ingathering in rural Iowa
Small-town Iowa is not the place one expects to find a blossoming Jewish community. However, Fairfield is different from most Iowa towns. Much of its population began moving there in the mid-1970s, when the Maharishi International University (now Maharishi University of Management, or MUM) was founded. MUM is the learning and communal meditation center for the Transcendental Meditation (TM) Movement, in which members use TM techniques to achieve a deeply tranquil level of consciousness and a state of restful alertness.
Brent Willett, the executive director of the Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce, explained that in the 30-plus years since the influx of TM practitioners, “Fairfield has become a melting pot of cultures and has developed a harmonious and dynamic model for community development.”
Among Fairfield’s population of 9,500, approximately 200 residents are Jewish, and nearly all of them are TM practitioners. When Jewish TM practitioners came to Fairfield, there was no established community, and the nearest synagogue was 25 miles away. Though they had not come for a Jewish community, they created one when they arrived. MUM was established on the former campus of Parsons College, where a Torah scroll was left behind by the college’s Hillel chapter. It was the first major asset of the Fairfield Jewish community.
Today, the community holds most Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Shalom, a building that functioned as a Baptist church before the Jewish community purchased it in 1984. The unassuming synagogue looks like a place of Jewish prayer in any small Midwestern town. The ritual items and decorative symbols show no indication that most congregants are TM practitioners. Yet before Kabbalat Shabbat services, most Jews join communal meditation at one of Fairfield’s two gigantic golden domes.
The larger community of committed TM practitioners in Fairfield is disproportionately Hindu, due to the Hindu background of TM’s founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Pictures of Hindu gods such as Rama and Ganesha appear in many places around Fairfield. Jewish TM practitioners explain with the regularity of a mantra that “TM is just a technique,” rather than a religious practice. “The important thing in the practice of TM is this experience of unbounded awareness. That reality is not a religious reality and has no connection with a specific religious tradition,” explained Rabbi Alan Green, who lives in Canada but has deep roots in Fairfield and is unofficially regarded by many as its rabbi. “Meditation was my chief inspiration for wanting to become a rabbi…I realized that this experience of unbounded awareness was the experience of God,” Green said.
“It’s like going to yoga class…it doesn’t mean that you are Hindu… You go on and go to shul afterwards,” said Kabuika Kamunga, a Jewish TM practitioner born in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. She converted to Judaism after working as an au pair for a Jewish family and developed an interest in meditation from a TM practitioner “who was so calm … amid the family brouhaha” at a Passover Seder. In 2008, she went to MUM to get an MBA and learn meditation.
Robert Rabinoff, a frum Jewish TM practitioner, explains why the transition between Judaism and TM is so clean. “If you try and mix the two, both will suffer. But they’re pretty easy to not mix.”
Kamunga and Rabinoff both express the idea that TM makes one a “better Jew.” Each believes that TM prepares them for the kavanah (spiritual intention) of prayer, giving them the mindfulness for Jewish observance. Rabinoff explained, “TM makes the connection, opens the lines of communication. Our tradition tells you what to say.”
Joel and Joy Hirshberg’s home resembles those of other Jews who are serious meditators. A mezuzah greets one at the door. However, the house is built according to the principles of Sthapatya Veda, the architectural form based on the Maharishi’s teachings about natural law. Its entrance faces east, the direction of the rising sun. It has a kalash (cupola) on its roof, connecting the house to the cosmos, and a traditional vastu fence (picket fence) to define the homestead. The house has a Brahmasthan, an unobstructed center lit by a skylight, which gives the house wholeness.
When the couple hosts potluck dinners at their home on Shabbat, however, the space transforms into a typically Conservative minyan for services. Congregants read from Siddur Sim Shalom and recite much of the service in Hebrew. On many Shabbatot, cantor Haim Menashehoff, who grew up in Tehran, leads the congregation in Persian Jewish melodies as well as melodies common to American synagogues.
Anyone hoping for a service infused with the style of a kirtan mantra (a Sanskrit call-and-response chanting form) would be sorely disappointed. Tradition is alive and well in this otherwise nontraditional Jewish community.