The Jewish Fall holidays are over, and I’m celebrating Spring! I just posted a slide show of some of my favorite original Spring photos that you can watch in the Gateway of Seasons. I made it to share in an online program to launch “Love at the Center,” a new initiative by Rabbi Shefa Gold, who is a wonderful teacher and pioneer of the contemporary spiritual practice of Chant, You can learn more about bringing love into the center of your spiritual practice, and subscribe here to receive a weekly email with a chant from the Biblical Song of Songs, the love poetry of the Bible. In the Song of Songs, springtime in the Holy Land is the setting for a love story that can apply to our search for love: human love, love of the soul, love of the Divine. In my husband’s Sephardic tradition, the entire book is chanted weekly before the Sabbath Eve prayers.
Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, means so much to me on many levels. For centuries people have read this sacred book in different ways: as sensuous love poetry, religious allegory, or mystical secrets. The great Rabbi Akiba taught centuries ago that this seemingly secular book is really the Holy of Holies. My own deepest spiritual experiences have taught me that while most of us look for love as individuals, and all religions and cultures search for the Divine Thou – – we are often searching outside ourselves for something deep inside us, as close as our breath, pulse, and heart.
The Divine Beloved, the ultimate lover whose face we all seek, is as close as our heart, in our own face and in the face of everyone and every creature we meet. My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi inspired my explorations of this Song. He composed beautiful musicfor some of its verses, and often repeated a Hassidic teaching from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav on Song of Songs 5:2: Kol Dodi Dofek—”the voice of my Beloved is knocking,,” In Hebrew dofek is pulse and God is as close as our pulse.
For centuries theologians exalted the soul over the body. But for me, the greatest love story is the love of body for soul and soul for body. And on the cosmic scale, it is the love of the Transcendent for the Immanent, bringing Heaven and Earth together.
The spiritual lessons of Songs of Songs are also found in the living sanctuary of the earth, where Nature herself is the other beloved of the Song. Please enjoy the photo show, and then I hope you can get out and enjoy some nature in any season!
Here is my sermon for the Eve of Rosh Hashanah this year, 5781 / 2020. I hope it might be of help or inspiration to some of my Wellsprings of Wisdom readers:
How Jewish Tradition Can Make Us More Resilient , by Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, Ph.D.
There is a song of the Days of Awe that concludes: “Let the old year and its curses end; let the new year and its blessings begin!” Certainly this year, those words resonate for many.
As I have called and spoken with many of our members over recent months, I learned that some suffered and recovered from COVID, while others sadly lost loved ones. Others have stayed physically well but dealt with anxiety or depression. Some members have lost jobs or economic security. Others are worried about their kids, their young adult children or elders they can’t even visit in person. There is a sense of collective grief over all that has been and may be lost, as well as anxiety over the fissures in our society.
We know that there is no quick solution to the current crisis. Indeed, there is no way out but through, and we don’t even know how long that will take or what the long lasting effects of the pandemic will be. However, we do know that there is one thing we can work on to help see us emerge better in the long run, and that is the inner quality known as resilience.
Psychologists define resilience as the process of “adapting well in the face of adversity and trauma.” It is not just about survival; it’s about growth. To paraphrase my own rabbi, Reb Zalman, this is about turning the current emergency into an emergence of something greater in ourselves. Or in the words of Sheri Mandel, whose son was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel: “Resilience is about becoming, not overcoming.”
Resilience can help us to grow from every experience, even the difficult ones. Over the past year, I have participated in a memoir writing group, composed of baby boomers like myself. Members of the group have shared stories about sexism, divorce, PTSD, and national traumas like the Vietnam War or 9-11. What emerges again and again is that we have all grown from our difficulties and without our difficulties we would not be the people we are today.
You might not be writing a memoir, but Rosh Hashanah is about writing in the Book of Life. It is a time to remember the past and envision the future. On Rosh Hashanah, we can write a story of resilience, or growth emerging from adversity.
And Jewish tradition can help us do it.
When we think about it, Jewish history and Judaism are all about resilience on a national scale. As a people, we have been through many traumas: exile, persecution, and even genocide. But we have consistently emerged stronger, continuing to inspire the world as a “light to the nations.” It’s much more than the old joke that Jewish holidays are all about, “They tried to kill us; we won, so let’s eat.”
