Students, faculty, and alumni participated in “Gateways through Piyutim: Devotional Prayer through Text Study, Music, Meditation, and Yoga,” a multi-dimensional Intensive at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion from June 9-12, 2014. The Intensive was led by Rabbi Myriam Klotz, Director of HUC-JIR/New York’s Spirituality Initiative, and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, Co-Director of the Jewish Meditation Teacher Training at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, accompanied by musician Dan Nadel, and assisted by Shuli Passow, teacher of Piyut Yoga. Fifteen individuals - students, faculty, and alumni - participated in the Intensive.
Piyutim - religious poems and prayers that are found both within and outside of Sephardic and Ashkenazic prayer books alike - contain some of the most devotional prayers of our tradition and invite contemplation of life in relationship to the universe, the self, and the divine. With the resurgence of interest in piyutim throughout Israel and North America, scholars and Jewish clergy are exploring this liturgical poetry through music, text study, yoga, and dance, and sharing these treasures of the Jewish tradition in synagogues and other Jewish settings.
Participants in the Intensive studied piyutim to explore new aspects of devotional prayer in their lives as well as to help others create prayerful expression. They explored piyutim as the composers may have – as diverse expressions of awakening to the divine – and learned new rhythms, melodies, and poems from a variety of Sephardic cultures from Iraq and Syria to Turkey and Morocco. Participants clapped, sang, studied, stretched, walked, prayed, talked, and sat in silent meditation in their efforts to absorb the piyutim.
Listen to four piyutim sung by Intensive participants:
In a unique approach to integrative learning, participants worked with each piyut from experiential and didactic angles. They discussed the possible meanings in the words, and learned their often-challenging Middle Eastern rhythms and melodies that expanded the musical sense of what is possible in worship.
After studying and then learning to sing these devotional prayers in the tradition of the paytanim (writers and singers of the piyutim), they took the piyut onto the yoga mat in the New York campus’ Minnie Petrie Synagogue. As Dan Nadel played the guitar and sang to create the soundscape of the piyut, Rabbi Myriam Klotz guided participants through a yoga session themed around the piyut studied. Participants chanted the piyut at various points throughout the yoga practice. As they stretched and flexed, breathed and moved, they did so saturating themselves with the mood and melodies of the piyutim at hand.
Yoga was followed by masterful mindfulness meditation teaching by Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, who drew out themes from the piyut of the day into teachings about being present in our bodies, paying attention to our experience in the moment, finding perspective in our busy world, and growing a heart with devotion for God and spiritual awareness.
Rabbi Roly Matalon, who helped found the Piyut Project, an international online and on the ground resource bank created to collect and disseminate piyutim from different cultures, served as a guest teacher during the Intensive. A Syrian Jew, Rabbi Matalon was passionately drawn to the experience of singing piyutim as a part of worship after he experienced them in Syrian and other Sephardic communities in Israel. Piyut North America has grown from its original vision and, thanks to their group of teachers who came together to learn piyutim and teach them in fresh ways, the faculty of the “Gateways through Piyutim” Intensive at HUC-JIR was created.
The Intensive provided a rich and full experience for all. Rabbi Klotz stated, “The Piyut Intensive absolutely confirmed for us that the approach of the Spirituality Initiative at HUC-JIR’s New York campus is on the right track. We are seeking to create conditions in which exploration and expression of the soul can be discovered, nurtured, and shared. I am humbled by the power of these ancient Jewish prayers and the lineage of Sephardi Jews who bring the melodies and sensitivities of the piyutim to light for us today. I look forward to seeing the fruits of this work unfold further in the communities served by the rabbis, cantors, and future clergy who participated in this Intensive.”
“It was very moving and inspiring to be part of this Intensive,” remarked Rabbi Weinberg. “Each person was clearly fully engaged in both mind and heart. There was a profound integration of music, intellectual and spiritual ideas, movement and stillness. Part of the program was an opportunity to integrate the experience through writing and the results were astoundingly beautiful and deep. I felt privileged to be part of the teaching team.”
“The Piyutim Intensive was a wonderfully integrative blend of Jewish spiritual practices,” explained Lisa Grant, Professor of Jewish Education at the New York campus, a participant in the Intensive. “It opened me up to a world of religious expression through multiple modalities of text study, sacred music, yoga, meditation - all in an intentional communal structure. The faculty was superb, and the guest speakers added a rich layer, exposing us to piyutim from many different Sephardic traditions. It felt like the entire week was an extended experience of prayer. I loved every minute of it!”
Recent New York campus rabbinical and education programs alumnus Rabbi Adam Scheldt stated, “This year’s Spirituality Intensive week of learning was truly amazing. Focusing on the deeply spiritual traditions of piyutim in academic, embodied, and meditative modes was beyond beneficial. Within minutes of the start of the programming, I found myself sitting at the nexus of professional development, educational resources I can bring back to my community, and my own spiritual renewal. And on top of it all, I had a blast! I cannot thank HUC-JIR enough for providing such a rich experiential opportunity, and equally I cannot wait to see such opportunities continue into the future!”
New York campus rabbinical student Lisa Vinikoor explained, "HUC-JIR's Piyutim Intensive was a terrific learning experience that afforded me the opportunity to learn centuries old piyutim and integrate this learning with meditation and yoga practice. The unique learning environment facilitated learning on multiple levels and through various modalities including music, movement, and rhythm. The faculty combined their expertise in an artful way to create a thought-provoking week of learning. I look forward to bringing these ancient melodies, texts and modalities of learning to the communities in which I work."