Shirat Hayam intern investigates where spiritual practice and mindfulness converge

Benjamin “Beni” Summers

By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT – Rabbi Michael Ragozin was thrilled when Benjamin “Beni” Summers indicated an interest in joining Congregation Shirat Hayam as its rabbinic intern from October 2021 until June 2022.

“This is an opportunity for CSH to be inspired by a rabbinical student, while providing greater service to our traditional minyan,” said Rabbi Ragozin.

Currently a Shanah Bet Rabbinical student at Hebrew College, Beni worked for the last eight years in the Jewish professional space. He is also about to begin an internship with SHEFA: Jewish Psychedelic Support. “My dream is to become a thought leader in the field of spiritual care for the emerging Jewish psychedelic movement,” he said.

Beni will lead the traditional Shabbat minyan (9 a.m.) and Nosh & Drash (10 a.m.) on Jan. 8, Feb. 12, March 12, April 7, and May 7.

Beni answered some questions to help introduce himself to the North Shore community.

What was your childhood like? What part did Judaism play in your family?

I was born in Salem and started my school journey at the JCCNS preschool. My mother, Leah Summers, worked at Cohen Hillel Academy for decades and we were deeply connected to the Jewish community of the area. We attended Temple Sinai when I was young. Some of my beloved ancestors were devout Chassids and members of the Yiddish intelligentsia of early 20th century Poland, and I grew up on stories of their wisdom, intellect and devotion to the Jewish people.

Can you tell us about your mindfulness training and how that fits into your life and your decision to become a rabbi?

The seeds of my relationship to the theory and practice of Jewish Mindfulness were first planted in 2015, when I was working at Temple Emunah in Lexington. Our rabbi mentioned at a staff meeting that he was working with a few congregants to start a new initiative within the community that would focus on offering contemplative experiences and programs centered around Torah and tefillah (prayer). Something deep within me welled up with intense excitement at the thought of investigating what Jewish spiritual practice and mindfulness might offer one another.

Turns out, it’s quite a lot! I spent the next several years building a routine meditation practice into my daily life, which eventually led me to attend several multi-day silent meditation retreats and to take advanced courses at Lesley University in their Mindfulness Studies master’s program to familiarize myself with the intricacies of neuroscience and predominant theories of Western mindfulness as sourced from Therevaden Buddhist roots. In 2018, I began hosting weekly meditation gatherings in my home in Somerville called “Sit & Sing,” where folks would gather together to sit in silence for 30 minutes followed by 30 minutes of singing niggunim, zemirot and other forms of devotional tunes.

In terms of how my practice interacted with my path to the rabbinate, I can say that the deliberation process was significantly aided by the spaciousness and quietude of the retreat setting. I also believe that as a society we would benefit from installing more methods for slowing down and practicing “radical amazement,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel coined it, into our daily lives. My hope is that as a spiritual leader, I can guide others in discovering how practices like mindfulness can be both personally healing and Jewishly enriching.

What do you plan to talk about in your monthly drashes (Torah discussions)?

I am thrilled to share my practice of contemplative and embodied Torah study with the community. Learning Torah is more than just an intellectual exercise. It can be a laboratory for spiritual experience and personal meaning-making that taps into realms of mind and heart beneath surface level. There is a teaching in the Talmud which beautifully refers to Torah learning for its own sake (Torah Li’shma) as a Sam Chayyim (A Drug Of Life), which can be likened to the other kinds of drugs out in the world which are sourced from nature, are medicinal, and help us to locate the Divine in our lives for the betterment of all.

This is just one of a growing number of ideas that I have been collecting from our tradition that will hopefully aid psychedelic journeyers, grousnding their experiences of expanded awareness back into the roots of their Jewish journey, which for me is crucial as we move into a new age of legal and regulated psychedelics being utilized for healing and for spiritual transformation in society at large.

Shabbat services at Congregation Shirat Hayam are both online and live. Visit shirathayam.org/spiritual/ for more information.

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