If you look back at Jewish history, every period of struggle was followed by a flowering of creative energy and new beginnings. The destruction of the second temple was followed by the flourishing of rabbinic Judaism. The expulsion from Spain led to the the dissemination of Kabbalah. Even the greatest tragedy of all, the Holocaust, was answered not by despair, but by rebirth with the new State of Israel and by a renaissance of Jewish culture and community in the diaspora.
What is it in Jewish tradition that makes us resilient? And how can that help us now? According to psychologist Dr. John Grych, the recipe for resilience has three primary components: self-regulation, interpersonal relationships, and meaning making. In general, people are most resilient when they can manage their own emotions and actions, find a web of social support, and make meaning from their difficult experiences. It is striking that all three of these elements are present in abundance in Judaism.
First, the Jewish way of life gets us to practice self-regulation. Judaism is a religion based on personal practice. In the Orthodox community, even young children learn impulse control when it comes to observing mitzvot like Shabbat and kashrut. But even if you don’t abide by all of those traditions, Judaism has many other ways of helping us manage our emotions and impulses. Our rituals unite body, emotions, mind, and spirit, helping us to integrate our whole selves. Our holidays evoke different emotional states: from the Awe of these High Holy days to the hilarity of Purim, and Shabbat gives us time to pause and reflect, even in the midst of chaos. Another Jewish practice is Mussar; the cultivation of inner qualities such as patience, humility, or gratitude. Once observed primarily in the Orthodox world, Mussar is now popular among Reform and liberal Jews as well, with many programs available online or in person. Together, Jewish practices help us to to manage our own emotions and build our own character.
Second there is social support. This may be Judaism’s strongest contributor to resilience. Judaism is truly a religion of community. We can only pray all of our prayers with a minyan, a quorum of ten. We gather in community for every lifecycle event. Social support is particularly strong when someone suffers a loss, and friends and family surround them with love, food, and prayer. Our traditions of tzedakah and deeds of kindness lend support to the vulnerable among us. Even on these Days of Awe, we say our confessions not in the singular, but in the plural, taking responsibility for the acts of the community. In these days of COVID, we are largely unable to gather in person. BUT at the same time, I’ve seen how we continue to support one another. I’ve watched our members checking on others, shopping for others, cooking for others, sewing PPE for others, and much more.
Finally, there is meaning making. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we will study some of the teachings of Dr. Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived the Holocaust and created the school of Logotherapy, based on the idea that the human search for meaning is our prime motivator in life. Meaning making involves the ways that we frame and reframe our experience, often evoking our spirituality. And here again, Judaism is strong. Our sacred texts, our rituals, our holidays, even our arguments are centered around creating meaning, even or especially in difficult experiences.
Of course, the meaning making that emerges this pandemic will be different for each person. For some, it has been a time to clarify our values and realize the importance of family and community. Others have been energized to work for social justice. Each week as we gather for our Kabbalat Shabbat and Torah Study, I ask questions that get people to think and talk about how our ancient texts relate to the meaning that we need right now.
We are all going through a difficult time, though each is affected in different ways. It makes sense to lower our goals and be happy just to get through this time. But we can also keep in mind that we may actually come out stronger, that our society, while damaged, may also be able to build back better. Judaism can contribute to our resilience by helping us manage our emotions, find community, and make meaning. Over this holiday season and the year ahead, I invite you to avail yourself of what our community and our tradition have to offer in all these areas.
May we be blessed to emerge from this time stronger than before, knowing our values and working to support them.
Shalom, everyone! I haven’t posted since Passover. . . has anything happened?
Seriously, over the past few months, as we have all–the whole human world–been dealing with the many challenges of the COVID Pandemic, Wellsprings of Wisdom has been going through a full redesign and re-imagining. Thank you to our designer and web-mayven Shaughn Barholle. I hope that you enjoy the beautiful new lookof the site.
Each Gateway (i.e. themed page such as “Light” or “Trees”) now has a scroll-through catalog of posts at the bottom of the page. The posts still link to the next one if you want to go in the order that I planned for that theme. Or you can just pick and choose what interests you!
