Building a bridge

While contemplating the formation of a new educational center that would foster spiritual well being, cultural understanding and religious teaching, Heena Reiter was reminded, she says, of a song by the 17th century teacher Reb Nachman of Bratslov. "All the world is a narrow bridge," goes the rough translation, "the most important thing is not to be afraid." With that inspiration was born Gesher, a self-described resource for the Jewish and wider community of Charlottesville. In Hebrew, "gesher" means bridge.

Now entering its third year, Gesher is home not only to Jewish meditation classes and daylong retreats aimed at spiritual renewal, it also hosts a monthly interfaith pray-for-peace gathering the first Thursday evening of every month at its University Circle digs. Deliberative and thoughtful, Reiter, who is a music teacher, former psychiatric nurse, Jewish lay leader, onetime Buddhist and mother of three, embodies the heart of Gesher. This semester, Gesher’s faculty numbers seven.

From Reb Nachman’s sage insight, Reiter says, she has learned that "although a bridge can mean connecting one’s life to one’s spirit or community or to people of different faiths, ‘bridge’ has a more fundamental meaning: Life is precarious and the most important thing is not to be afraid and to trust." Reiter calls trust-building a continuous process of "being awake to the present moment" and the divine within it.

Reiter’s holistic outlook spurred her participation beginning in 1999 in a "Compassionate Listening" program in Israel. Aimed at giving full attention to the experiences and feelings of both Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians as they live with unimaginable conflict, the listening tour had a huge impact on Reiter. "I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears the tremendous suffering people are feeling," she says. "It’s a human problem as well as a political problem."

After her experiences in Israel, Reiter realized that even in the United States, "we can help people in the Middle East even if we can’t affect politics." She recommends learning about peace-building organizations; becoming informed about the conflict from diverse and multiple sources; for Jews, learning about and healing what has been a historically distressed Jewish spirit; and learning about one’s own biases.

This last bit is the toughest, Reiter says. "Looking seriously at what we carry around is not for the faint of heart," she says.

Reiter knows this firsthand. Listening to Palestinians and Israelis, some of whom she found to be "frightening" in their views, was hard. "It really hurt to open my mind," she recalls.

Reiter is optimistic, however, about the positive results that can come from such arduous self-reflection. "The advantage is once you suffer through it, " she says, "there is an incredible compassion that flows through your self for others."

If all this emphasis on mindfulness and moment-to-moment honesty sounds New Age, it is. And it isn’t. Reiter points out that the concept of singular oneness is central to Judaism, the world’s oldest monotheistic faith. Ancient Jewish teachings address the oneness of God’s name and all creation, and more modern Jewish intellectuals returned to the discussion in the 19th century. In the 1960s, she says, the practice of incorporating meditation into Jewish ritual came into vogue. In the past decade, it’s been "taking off."

Gesher is one of four similar teaching centers across the country, further evidence of the developing trend.

The purpose, says Reiter, is "to bring the inner life into more direct contact with everyday life."