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  • Writer's pictureIOWA Project

Dror: Liberation in Practice

Dror is a program and Mussar va’ad / study group for experienced practitioners and dedicated social justice activists. We recently sat down with Dror facilitators and co-creators, Dan Gelbtuch and Sara Wernick Schonwald to share more about this program with our IOWA community. We hope you enjoy!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Sam: Hi Dan and Sara, it’s great to be with you today! Can you introduce yourselves and tell us about your work?

DAN: I’m Dan Gelbtuch, he/him pronouns. I am the lead organizer with The Inside Out Wisdom and Action (IOWA) Project. I do a variety of things: I support our dismantling racism program, different organizing projects, grow our network, and I play a teaching and facilitation role alongside Sara as part of the Dror va’ad.

SARA: I’m Sara Wernick Schonwald. I use she/her pronouns. I’m a parent, spouse, racial justice consultant, coach, and craniosacral therapist. With IOWA, I’ve had the opportunity to co-convene this awesome Dror va’ad for a couple years and I’m starting to do a little more facilitation of other va’ad spaces.

SAM: Can you share with us, what is Dror?

DAN: The meaning of Dror is liberation. Rabbi David Jaffe thought of the name and it immediately resonated with me. Dror is a program for more advanced practitioners and includes folks in our network that have some experience with Mussar or spiritual practice, and folks that have a robust social justice practice, where doing social justice work is a pretty important component of their lives. We have hosted three iterations of Dror over the last three years.

Photos of Sara (left) and Dan (right). Both are outside and smiling at the camera in each photo.

SARA: I learned about IOWA in 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic. I saw anotification in my synagogue’s weekly newsletter for a session Rabbi Jaffe was offering on bitachon/trust. I was marinating in a lot of stillness at the very beginning of the pandemic in a way that felt necessary and also really uncomfortable. It was such a jarring pause from how busy I’d been. So going to that session really was powerful.

SARA: Then I joined Rabbi Jaffe’s va’ad after that, and then I joined one with Rabbi Laruen Tuchman, and I just craved going deeper. I remember, Dan, you contacted me after I had been kind of fangirling IOWA for a while, and said, what do you want to see? I remember I said I just want to learn more middot/soul traits! I’m just hungry for this!

SARA: There was another person named Rocky who also named a similar hunger. Rocky is an activist and scholar and I think an artist as well. Rocky, Dan, and I got together and said okay, let’s dream up some stuff. What if we were doing this alongside people who had some grounding in Mussar and, as Dan said, a very strong grounding in equity and justice? That’s, to me, how Dror was born.

SAM: Can you share more about the middot? What are we doing together? What does this look like?

DAN: It sort of started and mainly continues with some of the structure of what I’ve learned to call a Mussar va’ad. I’ve only really been in Mussar va’ads through IOWA, so I can’t say it’s the only way to do it, but I can name the elements that we carry into Dror.

DAN: There’s the element of a spiritual or contemplative opening, so somebody will lead a song or opening meditation. Then there is time to reflect on the middah or soul trait we’ve been studying such as simcha/joy or bitachon/trust or anavah and right sizeness. Folks are able to explore and share the ways that they’ve been engaging with this soul trait, maybe some of the practices that they’ve been trying out that are connected to the soul trait. That might be a practice like Cheshbon Hanefesh/soul accounting, which is akin to journaling. Or it might be a focus phrase, a couple of words that are connected to that soul trait, that could be from the Jewish traditional canon or, wisdom from others that are thinking on the topic. The session will conclude with something related to practice. We’re going to take that soul trait into our everyday life to try and grow in that way.

DAN: Story sharing has become a very core part of Dror.Folks will share a story about the way that that soul trait came up in their parenting, in their coalition-building, in their life in some form or fashion. That’s been a very instructive way to learn and to make these soul traits come alive.

SARA: And during our second Dror va’ad, we started the WhatsApp group. That’s been a pretty integral part of practice, where we share what’s coming up.

SAM: The most recent Dror va’ad has a slightly new structure, where we’re connecting the soul traits to the Jewish calendar and holidays that are coming up. I’m wondering if one of you can speak to that.

DAN: It was your brilliant idea, Sara, so you can start.

SARA: I think it came from something that Becky Havivi said in our previous year, asking “wait, why this, why now?” I know that Kohenet sharesdifferent soul traits for different months.I think it came from my own craving as well, to get to know our own cycle of time and calendar better. There’s such wisdom there.

SARA: We worked with emunah around Hanukkah and the length of deep winter. We worked with joy around both Tu B’Shvat and Purim.