Swallowtail Butterfly, Julie Danan
I started Wellsprings of Wisdom as a virtual retreat center, an alternative to the noisy and sometimes negative content on the internet. Here you can explore the wisdom of nature and the nature of ancient Jewish wisdom. At first, I used a lot of photos from other people. Over the past few years I have taken up nature photography as a passionate hobby. I went from a cell phone camera to a simple fixed-lens camera, to my first mirrorless camera with three lenses, and most recently have gotten a 100-400mm lens for wildlife and bird photography. So more and more of the photography on the sight is now my own, including the home page (For other people’s photos, I always credit the sources in the posts and use with proper permissions). One of my goals is to create inspirational materials with my nature photography and to offer them through this site.
Also over the past few years, I have pretty much stayed quietly in the background of this site, as “your guide.” Going forward, that role will remain, but I will also be adding more of my own ideas and more about me as a rabbi and teacher. That’s because until now my primary job for three decades has been congregational leader (20 of those years as an ordained rabbi), and this was my personal creative, “fun” project on the side.
However, I found out this spring that, due to the recession and economic changes, my current pulpit in Westchester, New York, will continue only until Summer 2021. God willing, at that point I hope to embark on a new phase as an independent rabbi, writer, teacher, and photographer. So over this coming year, God willing, I hope to put in more about me and what i have to offer the world from my own Wellsprings of creativity: including teaching, life-cycle leading, writings, and inspirational materials made with my photos. Behind the scenes, I have also been working on self-publishing my late mother’s spiritual memoir and writing my own spiritual memoir (which of course, involves a lot about Nature).
So as we enter the New Year, I’m still busy as a congregational rabbi leading lots of services–albeit mostly on Zoom–but I will also be adding to this site. Contact me if you have ideas such as materials you would like from Wellsprings, or online courses you would like to see. I appreciate your support of Wellsprings of Wisdom over the Years, and hope to keep teaching and connecting, on line, and hopefully soon in person again.
Featured Image: Swan Lake with a crown of wildflowers, Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Summer, 2020, Julie Danan
Visit the HOME PAGEto check out the new experience!
P.S. If you are reading this page in the “What’s New” Column and want to comment, click here(or click on the title) and it will take you to this individual post where you can do so.
I’m posting this a few days before Passover, in the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Let me take this moment
to send blessings of health and safety to each and every one of you! As a rabbi, I’ve been busy getting my synagogue online and supporting my community, but I wanted to share some resources with all my Wellsprings readers, too! Here
are some Wellsprings of Wisdom Posts that may be helpful right now:
Some calming guided meditations:
AND also a more involved but every effectve:
Calming Ocean Breath
And here is a recent post from my @Wellsprings account on Instagram,
describing two more breathing meditations that are proving very helpful to me: Simple and Spiritual Breathing Meditations
Finally, as you celebrate Passover, enjoy these Wellsprings of Wisdom posts with Inspiration from Nature for
As you can see, this entire site has a brand new look, thanks to talented web designer Sean Leber-Fennessy. (Still working on a few of the technicalities but really excited about it!)
I hope that this virtual retreat center will be an oasis of calm away from the news and social media, and God willing I hope to add to it for your benefit. Be well and may this Passover bring hope and redemption to our world!
Featured Image: Daffodil Hill at the New York Botanical Garden, Julie Danan
Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees, is always a happy time for tree-loving @wellsprings! Tu Bishvat this year begins Sunday evening, Februrary 9, into Monday, February 10, 2020. I’ve redone the post on Tu Bishvat and you can find it here, with lots of (mostly) free resources linked at the bottom of the post. And as always, you can learn more about trees–physical and spiritual–in the Gateway of Trees. I have recently added a mystical meditation on the Tree of Life energy centers in our bodies, and also updated the pathway post on the mitzvah of planting trees, to include a link to a great new initiative for Senegal.
In honor of Rosh Hodesh Shevat, the Hebrew month in which we will celebrate the “New Year of the Tree,” I have added a special meditation based on the way that I learned it from my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman), of blessed memory. The meditation takes us through the Sephirot, or divine energy centers, in the “tree of life” within our own bodies. An accompanying chart was generously shared by my colleague and friend, Rabbi David Zaslow.
