Meditative Jews adopt new tradition

Courier-Post: Fifteen months ago, Franklin Horowitz was in a bad place in his life.

Entangled in “addictive issues,” he was lost inside his own skin. But then the Voorhees resident started walking the labyrinth at an Episcopal church in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Though Jewish, he was drawn to the winding path cut in the grass near his childhood home. On it, he discovered the labyrinth’s power for contemplation.

“I was really meditative,” Horowitz said. “I was grounded with the earth. There was something about the way you took specific twists and turns while being cognizant of where you were going, in relation to your center.”

Right there, in the middle of the thing, he called a counselor and arranged to get help.

Labyrinths aren’t a part of Jewish tradition. Centuries ago, they were popular in Medieval European churches for personal meditation and prayer.

But a growing number of synagogues are using labyrinths as a way to reflect and ponder, especially during the High Holy Days, a 10-day period which begins tonight with Rosh Hashana. Also called the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days are a time for self-examination, forgiveness and renewal.

Moved by his experience on the labyrinth, Horowitz donated money to build a small meditation labyrinth and peace garden on the grounds of Congregation Beth El’s new home on Main Street in Voorhees. It was dedicated in memory of his father and his uncle, a longtime member of the congregation.

“There’s nothing not Jewish about a labyrinth,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz, the synagogue’s associate rabbi, who meets with Horowitz once a week.

“In fact, there’s something incredibly Jewish about them, this whole idea of wandering. We spent 40 years in the desert wandering. For the Jews, it was more important to wander and learn what you had to learn wandering than it was to get to the goal. That’s ultimately what the labyrinth is all about.”

Arnowitz already has used the winding path as a tool during spiritual counseling sessions, and has plans to use the route for services in the future.

At Congregation Tikkun v’Or in Ithaca, N.Y., a seven-circuit labyrinth is painted on a grassy field just for the High Holy Days.

Diana Levy, the synagogue’s co-president, said a rabbi suggested the idea as an external way to represent T’shuvah (or “return to God”). It’s especially well used after the morning Yom Kippur service, she said. There can be up to 20 people following the path.

“It’s not a Jewish tradition, but it just seemed to be something so much about the High Holidays — to be walking inward, to be turning inward, turning inward, and from that inwardness beginning to come back out,” Levy said. “It’s just really interesting and a lovely experience.”

A labyrinth is not a maze, Levy said. Walkers start on the path and keep moving forward to come back to the beginning.

That’s the intention of this period of introspection, said Abby Michaleski, a student rabbi who leads Temple Beth El, a synagogue in Hammonton.

“We’ve cycled back, spiraled back to the same place,” said Michaleski. “Hopefully, when we come back to the same place, we return at a higher spiritual level.”

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