It sounds like the opening line for some sort of joke, but it actually happened… and I know because I was there. To be precise, we were walking through the bar of the Hotel Alexander in Tel Aviv where my new podcast interviewees, Davidji and Shelley Tygielski, had just wrapped up leading a two week meditation tour through Israel called ‘Mindfulness at the Intersection of Faith.’
After discovering Davidji’s popular tracks on the Insight Timer meditation app, and then stumbling upon Shelly’s instagram (@mindfulskatergirl) while following the ‘mindful’ tag, I was thrilled to discover that they were on their way to Israel, and I reached out to interview them for my podcast, ‘Within Us.’ The mission of the show is to provide transformational tools for mind, body, and spirit, and it was clear to me that these two had what to offer.
The episode has since been published, is featured as a ‘staff pick’ on the world’s largest free meditation app, Insight Timer. It has inspired listener feedback calling their tour a ‘dream trip.’ Other comments include those from self-identifying “Bu-Jews” loving the interview.It was not until a few weeks before their trip that I realized that this dynamic meditation teacher duo were both born Jewish.
Davidji, a New York native, grew up in a secular Jewish family, although as an older teen he was sent off to Israeli Yeshiva, and later he spent a significant amount of time living on Kibbutz Malkiya, on the Lebanese border, picking apples.
After 9-11, he experienced what he called a ‘holy moment,’ as a homeless man reached out from a box asked him a question that changed his life: “who are you?” It was at this point that Davidji embarked on his journey into meditation which has led him to become one of the foremost teachers in his field.
Shelly is the 19th generation Jerusalemite in a traditionally Orthodox family. After immigrating to the US in her early childhood, she attended public schools while her brothers were sent to Yeshivot. “That was what my parents were able to afford,” she recalls. She never felt ‘fully’ American and or even ‘fully Israeli.’ She also never ‘fully’ connected to her Orthodox upbringing, and although she ventured off to a post-high school seminary program for women, she recalls that she ‘didn’t fit in there either,’ because she ‘wanted to learn what the boys were learning.’
After seminary, Shelly returned to the States and pursued an advanced degree at Columbia University. Over the course of her studies, she observed the daily rituals of her Zen Buddhist colleagues practicing their morning meditations, knew that they were connecting with something transformative, and she wanted to know what.
She began learning about meditation, and wound up in classes with Sharon Salzburg, a self proclaimed ‘Bu-Jew,’ who was one of the early pioneers of meditation in the West. Since delving into meditation, Shelly has started her own movement, where she inspires thousands of people her community to become their own “Yuru,” and forgo the Guru.
I sat, mesmerized listening to these two tell their stories, feeling that although their pursuits may have seemingly led them away from the Jewish tradition, that their Jewish values of compassion, kindness, and connection were shining brightly and igniting so many others. I was the Orthodox Jew in the room, and in spite of our outward differences, it was so easy to connect with these two on so many levels.
Their trip was all about forging human connections across cultural, religious, and even political divides. They prayed at the Western wall and celebrated Shabbat, visited churches in Nazareth, and met with refugees in Gaza.
“We don’t have all the answers…. At least I certainly don’t,” Davidji offered. “But we wanted to place ourselves in an environment where we could give people the opportunity to experience the world through eyes of the ‘other,’ with greater empathy, and with greater compassion.”
Shelly shared her personal sense of shame that her family had “caused pain for an(Arab) family who had been pushed from their homes,” she recalled. “My mom’s (Jewish) family had also been pushed out of their homes in Iraq, and it was painful… and yet somehow the oppressed had become the oppressor.”
“We have an Israeli and a Palestinian guide on the trip, so we get to hear two narratives,” she explained. “While we’re going through this experience… our hearts crack open. And that point of vulnerability and real empathy, that’s the… starting point for any hope for there to ever be peace in this region…”
As we concluded our interview, I shared with Shelly and Davidji one of my own favorite paradigms for peace that appears in the Torah itself. Often when we look back on the Passover story, when the Israelites were liberated from Egyptian slavery, we see leaders like Moses and Aaron as the heroes. But, behind the scenes, there were two young women without whom the liberation would not have played out.
On one side, was Moses’ older sister, who persuaded her parents to remarry so that Moses one day might be born. She was also responsible for sending three month old baby Moses down the river so that he would not be taken away and killed by the Egyptian authorities. His fate would not, in the end, be to die at the hands of the Egyptian authorities at all. But most interestingly, he was rescued by the Egyptian princess herself – the ‘daughter of Pharaoh,’ who we refer to as ‘BatYa,’ (daughter of G-d), for her heroic act of courage.
Did young Miriam know that there would be welcoming arms on the other ‘side’? Whether she foresaw this blessed fate or not, we can all look back upon the story and realize that the lines between sides can be pierced by compassion and love.
Since returning the States and discovering the outbreak of Covid-19, Shelly has single handedly spearheaded a ‘Pandemic of Love’ (#pandemicoflove on Instagram) pairing thousands of people around the world with much needed supplies and financial support at this time of hardship.
Davidji is on Instagram offering free calming meditations daily. His voice and his message are beautiful, and while admittedly I don’t chant along when the Sanskrit begins (I like to know what I’m saying – especially in prayer and meditation), it is beautiful to see this consistent offering of support and inspiration in a time like the one we’re in.
Like my new friends Davidji and Shelly, I certainly do not have all of the answers. But I know that we’ve got a lot to learn from one another, which can only happen when we exercise our true freedom to reach across to the side of the ‘other.’
For the full interview, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-27-mindfulness-at-intersection-faith-shelly-tygielski/id1481476655?i=1000468928722