Wellsprings of Wisdom’s last update was at the Jewish New Year. Now on January 1, 2020, I’ve added a new post to the growing Gateway of Holy Land. This Gateway is really taking shape and will soon be complete! It shows how my thinking and involvement in nature spirituality have evolved in the past couple of years. Take a look at the new post on the sacred art of sauntering in Nature, also known as Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing.
The King/Queen is in the Field: Let Nature Guide You Into the New Year
Join Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, Ph.D., for a free webinar, Thursday, September 12, 7:30-8:45pm Eastern Time (US),. We will explore Hassidic and mystical teachings that connect us to nature and help us prepare our hearts for the Jewish New Year. This class is open to all spiritual seekers and will be recorded for those who can’t attend in person or who wish to watch again later (also we may schedule another session for those who live in divergent time zones).
If you would like information on signing up, please contact Wellsprings via the contact us link.
It’s been a while since I’ve added new content to this website, but happy to say that summer vacation has allowed me some time to continue working on the new and developing Gateway of Holy Land. Each new Gateway (content page focused on one symbol from nature) is a kind of spiritual adventure, as I’m not sure quite where the paths will lead me! The newest pathway (post) in this Gateway builds on the tradition that King Solomon could talk to the animals and plants. One of Wellspring’s Facebook readers asked for more on that subject, which resulted in this new poston talking and (more importantly) listening to our fellow creatures.
I’m very excited to be taking an online (live) course on the Zohar from Professor Daniel Matt, who translated this epic classic of Jewish mysticism into English. Its mystical meditations on the inner levels on the Bible often identify the Shechinah, the feminine divine presence, with the moon. That motivated me to update a post on the celebration of Rosh Hodesh, the new moon. I changed to a new featured image, a moon photo that I took myself. I also added a button link that takes to you At the Well, a new organization that uses Rosh Hodesh as a venue for women to connect with their spirituality and health. Explore the imagery and symbolism of the moon in depth, in Wellspring’s Gateway of the Moon.
Spring is here and new growth is everywhere! Spring comes a little slowly (but steadily) in the US Northeast. And so it is with the new Gateway of Holy Land here at Wellsprings of Wisdom. I’ve opened the Gateway and it has two posts, a Gallery of the Seain Israel (also posted on the Gateway of the Sea), and a meditation on Natural sanctuary, which is a version of the post I recently shared on this page, from my rabbinic blog). The header for the whole Gateway of Holy Land is a photo that I took last fall at Brandeis-Bardin, an educational and retreat center that was originally built to create the atmosphere of an Israeli Kibbutz in southern California.
Keep checking back; I’ll be adding introductory content and more posts soon.
Winter Sunset, Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Julie Danan
Shalom! Like the dormancy of winter, this site has been quiet for a while. The quiet of the site is the mirror opposite of my busy life: leading a small congregation, teaching two classes for the ALEPH Rabbinic Program, traveling (to Israel, Colorado, and Florida in the past 3 months) and being involved with my family. It’s all wonderful and gratifying, but hasn’t left any time to work on this website (or on the book that I am slowly building from the site). However, with the awakening of spring, I have recently begun a new Gateway that I hope to launch soon, on the theme of “Holy Land,” to be accessed through the Portal of Earth. You can get a sneak peak at the type of content I plan to share there but checking out this post on my Rabbi’s Blog, “Finding a Sanctuary in Nature.”
Meanwhile, please keep in touch by following me @Wellsprings on Instagram, where I post daily original nature photography, often with accompanying spiritual reflections. Much of this content, along with other environmentally oriented posts, can also be found on the Wellsprings of Wisdom Facebookpage.
And please continue to enjoy exploring the 14 Gateways (content pages) already on this site. Each Gateway explores an ancient symbol from Nature as a path to personal growth and action. In addition, three Resource Guides will help you continue your explorations of Jewish spirituality in nature.
In December, my husband and I (and two of our grown children) visited Israel for the first time in nearly a decade. I’ll continue reflecting on this journey and our experiences in my Rabbi’s Blog. Please check it out if you would like to learn more. Meannwhile, I’ve added a Gallery of Seashore in Israel to the Gateway of the Sea. In Israel, I exchanged wintry walks at the woods of the Hudson Valley for sunny walks on the shores of the Mediterranean. The sea enraptured me with it’s light, color, and warmth. The rhythm of the waves and the sea air filled me with a sense of peace/Shalom and well-being. I hope that my photos will share those feelings with you.