DAN: Jewish holidays are oriented around practice, and our Mussar work is oriented around practice. I’ve noticed that they work together in really powerful ways. As Sara mentioned, we studied emunah when we engaged with Hanukkah. One of the ideas that underpinned that, we learned from Rabbi Jaffe, is this idea that you light the menorah publicly so that you are showing yourself light, so it is giving you a sense of hope, or a sense of faith in a dark time. That is part of the Hanukkah ritual. So then for those of us that lit the menorah last Hanukkah season, it was a way to both light the menorah, AND it was a way to deepen our Mussar practice.

Practice is stepping outside and taking an on-purpose deep breath.

DAN: In a similar way we looked at emunah as it related to the Jewish month of Shevat, which at least in Boston and the northeast and also in Minneapolis coincides with the winter, where things are dormant and not as vibrant. We asked, “how do you draw faith from things you can imagine?” This idea that you can imagine the sap is rising, so even when a tree looks dead and lifeless, you can imagine that inside of it, as we know from ecology, the sap is rising. Then we could just go outside and look at trees, as an element of practice.

DAN: In our study of simcha/joy, I got to reread a beautiful article that Sara wrote about a Hasidic practice, I think from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov called the Good Points practice, which I loved the first time around, and I actually have a small quote here I wanted to read. Is that okay, Sara?

SARA: Yes, thank you.

DAN: The context is that we always have a source sheet that we study in association with a middah. We really try to build these source sheets from some of the more traditional Jewish sources but also more modern sources, both Jewish and secular. So this particular one Sara wrote, which I love and come back to a lot.

Naming the joy in the face of despair
Noticing the good points when we’ve been conditioned to overlook them
Being with the truth of our own health, alongside the truth of our own pain
This is the wholeness that this practice demands
And this to me is revolutionary

I wanted to bring that in because I love that and it really nourishes my joy practice.

SARA: Thank you.

SAM: Thank you, Dan. That’s beautiful.

SARA: During the first Dror, when we noticed all the different sources we used around simcha, what really stood out to me is this idea that joy is already within us. It’s already bound up in our souls. It’s already bound up in the universe. We don’t have to go anywhere to find it. It’s already here.

SARA: Then the second year I went back, and that was my focus phrase: joy is already in us. I would come back to it, and it was such a great thing to think: I am remembering this.

SARA: That’s been a powerful piece of wisdom for me to hang onto around joy. Also, there’s a teaching that joy is necessary to get free. Dang! Our tradition teaches us that we are up to the work of liberation, we cannot do it without joy. And that there’s part of it in there that’s actually about, not only joy in a deep way but also that there needs to be a jovial sense in joy, like a lightness, a joking. Those are some things that have been in my heart around joy this time around.

DAN: Thanks, Sara. That made me think of something. One of the really beautiful parts of this experience for me has been the ever-increasing improvisational nature of whatever it is we’re doing. Just to speak personally, I’m pretty new to Mussar in general and newer to facilitating a Mussar va’ad. When I started, I felt a certain level of rigidity, like I had to get it right, it had to be by the book and the timing and the structure. One of the most beautiful things now, three rounds into Dror, is I feel much less attached to those structures, and like I’m able to be present as a spiritual seeker and as a spiritual person. That’s been really powerful and life-giving. It’s really interesting and I think this is true with Jewish practice or spiritual practice more generally: you have some form, you have some structure. But then you’re able to improvise within that form.

SAM: I love that. Thank you so much for sharing that. That makes me think of our flexibility/rigidity conversation around spiritual practice that was very central to our second va’ad.

SARA: It makes me think of that too, Sam. I think as Dan and I played with, what would it look like to open the space more, with Rocky’s urgings as well, what would it be like to loosen the structure and really see what comes, see what happens when we let in more space? In the second va’ad, we did have a conversation about practice, and there was this idea that we were either doing practice correctly or incorrectly. We really busted that open because those ‘shoulds’, they can be helpful, and they can get in the way. For some of us, we actually need those shoulds. And for others of us, for me in particular, those ‘shoulds’ and that rigidity, they loop me into some things that are not helpful for me, that I’m actually really trying to deconstruct and decolonize from my body. So, we had conversations around wait, what is practice?

SARA: Practice is stepping outside and taking an on-purpose deep breath. Practice is taking vitamins or supplements, OR any kind of medication if that’s something that helps you. So we had this conversation, asking, what are we doing for practice? I think it was pretty helpful to notice how wide our definition of practice can be, and how it didn’t have to be a focus phrase, Hitbodedut or Cheshbon Hanefesh. It could be that, and it could be so much more.

SARA: We talked about this balance between flexibility and rigidity. Not that there’s a one size fits all, but for us, what does that balance look like around spiritual practice in this moment? Knowing it can always shift, and it should, but being able to check in and have awareness and lean on these practices as we can, and even do them when we don’t want to sometimes if that’s what we feel like we really want to commit to, bigger picture with our highest self, and also not be in a group where there’s any kind of shame when we don’t do them. If we don’t practice, okay. Then maybe not practicing is the practice. Maybe learning to be present with that which is keeping us from the practice, maybe that’s it.

