Community BlogFacilitating Mussar

Have you ever made an impulse buy? And soon thereafter, you find yourself scratching your head, saying, what was I thinking? Almost exactly two years ago, I did the same thing when I saw a write up in Vat’s Nu, the Temple Shir Tikva (in Wayland, Mass.) weekly newsletter, about a thing called Mussar. At the time, I was struggling with overwhelming personal challenges and I knew that I needed something to hold onto, but I didn’t know what.

When I read the description by Caryl Shaw for a Hebrew College Open Circle Jewish Learning class offering an opportunity to strengthen my spiritual soul by focusing awareness on our middot, or soul traits, I registered without thinking. It was a day or two before class started and I had no idea of the journey I was about to embark on.

I remember walking into the Beit Midrash and sitting around the table with about a dozen other women. Caryl introduced herself and shared her story of what brought her to Mussar, and then we all introduced ourselves. As I sat and listened to these women — who I did not yet know would soon be core to my spiritual and human being — I realized that this was not going to simply be a conversation or discussion group, but rather it would include a deep dive into our souls and include readings and a chavruta partner to learn with outside of the sessions.

Well, I panicked. I distinctly remember, at the end of our first session, thanking these beautiful women for welcoming me, and then explaining that I made an impulse buy without reading the label, and that as much as I enjoyed meeting them all, this would be my last class because it was too intense for me and I was feeling too vulnerable to “go there. ” I also distinctly remember Caryl, in her very special “Caryl way,” gently calling me out in the most loving and respectful way, with no judgement whatsoever, acknowledging my hesitancy and offering that I see how the readings go and how I felt over the next week, and then I could decide if I wanted to come back. Needless to say, the first reading pulled me in and that began my love affair with Mussar and with my Va’ad, the most amazing group of women I could have ever hoped to share and learn with.

It’s hard to put into words the powerful impact Mussar has had on every aspect of my life, and I truly mean every aspect — how I feel and how process my emotions; the way I think about how I live and communicate on a daily basis; how I notice and appreciate the big and small miracles all around me, especially in nature; or the interactions between myself and others or that I witness in others.

I have always had a strong connection to my Judaism, and I have always sought learning opportunities to incorporate Jewish rituals into my life, and therefore my kids’ lives. Through my Mussar practice, my love and appreciation for MY Judaism, for my community here at Shir Tikvah, has multiplied ten times over. I am learning to live more authentically, to live in peace in a way that I never knew possible. My bitachon, my absolute trust in God, gives me strength and courage, and more than anything, gratitude for this life I am blessed to live.

Caryl calls herself a “fellow traveler,” and as a Mussar facilitator, that is true. We study and learn and question and challenge and grow together in our Va’ad, and Caryl is amongst us, not above us. But through Caryl’s perceptive facilitation skills, she takes us on roads that we could never have found without her guidance, compassion, and dedication. Caryl’s deep love and appreciation for Mussar practice, and her commitment to building our spiritual souls through this practice, inspired me to train to become a Mussar facilitator. It has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, and I look forward to learning and growing as a Mussar facilitator, as a co-traveler, and as a community member at Temple Shir Tikva.

Jenny Kaplan is a participant in Hebrew College’s Open Circle Jewish Learning.  Hebrew College is a Boston-area institution of Jewish learning and leadership that offers graduate leadership programs in rabbinical, cantorial, education and Jewish studies, and community learning programs for all ages and stages within a pluralistic environment of open inquiry, depth, creativity, and compassion.