In 2010, Eric Kershner, 17, a member and recent confirmand of Congregation Kol Ami (CKA) in Flower Mound, Texas, wanted to do an Eagle Scout project for his synagogue. Reviewing a list of potential congregational projects, he became intrigued with the idea of building a labyrinth that could become a permanent part of CKA life.
He raised money by selling dedication bricks that would be included in the labyrinth's outer ring. Then he, his family, CKA members including the temple youth group, and Eric's Eagle Scout troop 256 began construction, laying bricks interspersed with sod. After six weeks of watering the newly planted lawn, CKA had a stable, mowable labyrinth.
On June 17, 2011 the labyrinth became an integral part of the congregation's alternative Shabbat meditation service. Fifteen people gathered for the outdoor service seated in an arc around the labyrinth perimeter. "We began with focused meditation on the Shabbat candles," Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis says, "focusing on the theme of the flame as a symbol of the soul. Then we had a period of silent meditation, after which I spoke about each of our lives as a sacred pilgrimage; rather than read the story of our 40-year wandering toward Israel as a historical account, we might think of it as an allegory for each person's journey through life toward a promised land of our imagination-our goals, desires, and hopes.
"Then I discussed the meaning of Jericho, the biblical city that stood between our people and their entry into the Promised Land. In the Book of Joshua, Sar Tzeva, the warrior angel, speaks to the Israelite leader Joshua, who then tells the people Israel to go forward-but first, they need to march in seven circuits, traveling in a circle around the city (5:13-15). On the seventh circuit they shout and blow horns, the walls fall, and only then can they go up 'every man, straight ahead' (6:5).
"Jericho stands for all the miksholim (meaning "stumbling blocks" or "obstacles")-the challenges we have to face if we are to go forward in life. The angel illustrates for us that the way past our obstacles is rarely 'straightforward.' Often we find ourselves going in circles, or having to make detours. As often as not, the best way to our goals is not the shortest way. So what does this have to do with our labyrinth?
"Medieval Jews who looked at the Jericho story imagined that Jericho was not just a walled city, but a seven-circuit labyrinth: that God had in fact asked the Israelites to walk the labyrinth to penetrate into the city and into the good land beyond it. Thus was born the 'Jericho Labyrinth,' a decorative motif found in medieval manuscripts of a seven-looped labyrinth, usually illustrated as a walled city, always labeled 'Jericho.'
"Thus our ancestors grasped in the story of Jericho the metaphor that life is full of reversals: that sometimes the way toward your goal may actually take you further away from it for a while, as a labyrinth does."
At the service Rabbi Dennis asked every participant to make a list of seven satanim (miksholim) in his/her life-either seven obstacles or seven negative character traits-and work with the list while walking the labyrinth. At each reversal in the path, he suggested, "pause, think about one satan (mikshol), and imagine what needs to happen to be able to continue on the journey. When you reach the center, see what insights into your life journey arise."
After the meditative walk, the service concluded with Kaddish and a niggun (wordless melody).
The congregation's appreciative response to the innovative service has inspired CKA to offer up to six meditation/labyrinth walking services a year.
"I did not hesitate to accept the guidance I knew the labyrinth could provide," says Violet Neff-Helms (better known as Tante Violet), a member of the congregation's Membership Support Committee and its kindergarten teacher. "I work two jobs, both dealing with eldercare issues. My personal life has its lion's share of emotional ups and downs, and a few physical difficulties I would rather not think about. I left my baggage at the entrance and took that proverbial step of faith.
"Once inside, my first realization was that this was a good symbol for most of our lives: going in circles.
"The first obstacle, an abrupt wall forcing a turn, caused me to stop short. Regaining my bearings, I continued forward. The next 'wall' was not such a challenge. I found I could concentrate less about anticipating difficulty and simply allow myself to think.
"I used the rhythm of the walk to consider where I was, and why. I found myself praying, being thankful for many things.
"When I stepped into the center of the labyrinth, I was surprised at how good it felt. It wasn't so much that I had reached a destination-after all, I was in the middle of bricks on a lawn-but that the structure and gentle guidance of the measured path had given me time to pace myself, to shut out the noise of expectation and absorb 'the moment.'
"I thought, too, about the very Jewish lesson of the labyrinth. One of God's names is 'I Am.' He is in the present, but too often we are not there with Him. Here in the labyrinth, I am."
Active CKA member Deborah Fripp says, "There is no place quite so calm as the center of a labyrinth. I find it the best place to meditate, perhaps because I have come there by a path, with some intention. When I sit in the center area of CKA's labyrinth, directly on the Earth, and feel the air, I find myself connected to the world. It's a remarkably calm, uplifting place I find difficult to leave.
"Walking the labyrinth is also a wonderful communal experience that's entirely unspoken…a touch on the shoulder, a hug, a moment of eye contact, an acknowledgement that the other people on the labyrinth path matter to you, and you to them. It's a very Jewish way of walking-both individually and collectively. You might be thinking about things that bother or depress you, and then someone reaches out to you and you remember: 'I am part of something bigger. I matter to and am connected to the people in my community.'"
To learn more about how to create a labyrinth for your congregational community, contact Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, 972.539.1938, email@example.com.