Judaism - Prayer

Where’s the Awe?

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From the moment I was first exposed to organizational Jewish life when my family joined a shul in 1991, I was immediately attracted to the phenomenon of Jewish prayer. Even at the age of eight, I found great delight and curiosity in our liturgy – in the meaning of the (at the time) strange Hebrew, the engaging melodies that my rabbi taught with her guitar and voice, and the power of a group of people sitting together and speaking (praying) as one voice.

From that point on, liturgy and the act of praying – both individually and communally – have been key foci of how I experience Jewish life. Whether through religious, spiritual, musical, or academic paradigms, I have continually been engaged in learning more about how Jews pray, and particularly with how Jews lead prayer.

Since that first spark at the age of eight, and now for close to two decades, I have explored many different types of Jewish prayer – Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Sephardi, French, English, Hebrew, egalitarian, non-egalitarian, partnership minyans, musical, silent, creative, and so-on… I love discovering new things about my relationship with prayers and praying, and I know how important it is for me to push myself to be open to new experiences and not be locked into a specific idea of what works for me. To be sure, that first prayer experience at the age of eight was a radically new phenomenon for me. At the same time, I also believe it important to be aware of what forms of prayer are personally meaningful, and for me to be able to pray in a way which is spiritually and religiously fulfilling.

This being the first time I have been in Israel throughout the chagim, I was anticipating with great excitement my being here for the pinnacle events of the Jewish calendar.

Because of this particular building up of anticipation, I am surprised with how I look back upon my experiences during the yamim noraim here in Israel. In retrospect, I didn’t experience much of my anticipated excitement. They just weren’t that awesome. Somewhat ironically, the pinnacle point for me was actually had in a basement classroom (more on that shortly).

Many of the services I was involved with throughout the chagim were ones that didn’t speak to me in a way that addressed my religious, spiritual, and liturgical needs. From my singing in the school’s choir on Rosh Hashana, to leading Yom Kippur services at the new Reform/Progressive community in Be’er Sheva, to attending Progressive services at Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer on Simchat Torah, I had ample new opportunities, yet was often left feeling somewhat empty and unfulfilled by each of them. These just weren’t the serious and moving experiences I was looking for and expecting.

At HUC, the melodies and liturgy we prayed with were mostly in the same vein as those we had already been exposed to. In Be’er Sheva, I compromised my own desires for a longer, loftier Yom Kippur service for the sake of reaching out to an un-served community and being a part of a nascent progressive religious experience there. And at Gezer, I was disturbed by the community’s lack of reverence for the Torah during reading and hakafot, and the generally uninspiring rabbinic leadership; what was supposed to be z’man simchateinu seemed to me to be little more than stuff that needed to be said and things that needed to be done.

The most impacting worship experience I had was at Sod Siach – a traditional egalitarian minyan in Katamon. Worshipping in the rented space of a crowded, sweltering, basement classroom; praying with words from an Orthodox Union-embossed machzor, in a service led by tallit-enrobed women; praying entirely in Hebrew that was at times often challenging to me in content and syntax; I felt one of the most profound connections to God and prayer that I have yet had this year.

The Sod Siach experience satisfied me spiritually through the use of engaging and accessible music (yet without the guitar that I myself most often lead services with). It satisfied me intellectually in experiencing a uniquely organic Israeli community worshiping in a style that one often doesn’t associate with traditional Israeli Jewish prayer. And through the reverence of the community and willingness to engage with the machzor’s text, it satisfied me religiously in acknowledging the awesomeness and height of the holy day in a way I didn’t feel elsewhere.

And yet… as much as I was searching for a familiar prayer experience, Sod Siach probably couldn’t have been any further from my communities in New York and Toronto. To be sure, most other members of communities would likely have been utterly lost.

I do believe it’s important to state that I don’t view one style of prayer experience as more authentically Jewish than another style. But I do believe that a sophisticated and complex approach to Jewish liturgy and prayer is more authentic than a simplistic and more basic approach. Just as my relationship with Israel is nuanced and doesn’t avoid grappling with tougher issues facing Israeli society, I want to have an approach to Jewish prayer that is nuanced and doesn’t shy away from the more complex, challenging or difficult aspects of our liturgy.

In that light, I wrestle with finding the balance between having new prayer experiences that are less meaningful to me, and having meaningful prayer that are just more of the same week after week. I don’t want to fall into a comfortable, rote “this is how I pray” approach to worship, but I also can’t just treat prayer as an intellectual exercise. Something this important to me and to God needs to be held to a high standard that – ironically – I don’t always feel I am able to do while in rabbinical school!

This is one of my fears about becoming a rabbi. I know that I have a found an approach to prayer that is meaningful to me, even as I look forward to it growing throughout my schooling and indeed throughout my career. But how will I reconcile my own preferences with the regular need to lead and participate in differing styles of prayer? How do I square my progressive, open approach to Judaism with a particularist approach to prayer? How will I balance the needs of my future congregants with my own spiritual and religious needs? To be sure, this has been a significant factor in my general reluctance towards a congregation-based career.

These are questions and challenges that will most certainly remain unanswered for the foreseeable future. Perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing; I can  look forward to continuing to wrestle with them throughout my schooling.