DAN: Thanks, Sara. I feel so grateful to that conversation because I think that really opened up something more broadly about practice at The IOWA Project. We always knew that practice was the center of our work. As we grow, as we deepen, as we offer different programs, we’re able to better understand what communities of practice are, and what supporting spiritual practice means – whether it’s the core Mussar practices, or as Sara said, taking a deep breath or whatever it is we do to nourish ourselves, to help center ourselves – we’re just learning so much and I feel like Dror has just been a learning laboratory.

DAN: We had another very rich conversation about practice, inspired by the work of Adrienne Maree Brown. I highly recommend the article she wrote about spiritual practice or practice in general in her own life. It inspired a lot of us in the Dror va’ad.

SARA: Last Dror va’ad, we had a motto of “together and on purpose.” If we’re going to choose anything to be rigid about, it’s that. We’re going to be together and it’s going to be on purpose. Doing this work together and on purpose is like a balm for the wound of individualism in white supremacy culture. We learn, we stretch, we grow, we practice, together and on purpose. How each of us does that is so different, but we come back to each other, and I think that really matters.

SAM: Building off that, Sara, what does spiritual practice in community mean to you?

SARA: Ah, so many things! For me, it means doing my work out loud, witnessing others be in their work out loud, and knowing that that is so deeply interconnected. I think that there’s a way that white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and white European Christian supremacy trick us into thinking that we need to have our stuff together, always, and that anything that gets done out loud should be pretty flawless all the time.

We can forget what it means to be messy together and to still get to belong. I think that’s what being in community around spiritual work means.

SAM: Thank you for that very honest and relatable answer. It’s very beautiful. Dan, what’s coming up for you around the same question? What does spiritual practice in community mean to you?

DAN: The community part has been really, really important, I think also because of some of the structures that Sara named – individualism, assimilation into whiteness – my spiritual life had become very individualized. I’ve grown in that way. I’m not saying there’s not a space for it, but mainly it consisted of me meditating by myself. I could be in total control of when I did it and how I did it. I think that’s a deep practice. I continue to meditate by myself. But it also very much fits the mold of our consumerist individualist culture: you get the app, you do the thing, you check the box. I intuited that there was something missing.

DAN: My earliest understanding of spiritual practice was very much in community. It was in my Jewish summer camp, Camp Yavneh where during Kabbalat Shabbat, the service to welcome in sabbath on Friday evening, there would be a lot of singing and then after the Friday night meal there’d be zemirot, singing, very much in community. Before I had this language, I wouldn’t have called it a spiritual practice, but probably that is what it was. It was communal. And then I really just lost that, as a young adult and as an adult. I was not part of spiritual communities, and Dror has been my way back into that, and it’s been very powerful and very nourishing, especially during the pandemic when I lost most forms of community, just being able to see people. Now I feel like I’ve rediscovered it, but I’m still sort of understanding its value and how it’s been nurturing to me and how it nurtures the other members of our community in the ways that Sara named.

SARA: Sam, as a member of Dror, do you have anything to add, too?

SAM: It feels like being in community is in and of itself almost a practice. It feels like what I need as I develop spiritual practice. I need accountability. I need to be with others in this process, and it’s something that I didn’t know I needed, for all the reasons you both are naming. It feels just so intrinsically connected to be doing this together in community and to be able to uncover: oh, watering my plants is a spiritual practice for me. That was something I didn’t quite realize until being part of Dror. It feels like we’re uncovering a lot of wonderfulness together.

SARA: I love that.

I feel like it helps us be more awake. - Sara

SAM: Yes!

SAM: Thank you both so much for sharing. I have so many resonances. Are there any final thoughts you want to share?

DAN: Just a lot of gratitude. A lot of gratitude toward you, Sara. A lot of gratitude towards Rocky, towards you, Sam, for being part of Dror and everyone else that’s been part of this community as we continue to learn together.

SARA: I echo that gratitude, Dan, for you, for Rocky, for IOWA as a whole, for letting us say hey, you know what? We have some different middot we want to play with; can you write us curriculum on…joy! faith! holy boldness!

DAN: I forgot about that!

SARA: We asked, can you just make some sessions please? And it happened. So thank you for that. And then to every single person who has participated in Dror for as long as they have. Each of the groups are different because it is a co-created space, and everybody’s presence really does matter there. The throughline is really “together and on purpose” with some pretty deep spiritual work together. Just a lot of gratitude for all of it.

DAN: Definite shoutout to Rabbi Jaffe and Rabbi Mimi Micner for creating the curriculum that Dror is based on, so lots of gratitude towards the two of them as well.

SAM: Thank you both so much.


Transcription services by Sarah Michelson


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