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Of Sound Body and Spirit

Melding Dance and Jewish Prayers Puts These Women on a Path to Serenity

May 21, 1997|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dressed in T-shirts and running shoes, 30 women finish aerobics class and get ready for part two of an unusual fitness program, led by a personal trainer, a Torah scholar and a rabbi. Now that the women have exercised their bodies, they are about to give their souls a workout.

Using traditional Jewish prayers, modern dance movements and ancient Hebrew chant, they spend the next half-hour reciting the morning blessings, with movements that add emphasis to the words.

A pale-blue sky and the Sepulveda Pass are their view, the sanctuary of Stephen S. Wise Temple is the background for this part of the class.

"How fair are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel!" they pray. As they say the words they draw an imaginary tent around themselves. "As for me, through your abundant kindness I will enter your house; I will prostrate myself toward your holy sanctuary in awe of you."

They reach for the sky with open arms.

"I love your house and the dwelling place of your glory."

Hands cover hearts, heads bow.

The dance prayers continue, giving thanks for the physical senses, asking for a love of the Torah, the Jewish scriptures and teachings, as the women touch their eyes and ears, then place their fingers on pressure points that stimulate the brain.

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"The first time we did this together most of us were crying by the end," says Randi Rose, 47, a four-month member of the class taught as part of the Wise adult education program.

"The movements internalize the prayers. Being in a holy place with a whole group of people doing similar movements and meditations, I really feel a connection."

Most of the students are members of the synagogue; many drop their children off at the day school before class. They meet from 9:30 to noon on Tuesdays. The last hour is spent in teaching and discussion.

"Today we looked at prayer," Rose says. "One person said it's a gift and she doesn't have it. Others said it's a skill and we can work at it. We opened up and talked."

That has been the hope of the team that created the program. Tamar Frankiel, a professor of religion who has taught at UC Riverside, Claremont School of Theology and the University of Judaism, has a longtime interest in holistic spirituality that engages body, mind and spirit. Judy Greenfeld is a fitness trainer and choreographer as well as a cantor affiliated with the Wise Temple. Rabbi Toba August, a staff member at the synagogue, is known for her gifts in pastoral counseling. They designed a course that intertwined their talents.

"I always felt Judaism was a physically oriented religion," Frankiel says. "The mitzvahs are so much about using the body. Many physical acts are mitzvahs, accompanied by blessings. You pray as you put on your shoes in the morning, as you dress for the day.

"In Orthodox Judaism, children are taught to clap and move as they pray. In Jewish law there is not a problem with movement in private prayer."

This way of expression is not intended for synagogue services. "We aren't trying to create a new ritual that is for everyone, but to open people up to their whole self," Frankiel says. "Prayer calls on our deepest self. The inner dialogue between you and God is healing."

"People aren't used to this," says Greenfeld, who choreographs the prayers especially for non-dancers. "Not all the people in the class are accustomed to praying. A lot of them start the class for the exercise. The prayer movements are very simple, but with deep intent."

Drawing a tent, for example. "It reminds us we are always in God's presence. And it's good to simplify our lives and recognize that we're not in charge of everything."

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Body motion combined with prayer has a place in many religious traditions. Muslims prostrate themselves as they worship Allah. In Christianity, the monks, priests and nuns of the Dominican order emphasize bowing in their daily prayers. Frankiel and Greenfeld found that Hasidic Judaism as well as Kabala, a tradition based on a mystical interpretation of Scripture, emphasize the whole body in prayer.

The class has drawn attention. Starting in July, Frankiel and Greenfeld will teach a version of it at the Elder Hostel, a summer program for senior citizens at the University of Judaism. This month, the two women published a book that teaches their technique, "Minding the Temple of the Soul" (Jewish Lights). They will give how-to demonstrations at the Bodhi Tree bookstore June 4 and Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica on June 8.

One of their students, Roberta Schweitzer, 48, is a research nurse and a post-doctorate student at UCLA who specializes in quality of life for the terminally ill. Soon after she joined the class, Schweitzer applied for a grant to adapt the course for cancer and arthritis patients.

"I was almost overcome by the potential," she says of her introduction to mind-body prayer. "Movement and placement of the arms are key in physical therapy for patients with severe arthritis and breast cancer.

"More than that, the class gives an inner peace and a strength," she says. "These are tools for coping with chronic illness."

If the money comes through, Schweitzer's pilot group will learn the same Hebrew prayers and choreographed body movements she is learning now, but the class will be open to people of every religion. Her next project will be to adapt the idea to Christian tradition.

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