Creating Spiritual jewish Prayer

At certain times in my life I’ve felt an indescribable emotional connection exploding within me through tefillah (prayer).

The first time was when a group of fellow yeshiva high school graduates and I sat in a candle-lit room on Tisha B’Av at Camp Ramah in Nyack. We sang old and new songs and tried with all our hearts to evoke the sadness of ancient Jewish loss with our own modern Jewish vitality. I only knew a few of the songs, but found myself carried higher, even by those I didn’t know.

The second time occurred at the Carlebach moshav in Israel. The moshav was founded by people who followed Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach from his House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco to establish a spiritual community in Israel, the Jewish soul’s home. Friday night davening was the first time I ever experienced a real Kabbalat Shabbat. A native son of the moshav and I began tapping and banging the tables in front of us during L’kha Dodi, more and more rhythmically, until he broke into a drum solo while the room full of men and women sang and danced with eyes closed and hearts open. I had to learn only one niggun that night, because that one niggun lasted a full hour. And it hasn’t stopped for me to this day.

The third time I found prayerful ecstasy was in Jerusalem. It was during my year at Machon Schechter, at the home of my teacher, Dr. Devora Steinmetz. I had heard about a monthly minyan at Devora’s home, and our first visit there gave us hope that vibrant, soulful, modern Jewish spiritual communities existed. About 100 people would show up on the first Shabbat of every month, bringing their own siddurim, their own spiritual needs, and their own love of davening. Devora never led, and rarely did anyone lead twice. Devora simply provided the space and her passionate presence. And the roof would just lift off the apartment with the harmonies of learning, growing Jews, young and old.

Another such joyful moment occurred a few years ago while I was sitting in Yakar, a spiritual haven in Jerusalem for niggunsinging daveners, holding my father’s hand. I already knew most of the tunes, having fallen in love long before with that precious community, but I had never davened with my father in Israel. We’d shared many powerful, emotional, transcendent, and loving experiences but I didn’t realize how much his presence would touch my personal prayer life. My heart still aches with the memory of that ephemeral but exquisite visit to heaven on earth.

From my experiences, I believe that there are four things we can do to enhance the intensity and health of our spiritual communities:

First, be willing to join an intense and new experience, and accept the personal vulnerability that comes with encountering newness.

Second, use your whole self to pray – when your body remembers the experience you’ve crossed the line from prayer to davening. Hold tight to a general trajectory without concretizing any one moment in its course as your final destination.

Third, find a community with a dependable center that seeks to empower. Safe space for sacred experiencing need not be hierarchical.

Finally, love your fellow davener. Reach out to the people who make up your hevreh. Acknowledge them as capable of making valuable contributions without requiring them to be exactly like you.

The combination of these ingredients transcends the halakhic order of prayer but it can’t exist without its guiding structure. It transcends the specific melodies for certain prayers but can’t exist without their interconnectedness. It transcends the immediate location but can’t exist without intentional sacred-space-making. It transcends the person who happens to be davening but can’t exist without an incomplete soul’s inviting voice. And it transcends any one person’s kavannah – devotion – but can’t exist without many people’s individual spiritual yearnings.

May we feel invited to share in the search, the soulful experience of tefillah, by remembering each other as we close our eyes and open our souls.

Menachem Creditor is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California, and founder of The Conservative Movement Dreaming from Within.

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