Shalom! Just checking in to let you know that this site is active, even if it’s not like a blog with continual updates. I haven’t added a new Gateway (themed content page) to Wellsprings of Wisdom this fall, but I’m continuing to add some new posts to current Gateways, update existing posts,and add to the resource guide. I also post daily content (my own nature photos and some inspirational messages) on Instagram @wellsprings. I hope to continue to add content to Wellsprings of Wisdom over time, but I’m turning much of my creative attention–when not working at my job as a rabbi or teaching classes or being busy as a mom and grandma!–to writing a nature-centered spiritual memoir on the same themes as Wellsprings of Wisdom.
I recently attended a workshop by the Jewish Book Council and that gave me a lot of encouragement. I wrote one book years ago, then went off to graduate school and rabbinical school and wrote a dissertation. Since then, the publishing world has changed so it’s good to get a refresher! Thanks for your patience, and I hope you enjoy the existing content. Feel free to write to me through the website if you have any questions. Your comments on any posts and your posts in the Sharing Circles in each Gateway are much appreciated, and I’m looking into different ways to get together by offering classes online. Let me know if that interests you.
Happy Thanksgiving! This is a wonderful time to cultivate gratitude. One thing I’m grateful for, since moving the Hudson Valley from California (and Texas before), is the amazing fall foliage in this part of the country. In honor of the season, I’ve added a new Autumn Galleryto the Gateway of Seasons. I hope you enjoy it.
I know that I’ve being growing as a photographer since my “Seasonal Scenes” gallery, and it’s developed into a real hobby. I also purchased an second hand camera (to upgrade from phone photos alone) and took a photography class.
I try to use my photography for mitzvot (good deeds), for example my current fundraiserof greeting cards and tote bags with my photos from Chico, California, all profits going to NorCal Wildfire Relief.
Thanks to a reader/fellow traveler who wrote to me with several suggestions for the Resource Guide, it continues to expand. I’ve recently added more programs for hiking, family retreats, organic farms and summer camps that focus on Jewish spirituality in nature. Locations span the United States, Canada Mexico, England, and Israel. I present these as a public service and listing does no imply endorsement, so please check them out for yourself!
It’s been a very hard couple of weeks. First, the tragic antisemitic killings at Tree of Life- Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh shocked and saddened the Jewish community and all of America. People of many faiths came together together in prayer and support around the country. Read my rabbi blog to read the messages that I shared with our community. For those who want to give tzedakah/charity to support the Pittsburgh Jewish community, you can do so here.
Then less than two weeks later, devastating wildfires ravaged parts of California, with the most destructive fire in California history decimating Paradise, California, the nearest town to our former home of Chico. Watching these tragic events from afar, I wanted to give back in some way.
To help the community in Northern California, I have started a Wellsprings Fundraiser for Fire Relief. I’ve made my nature photos from a recent trip to Chico into greeting cards and tote bags, that you can purchase here.
All profits benefit the Northern California Fire Relief Fund of the North Valley Community Foundation. Feel free to donate directly there, too! And please keep everyone in your prayers.
Just updated the pathway (post) about Rosh Hodesh, the women’s celebration of the New Moon. I realized that most of my suggested resources were rather “vintage,” from the heyday of women’s rediscovering this holiday in the 1970’s and 80’s. Now there’s a great new organization, At the Well, offering beautiful materials online to support women and others who want to form Well Circles and celebrate this ancient holy day to promote both spirituality and wellness.
I’m constantly delighted to find wonderful initiatives among the younger generation in Judaism, nature and the outdoors. Today I had a wonderful conversation with Julia Plevin, founder of the Forest Bathing Clubof San Francisco. (The “bathing” reference is to the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku, “Forest Bathing,” therapeutic immersion in nature.) Founding the popular club and getting involved in nature-based spirituality has been a catalyst to Jewish self-discovery for Julia, who has participated in San Francisco-based Wilderness Torah.
A website is kind of like a garden. I have to keep checking my posts and links for necessary updates. I have updated the pathway (post) on the Rainbow of Community, in the Gateway of Rainbows, to reflect changes in organizations that foster inclusiveness and diversity.