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Billboard Judaism, Judaism - Prayer

Low Davening Fruit


I was just leaving a comment on a new post by David Wilensky. He’s received an advance copy of part of the new Reform machzor – Mishkan T’shuvah – and he’s brainstorming the criteria he’s going to use to evaluate it on his blog. Go check out what he has to say. This prompted me to wonder:

Given that most of the people who go to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are of the “twice-a-year” variety, shouldn’t a machzor be designed with this in mind?

If so, wouldn’t you – as an editor of this machzor – do everything you could to make it accessible and inspiring with the goal of encouraging these twice-a-year Jews to become thrice-a-year or whatever comes after thrice?

Wouldn’t you fill it with meaningful and explanatory commentary and inspiring readings that aren’t clumped together like they’ve been pulled from Bartlett’s Quotations? Wouldn’t you present it in an open and unintimidating way? Wouldn’t you make it beautiful and enjoyable to use?

Have you seen what most machzors look like today? (Hint: most don’t look like that, and those that do are cost-prohibitive).

Congregations work so hard to bring in members, and as any Jewish demographer will tell you, most are struggling right now. So on the very days during the year when the crowd is in the house with books in hand, shouldn’t congregations be equipped to fight the good fight?

If you were in marketing, you would bend over backwards for the opportunity to reach people in the way congregations can at the High Holidays.

Suppose you’re a marketing firm representing some company. Imagine a crowd of people have voluntarily sat down in front of a billboard you created advertising this company, having already purchased whatever it is the company sells. Now imagine that this crowd of people have also told you that they’re only going to sit there for five days, and then they’re leaving and not coming back for a year. To make matters worse, they won’t again be purchasing whatever it is the company sells until then. Sound familiar?

If you were that marketing firm, wouldn’t you do everything you could to entice the people to come back sooner? Wouldn’t you design a billboard that wasn’t just targeted towards the brand-loyal, but also to the fence-sitters and window-shoppers?

If you were that company, wouldn’t you demand that the marketing firm earn its pay by creating such a worthy campaign?

I’m not suggesting that a machzor is just a billboard or a piece of advertising collateral, and I’m not suggesting that a shul is just selling a product or service. There is unique spirituality and holiness among both. But there is also some resonance in these comparisons.

The twice-a-year crowd is often viewed with contempt and relegated to the back of the shul, since most assume that they only come out of a sense of familial obligation or Jewish guilt. Not being of this variety myself, I can’t speak for them, however I would assume that very few feel compelled to return to shul following the High Holidays. Indeed, the proof is in the pews. And to some extent, congregations allow this to be so by focusing their energy and attention instead on the regulars, since those regulars demand the attention.

But the twice-a-year crowd are low hanging fruit! They’re in the house with books in hand!

Most certainly there is a responsibility on the part of congregations to reach out in a welcome manner, create worship services that are engaging and meaningful, and do their job to reach these low hanging fruits daveners.

But in the major Jewish Movements today, most congregations use the standard machzor of that Movement. So isn’t there some responsibility on the Movement’s part, too? Isn’t there a responsibility to create a machzor that does everything that my imaginary marketing firm would do?

I say yes.

So as David evaluates the new draft of Mishkan T’shuvhah, I’m left wondering if it will be a product that is created cognizant and reflective of the majority of people who will be holding it, or if it will be a product that serves instead the vocal minority. I’m not going to judge the book by it’s non-existent cover by making any assumptions at this point. I just hope that Mishkan T’shuvah will be both an inspiring product for the brand-loyal Jews, and also an enticing billboard for the low hanging daveners.

Billboard Judaism

Billboard Judaism: Week 1: A (too brief) Review

I’ve had the kippah on for a week. And in that week, some interesting things have happened. Here are two. More to follow.

– A taxi driver in New York launched into a ten-minute, mostly one-sided conversation with me about how his rabbi wanted him to drive him to tashlich, how he loved old Jewish music, and how he wanted to wear a kippah also because he thought it would make him more moral and a better person, but wasn’t sure how to start. I smiled and told him you can really just start, but that it’s not a magic talisman. Or maybe it is.

– At a pub last night, a burly guy in overalls and a tank-top – clearly drunk – sauntered up to me and yelled above the music “Shana Tovah, eh!” This guy would have terrified me normally. I would have avoided him on the street. But now, I was able to smile and say thanks. He yelled “What are you doing here?” I replied, “It my buddy’s birthday!” His response? “OH! Well tell him yom huledet sameach, eh?” He walked off. A brief interaction, but something that would never have happened if it weren’t for the billboard on my head.

To summarize: Wow.

With the kippah, I have attracted attention. And I like it. I feel a little more communal. A little more a part of a whole. What intrigues me – really what delights me – is that the attention I’ve received comes from people who I wouldn’t otherwise have known were Jewish. We’ve had brief connections, been able to smile in something shared that was previously hidden. I’ll unpack this more next week after Yom Kippur.

In keeping with the theme of yom kippur, I will briefly confess that I’m hesitant when walking around some streets of New York, extremely self-conscious about what friends and others think, curious about what goes through peoples’ minds at work, and worried that I’ll be judged any random group of people – Jews or otherwise – walking around.

I still like it. It keeps me on my toes. Keeps me thinking about what being Jewish should mean on a daily basis. And that’s the whole point, eh?

If it’s your thing, have a meaningful fast. G’mar Chatima Tova.