. Each class concentrates on one of the Mussar “soul traits.” Participants “learn how to explore the physical dimension of soul traits – ethical behaviors and attitudes – such as humility, generosity, enthusiasm and gratitude through yoga poses and the yogic practice of breath work.

“It is not a long stretch to bring together Judaism and mindfulness. We have that in Shabbat, which is about stepping back from your daily commitments and making space. – Heschel says,’ [Shabbat is] ‘Creating a palace in time.’ A refuge, that is what Shabbat is.”

But mindfulness, she says, is also about “creating a way of moving through life and be on the lookout for blessings. It is a whole mindset and a way of slowing down and noticing. So the basics of mindfulness are really congruent with Jewish teachings and the Jewish approach for life…That’s what we are trying to do with Neshama, look at these different areas, arts, music, social action, and interfaith activities…and see how Judaism can enrich and deepen our experience.”

Other Neshama classes include “Mussar: Path of the Mensch,” a one-year course based on the book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, by Alan Morinis”; and “Introduction to Storytelling” with Terry Wolfisch Cole, a regular on “The Moth” storytelling circuit.

Godfrey Pearlson participated in the storytelling class this fall.

“A lot of people had stories about their own families and their own experiences growing up,” he said. “One person spoke about their Jewish childhood and relationship with their dad and grandfather. A couple of people were moved to spontaneously tell their own stories. Those were some of the better stories.”

In December, as part of Neshama’s social action component and in conjunction with International Human Rights Shabbat, “Going Deep,” a social justice workshop on mass incarceration was held at BTS with a guest speaker from Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education, text study, a video and discussion.

There is also a weekly Talmud class held at the JCC.

“Rabbi Cantor has a gift in bringing the Talmud into the present and showing us how it affects our daily lives,” said Barbara Sperber, who attends the class. “Everyone talks and has a comment. I never leave the class without feeling like I have learned something very important. You don’t always get that from a class or a lecture.”

Neshama’s Spring programs will include Jewish Drumming, Israeli-style Improv, Poetry Writing and Photography as a Contemplative Practice.

“We have a robust set of offerings for the spring and so far a really great response,” Cantor said. “So far it has been largely word of mouth. We have had a Facebook page, but now we are really going to be really spreading the word much more.”

Cantor stressed that these offerings are open to the whole community, not just Jews.

“We’ve had Christians and Muslims and Hindus come to our programs,” she said. “We are providing deep Jewish learning experiences for everybody. This is a way of doing outreach to the Jewish and the larger community. It is a way of building community and understanding.”

CAP: Rabbi Debra Cantor

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