Midwest Meditation: ingathering in rural Iowa, published in issue 12 of The PresenTense Group

“Small-town Iowa is not the place one expects to find a blossoming Jewish community. However, Fairfield is different from most Iowa towns.”

This opening statement to an excellent article about Fairfield Jews who meditate reiterates what Oprah Winfrey kept saying during her visit to Fairfield, Iowa—Jews, Christians, Muslims, people from different religions, who also meditate (Transcendental Meditation) find no conflict with their beliefs; they’re not practicing another religion. And for those who do practice their religion, this article shows there’s no confusion between the two, rather an enrichment. TM, they say, makes one a “better Jew.”

I enjoyed reading Midwest Meditation, a well-written article by James Edward Johnson, published in the Around the World section of Fall 2010-Issue 12, by The PresenTense Group: Fostering Innovation. It’s available online. Here it is reproduced for your reading enjoyment.

Small-town Iowa is not the place one expects to find a blossoming Jewish community. However, Fairfield is different from most Iowa towns. Much of its population began moving there in the mid-1970s, when the Maharishi International University (now Maharishi University of Management, or MUM) was founded. MUM is the learning and communal meditation center for the Transcendental Meditation (TM) Movement, in which members use TM techniques to achieve a deeply tranquil level of consciousness and a state of restful alertness.

Brent Willett, the executive director of the Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce, explained that in the 30-plus years since the influx of TM practitioners, “Fairfield has become a melting pot of cultures and has developed a harmonious and dynamic model for community development.”

Among Fairfield’s population of 9,500, approximately 200 residents are Jewish, and nearly all of them are TM practitioners. When Jewish TM practitioners came to Fairfield, there was no established community, and the nearest synagogue was 25 miles away. Though they had not come for a Jewish community, they created one when they arrived. MUM was established on the former campus of Parsons College, where a Torah scroll was left behind by the college’s Hillel chapter. It was the first major asset of the Fairfield Jewish community.

Today, the community holds most Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Shalom, a building that functioned as a Baptist church before the Jewish community purchased it in 1984. The unassuming synagogue looks like a place of Jewish prayer in any small Midwestern town. The ritual items and decorative symbols show no indication that most congregants are TM practitioners. Yet before Kabbalat Shabbat services, most Jews join communal meditation at one of Fairfield’s two gigantic golden domes.

The larger community of committed TM practitioners in Fairfield is disproportionately Hindu, due to the Hindu background of TM’s founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Pictures of Hindu gods such as Rama and Ganesha appear in many places around Fairfield. Jewish TM practitioners explain with the regularity of a mantra that “TM is just a technique,” rather than a religious practice. “The important thing in the practice of TM is this experience of unbounded awareness. That reality is not a religious reality and has no connection with a specific religious tradition,” explained Rabbi Alan Green, who lives in Canada but has deep roots in Fairfield and is unofficially regarded by many as its rabbi. “Meditation was my chief inspiration for wanting to become a rabbi…I realized that this experience of unbounded awareness was the experience of God,” Green said.

“It’s like going to yoga class…it doesn’t mean that you are Hindu… You go on and go to shul afterwards,” said Kabuika Kamunga, a Jewish TM practitioner born in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. She converted to Judaism after working as an au pair for a Jewish family and developed an interest in meditation from a TM practitioner “who was so calm … amid the family brouhaha” at a Passover Seder. In 2008, she went to MUM to get an MBA and learn meditation.

Robert Rabinoff, a frum Jewish TM practitioner, explains why the transition between Judaism and TM is so clean. “If you try and mix the two, both will suffer. But they’re pretty easy to not mix.”

Kamunga and Rabinoff both express the idea that TM makes one a “better Jew.” Each believes that TM prepares them for the kavanah (spiritual intention) of prayer, giving them the mindfulness for Jewish observance. Rabinoff explained, “TM makes the connection, opens the lines of communication. Our tradition tells you what to say.”

Joel and Joy Hirshberg’s home resembles those of other Jews who are serious meditators. A mezuzah greets one at the door. However, the house is built according to the principles of Sthapatya Veda, the architectural form based on the Maharishi’s teachings about natural law. Its entrance faces east, the direction of the rising sun. It has a kalash (cupola) on its roof, connecting the house to the cosmos, and a traditional vastu fence (picket fence) to define the homestead. The house has a Brahmasthan, an unobstructed center lit by a skylight, which gives the house wholeness.

When the couple hosts potluck dinners at their home on Shabbat, however, the space transforms into a typically Conservative minyan for services. Congregants read from Siddur Sim Shalom and recite much of the service in Hebrew. On many Shabbatot, cantor Haim Menashehoff, who grew up in Tehran, leads the congregation in Persian Jewish melodies as well as melodies common to American synagogues.

Anyone hoping for a service infused with the style of a kirtan mantra (a Sanskrit call-and-response chanting form) would be sorely disappointed. Tradition is alive and well in this otherwise nontraditional Jewish community.

Link to article: http://presentense.org/magazine/midwest-meditation.

A clarification from my side

Although the author wrote a very clear accurate article on this topic, he does make an inaccurate assumption—that most of the meditating community are Hindu because of TM’s founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s background—but this is just not the case.

Maharishi was a great scientist of consciousness. He taught a systematic method of meditation, a scientific understanding of it, and the nature and development of consciousness to its full potential. Is the theory of Relativity Jewish because Einstein discovered it? Is gravity English because Sir Issac Newton discovered it? Is genetics Catholic because Gregor Mendel discovered it? Maharishi’s cultural and religious background are separate from what he taught. In fact, he always said that Transcendental Meditation would allow people from different backgrounds to better understand and appreciate their own religion. That’s certainly been the case here as people from different faiths attend the church or temple, and in this case, synagogue, of their choice.

Actually, there are very few Hindus in Fairfield. But there are students from many different countries and faiths, including many from India and Nepal. The campus is multinational, like a miniature United Nations. Also, there are more restaurants per capita than San Francisco. For example, there are 3 Indian restaurants around the town square, including several Asian ones, not necessarily run by meditators. They all have posters on the walls from their religious and cultural heritage. So it is easy to imagine how the author could have come to such a conclusion.

There are, however, hundreds of Vedic Pandits from India who also practice TM that have been invited to help create world peace by adding their numbers to the overall effort. But they live completely separate from everyone on their own campus in Maharishi Vedic City, a few miles north of Fairfield, and are never seen in town. Oprah did meet with them during her visit here. It’s the last segment of her show.

Click here to see Video segments of Oprah’s Next Chapter on OWN: Oprah Visits Fairfield, Iowa—“TM Town”—America’s Most Unusual Town.

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