In February of 2017, as Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell and his nine-year old son lent their voices to a rally protesting U.S.-imposed travel bans at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, they began interacting with a Muslim father and his seven-year old daughter, who were there for the same reasons.
As both children sat on their fathers’ shoulders holding signs that urged peace and love, a photojournalist took a picture of the four. Within minutes, it spread across social media as a gripping moment of tolerance, empathy and common purpose in uncertain times.
“From our perspective as Jews, this is personal,” Rabbi Bendat-Appell said. “Our tradition teaches us that we have the opportunity and responsibility to really learn from our own experiences of pain so we are empowered to respond to others. We see that as a moral obligation.”
Speak with Rabbi Bendat-Appell for any length of time, and themes of social awareness, connectedness and empathy repeatedly emerge. Indeed, they are central elements of his work devoted to Jewish spiritual practice as a Program Director and faculty member at The Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York, and Co-Founder at the Center for Jewish Mindfulness in Chicago (now part of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning).
Jewish spiritual practice relies on disciplined and ongoing dedication to particular contemplative forms – mindfulness meditation, embodied practices such as yoga, and tikkun middot, for example – that align states of heart, mind and awareness within a Jewish context.
In 2014, Rabbi Bendat-Appell received The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize recognizing his promise and impact as an emerging young Jewish educator.
By his own admission, he couldn’t have predicted this career trajectory while studying Biological Conservation at the University of Wisconsin, Madison – a major that would lead to a stint in the United States Forest Service right after graduation.
But combined with an intense self-search for purpose and meaning that began in high school in suburban Chicago and a journey that took him throughout and beyond college to the deepest levels of Zen Buddhism, his trajectory seems pretty linear in retrospect.
It was a month-long stay at the Yokoji Zen Mountain Center in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California and a subsequent three-week trek through the Mt. Everest region of Nepal that truly cemented his embrace of his Judaic roots and his calling as rabbi.
“I developed a greater intimacy with God not as an idea, but as a lived experience, and that was immensely significant and life-changing for me,” Rabbi Bendat-Appell said. “I love learning and teaching and community and life cycles … it made complete sense. These are the things that come naturally to me.”
Rabbi Bendat-Appell received his ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2008, and went on to serve for three years as full-time rabbi at Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living, a 200-member non-denominational community in Highland Park, IL.
At Orot, he helped establish one of the country’s first addresses for the study of Jewish mindfulness practice. Orot offers the community new pathways to Jewish learning by integrating Jewish wisdom and text with meditation, yoga, music, art and writing, among other expressive forms.
Having merged Orot with the Center for Jewish Mindfulness, Rabbi Bendat-Appell serves as teacher and guide, bringing meditation and text study to synagogues across the region.
Concurrently, at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York, he teaches Jewish mindfulness practice to educators and rabbis through retreats, conferences and webinars. He is now piloting a program to bring the practice to Jewish day schools and summer camps as well.
“I pinch myself nearly daily, feeling blessed to be doing the work that I do–bringing this approach to Jewish learning and thereby enhancing the Jewish community,” he said. “Every day, I see how Jewish mindfulness practice can truly open people’s hearts and transform their lives.”
Colleagues agree that Rabbi Bendat-Appell is an influential voice in Jewish engagement and education, positioned as such by the sheer force of his own journey, his personality, his genuineness and his natural abilities as a teacher.
“As a people, we are in a creative flux, a moment of transition, and looking for the spaces where Jews can go to find connection to the Divine and to community that are not necessarily the established places,” said Jane Shapiro, Co-Founder of Orot and a 2017 Covenant Award recipient. “Jordan is helping people give themselves the permission and tools to do that.”
On the broadest of levels, Rabbi Bendat-Appell said, receiving The Pomegranate Prize infused the sphere of Jewish mindfulness practice with renewed recognition within Jewish observance and education.
“The Award means a great deal to me because it gives kavod to this work,” he said. “Through the cohort of other Pomegranate recipients and the leaders in Jewish education that I have met within the Covenant family, the Award has allowed me to bring my work into the mainstream of the Jewish world, aligned as it is with the core values and traditions of Judaism.”
With assets attached to the Pomegranate Prize, Rabbi Bendat-Appell hired a writing coach to assist him through the creative process and is now in the early stages of writing a book on the practice of Jewish mindfulness. He has also used funds to expand his personal library.
Referring to the moment captured on camera at O’Hare, Rabbi Bendat-Appell said a friendship has flourished between his family and the Muslim family that he met that day. They have been to each other’s homes for holiday meals and hope to leverage their connection to create positive channels between their two communities.
“I feel very strongly that my work, practice, and teaching isn’t worth much unless it opens me to the world and my sense of responsibility to the other,” he said. “Working on oneself and working on the needs of the world need to be aligned. And I try to transmit this to my students. We don’t meditate to become great meditators, but to transform ourselves so we can walk down the street and relate. That is our goal.”
by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation