Tag Archives: Prayer

The Struggle for Meaning in Prayer

By Mary Jane Suzman

Temple Shalom Adult Learning recently sponsored a class aimed at members who in one way or another feel disengaged from Judaism and/or Temple Shalom. As one of the moderators of the discussion, I felt very fortunate in the folks who showed up. They one and all offered thoughtful perspectives, and were also respectful of others’ differing views.

While various topics were mentioned, the most common issue was difficulty with the words of the prayers in our prayer book. Many of our ancient prayers speak of a God who listens, answers and intervenes in the world. But in our group were some who held concepts of God that do not fit well with this liturgy, some who were agnostic and some who were atheist. Hence the discomfort.

Participants offered several ways of coping with the disconnect. Some enjoy the melodies and are comfortable singing the Hebrew words (which they don’t understand) and avoid looking at the English translations. Others spoke of the chants and melodies bringing a calm, meditative, peaceful state. Others found that the sense of community at the service helped. And some find that they simply cannot speak the words they do not believe, and remain silent during the problematic prayers.

For Reform Jews, I suspect that the disconnect between our liturgy and our beliefs is a widespread problem. I would like to suggest that we, as a community, share our approaches. What prayers bother us? What perspectives, solutions have we found? I will try to get us started by sharing two perspectives of my own, one to a particular prayer, the other to prayer in general.

I myself am a non-theist. While I have come to feel spiritually connected to our texts and to creation in ways that astonish me, God is not part of my life: no listener in the universe, no comforting presence in the world, no consciousness above or behind or within what exists. As you can imagine, prayer is a problem. How am I to approach the Shema, for example, so central to our tradition:  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”? The Shema is actually where I will begin.

I learned that the word “Lord” in the Shema is actually a very poor translation of the 4 Hebrew letters YHWH. YHWH can be seen as an impossible contraction of the Hebrew verb “to be”: all that was, is and will be; all of existence; all of creation. With this view in mind, each week, as preparation for Shabbat, I seek out beautiful natural images. The most beautiful of the week will be the one I envision in my mind when I recite the Shema on the Sabbath. Often it is a sunrise or sunset, or trees or flowers in my garden or about Newton, or ice patterns on a window, or light sparkling on water. Once it was a white dove alighting in a niche on the Western wall in Jerusalem; once it was footsteps in the snow of those who came before me into the sanctuary of Temple Shalom. This search for beauty has brought joy to my life; when you seek it, you find it. Not only that, but cognizance of the beauty all around is a constant reminder that it is my job to till and tend, to help care for the earth. Not only that, but sometimes when I say the Shema, holding the vision of the week in mind, visions from all the weeks before shimmer around the edges, and conflate with it in a way that is inexpressibly beyond time, beyond space, beyond meaning.

And now a perspective on prayer in general: it has helped me to view religion not as a search for truth, but as a search for meaning. However it got here, the universe in its fullness is here. But it comes without meaning-in-itself. It is a uniquely human endeavor to overlay upon that universe a web of symbols, myths, rituals, that endow it with meaning and make moral action within it imperative. Our Hebrew ancestors have been doing this for 3500 years. The quest for meaning of my ancestor of 3500 years ago, in a very different time, place, and knowledge context, yielded different results than mine. But it was the same quest. When I recite some of those ancient prayers, I try for a bit to don the robes of our ancestors, for a bit to see the world through their eyes, to merge their quest for meaning with mine. But it is a struggle: sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. Another deep teaching of our tradition is that words have power, and must not be spoken lightly. Sometimes I also remain silent.

I would love to hear from any and all of you who have struggled with the words of prayer and found a helpful perspective, a path to meaning. Such sharing could deepen our spiritual lives and enrich us all.

Tagged , ,

Mazel Tov to Leah Sawyer!

Leah Sawyer, Wet Hair Moment

We share in joy with Leah Sawyer as we welcome her officially to the Jewish community! Today, Leah met with a beit din and immersed in the mikveh to complete her conversion process.

At services this evening, Leah will stand before our community as she recites Sh’ma holding onto our sacred Torah for the first time. We will also bestow upon her a Hebrew name.

What a milestone! In preparation for this day, Leah prepared a reflection on her Jewish journey:

Today I am choosing to become Jewish.  This is an important step for me – seven steps, actually, into the mikveh waters as a Gentile and seven steps back out as a new Jew – and a decision I do not take lightly.  After nearly two decades of thinking about the idea, and after 15 months of serious study and reflection, I am ready to become officially what I have come to feel inside, and to what I have been drawn for most of my life.

The question of “why Judaism?” is a hard one to answer – not because of a lack of compelling reasons, but because much of my motivation comes from somewhere deeper than logic.  Judaism just feels like the right fit for me, in an elemental way that defies description.

Growing up in a loving Irish Catholic family, my parents instilled strong values that included doing the right thing even at personal cost, prioritizing family and community, and the importance of kindness and generosity.  As I have grown in my life’s path, many of the specific tenets I believe in have changed, but those core values continue to guide me.  In Judaism, I find deep resonance with those values, and with new ones I have come to hold dear – inclusiveness, healing the world, feminism, and lifelong learning.  I still have many questions and expect I always will — in Judaism, I have found a structure in which I can wrestle with thorny topics and learn from others who are doing the same.  Most importantly, I have found an oasis of peace and calm in my life, a space of time in which I can recharge, and at the same time be challenged to be better and kinder.

My Jewish journey started in middle school, when I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (and in short order, all of Potok’s other books) that gave me a window into a new world, and when our Christian Bible teacher Dr. D taught us ancient Israelite history and a smattering of basic Hebrew.  In college, as my once-ardent Catholic faith faltered, Dr. D’s statement that “next to Mandarin, Hebrew is the hardest language” was a spur to find a Hebrew tutor (difficult in deep rural Virginia) who introduced the aleph-bet, and to find a scholarship to study in Israel.

My six months in Israel taught me many things – that there are many kinds of hummus and they’re all delicious, Hebrew really IS incredibly difficult to learn, never to trust that an Israeli-organized “short easy” hike will be either short or easy, and that Israel is a deeply difficult and deeply beguiling country – but not so much about the actual religion of Judaism.  I learned that (at that time) most Israelis were culturally but not spiritually Jewish.

It was not until 2013, after a difficult period caused me to reexamine my life in many ways, that I began to think about Judaism more seriously.  At the time I was living with a roommate who had converted to Catholicism and taught high school theology.  Theological conversations with Andrea over red wine and pad Thai started me thinking again, after a long time of being closed spiritually.  I knew I couldn’t convert to Judaism, even with its lifelong pull, for a number of reasons… though in the end, none of those reasons stood up to debate or research.  I read Anita Diamante’s book Choosing A Jewish Life, my heart racing with excitement, and decided that this sounded right for me – I needed to know more.

After I contacted the Union of Reform Judaism and signed up for an intro to Judaism course, I started attending the local synagogue, Beth El Hebrew in Alexandria Virginia.  People were welcoming, but I struggled with feeling out-of-place, not knowing the melodies, and barely being able to sound out the Hebrew in the prayer book.  I kept coming every week and found a Hebrew tutor, and over several months I learned the melodies and came to feel less out-of-place, although I was still one of the youngest adults in the synagogue by several decades.

Following a sudden move to Boston for a new job, I was referred to Rabbi Neil Hirsch at Temple Shalom of Newton, who enthusiastically volunteered to shepherd me through the conversion process.  My first experience of Temple Shalom was Yom Kippur, which turned out to be hauntingly beautiful and meaningful in a way I hadn’t expected, as I reflected on the ways I wanted to change my life and myself in the coming year.  The evening Yom Kippur service was followed by a 20s and 30s break fast feast, where I met people my age, many of whom I have come to know well in the interim.

Since then, it’s been a whirlwind year of growth and learning — I’ve lit Shabbat candles in my home, attended services at Temple Shalom and Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley, studied Torah on Shabbat mornings (especially savoring the footnotes in the women’s commentary Torah), studied Hebrew prayers (thanks to Liz Piper-Goldberg), burned “Thanksgivvukah” mashed potato latkes, taken the introduction to Judaism course in Wayland (thanks to Rabbis Neal Gold, Jen Gubitz, and Alana Alpert, among others), learned about the conversion process at Mayyim Hayyim (thanks to Rabbi Julie Zupan), and participated in the 10-week young adult Eser study class.  Most importantly, I have met regularly with Rabbi Hirsch, whose calm kindness and insightful analysis of complex issues I came to value, as we discussed my evolving thoughts and questions about Judaism, until I felt that I was ready to be adopted into Judaism.

The Mishkan T’filah prayerbook has many beautiful passages for reflection, including one that brings tears to my eyes every time we read or sing it:

Standing on the parted shore of history

We still believe what we were taught

Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

That there is a better place, a promised land;

That the winding way to that promise

Passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there

Except by joining hands, marching together.

Today I join a beautiful 4,000 year old tradition, one with built-in growth and deep complexity.  It’s where I belong, and I am honored to join hands and march together into a new future.

Tagged , , , , ,

Between Last Year and the Next

The writer Henry Ward Beecher once noted that “We should so live and labor in our time that what came to us as seed may go to the next generation as blossom, and what came to us as blossom may go to them as fruit. This is what we mean by progress.”

As Reform Jews, we know what it means to strive forward. The early Reformers made prayer and religious involvement relevant in the lives of those in their communities by evolving practices to be in line with their times. They introduced prayer in the vernacular, seeing that not everyone in the pews had a grasp of the Hebrew. They included women as members of the minyan. And they introduced the popular instruments of the time, beautifying the sacred music that was a part of the worship experience. As Leonard Fine entitled his study of Reform Judaism several decades ago, “Reform is a Verb…. The process of Reform is an ongoing, dynamic one, not a static process that has reformed and is finished becoming.”

With summer close by and with the anticipation of warm sun on our faces, we are looking back at this past year.  We see all that we have done as a community. This has been a year of evolution and reform for Temple Shalom, and it is quite remarkable.

This year was a year of change for the youth within our congregation. The year began with a celebration and the launch of MINCHA, our new 7th and 8th grade program. Each Tuesday throughout the year, our students have gathered together to build community with one another, and to learn and live the value of G’milut Chasadim, loving-kindness. Throughout the year, our students traveled to various organizations to volunteer and give back. When the students were here at the Temple, under the leadership of our Director of Youth Engagement, Ellie Goldman they were learning what it means to be a part of a sacred congregation, to be responsible to and for one another. With each week in MINCHA, we noticed a remarkable growing in how our young people treated one another. Respect and honor to one another were always present in a MINCHA session.

This coming year, we are looking forward to the launch of SHACHARIT, our new K-6 learning program, and MA’ARIV, our re-visioned High School initiative. Each, we hope, will be a new blossom in bloom for our congregation.

5774 was also a time to expand our horizons, and to better understand Jewish peoplehood and our own spiritual lives. 35 individuals within our congregation traveled to Cuba, to experience the Jewish community there. What they found was not only a beautiful country and fascinating chapter in the story of our Jewish people, but a reflection of our own story and a deeper understanding of our own Jewish journeys. 30 learners gathered this year to continue their studies through the Shalom Hartman Institute to explore the concept of the Tribes of Israel, and how they are still alive and well in Israeli and Diaspora life. 40 people tried out Shira Yoga–a new Shabbat yoga experience we piloted this Spring. With each of these different opportunities to engage in Jewish living, we found that we were enriched as a congregation, and we pray that each individual who participated experienced growth in themselves.

5774 will surely merge smoothly into 5775 with ongoing initiatives. Our Worship Task Force is hard at work examining how we worship and celebrate Shabbat and other sacred times together.  Shalom Y’all – our outreach efforts to 20s-30s has brought a growing number of young adults into relationship in and around Temple Shalom.  Bonim has expanded its Lunch With the Pros series, and our Sisterhood and Brotherhood continue to build community through a diverse range of activities. Our Family With Young Children Task Force has expanded our offerings and begun to reach out more broadly into the community around us.  Our Adult Learning Task Force is exploring new ways to draw more of us into the journey of Life-long Jewish Learning.  The coming year will see another Temple Shalom Trip to Israel in December and come next June, our first –ever Jewish Heritage Trip to Eastern Europe.  Put simply, this year, Temple Shalom has been a hub of activity.

On Kol Nidrei night, our President, Jo-Ann Suna, presented the new vision for our congregation. A team of leaders gathered this year to create and implement a new strategic plan for the congregation. The hope is to be personal, to be welcoming, to find new and different ways to engage in Jewish life.

As we look to 5775, we look forward to the evolutions and growth that is bound to happen on that front. The Jewish tradition has a concept of Shalshelet HaKabbalah, the sacred chain of transmission. We take Torah and pass it on to the next generation. In each generation, we determine how to make Torah for ourselves. We are in that process, and we are seeing that process take root. We have enjoyed seeing what has come from our evolutions and growth, and we cannot wait to see what blossoms next.

We wish you a relaxing and restorative summer.  We look forward to gathering to welcome not only the New Year, but one another as we continue to build on this year’s accomplishments and continue to go “from strength to strength.”


Rabbi Eric Gurvis and Rabbi Neil Hirsch

Tagged , , , , , ,

Praying Whole-Souled

Confession time: Impromptu, public prayer has always made me anxious. It has taken a lot of work to recognize and articulate the natural prayers that my soul wants to speak. From time to time, when called upon to pray in public, with no time to prepare my thoughts of what to say, I find myself tongue-tied.

Letting one’s soul loose is challenging. 

I found myself confounded recently, in a situation only Serendipity, herself, could have foreseen. On a Friday afternoon, I was out and about running some errands. Along the way, I decided to stop off at a florist, to buy some flowers for my fiancé, Liz. 

The florist shop was tiny, with only enough space for one customer and the florist, herself. Behind the counter stood a middle-aged, small, African-American woman in nurse’s scrubs. She was smiling as she was finishing up a beautiful bouquet. As I began to describe the thing I wanted to bring home, she decided she needed to make me something special, right there on the spot. Nothing already prepared from her; it was only made-to-order. 

So I waited, as she made me this custom bouquet of flowers. She was performing art right in front of me, which I found transfixing. She brought me out of it when she struck up a conversation. “You look like a creative type,” she said. “What do you do for a living? Please tell me you do something where you create.” 

“Well I suppose I have to be creative to a certain extent,” I replied. “But if I tell you what I do for a living, you have to promise to believe me.” How many rabbis does a person run into on a given day? 

She agreed, and when I told her about my calling, she stopped what she was doing. She looked at me and said, “Thank God. I knew I was supposed to meet you today.”

The woman launched into a story of what had happened to her the evening before. She works as a nurse at night, at one of the hospitals in Longwood. The night before, she and a friend of hers, also dark-skinned, took a break around 3:00 AM. They were walking to a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee, when they walked past a group of white teenagers. They passed by them, when suddenly one of the boys spat on the ground in front of them and shouted the N-word right in their faces.

“I’ve lived in Boston all my life,” she told me, “and never before have I experienced such overt racism. Covert bigotry, yes. Overt, no. Boston can be a difficult city, but I haven’t ever had someone spit at me. 

“I need you to pray for me, Rabbi. I need grace. I need grace, now. Will you pray for grace with me?”

ImageI did not realize in the moment I was supposed to start praying then and there. I could not come up with any words. How could I pray? Here she was having just faced baseless hatred, and she wanted grace—what we would call chesed v’rachamim, kindness and compassion. I had no response. I felt the prayer sitting stone-heavy in my heart; it was real and it was present. But pray out loud at that moment, I could not bring myself to do it.

In the Jewish community in which our prayers are routinized, spontaneity has a place but is not easily achieved. I am envious of my Christian counterparts whose liturgies are flexible enough to allow them to speak aloud prayers that articulate their hopes, their dreams, their anxieties, and their reasons for thanks, praise and petition. 

Prayer should be natural—as natural as breathing. To cultivate a prayer life takes work. And in our community, when we come into services, knowing what to expect, prayer can work if we work at it. And we can find the space within our liturgy to speak those prayers that exist genuinely within. Our liturgy is ripe with opportunities to connect—to connect with those around us and to connect with the Higher Realm. Prayer can take us to unexpected places. In the face of adversity, this woman wanted a prayer that would bring her grace, kindness and compassion. How she can place those things together within that experience is a real-life riddle for those looking from the outside. Prayer is the key to unlocking that riddle. The Jewish community would do well to imagine expansively about what prayer can be when we look up from our prayer books, forget the words we’re supposed to be saying, and get down to the real work of trying to pray with our whole souls. 

Tagged , , ,

Finding Comfort in an Uncomfortable Time

To say the least, it has been a sad and surreal week here in the Boston area.

As we gathered in the office of Newton Mayor Setti Warren prior to Wednesday evening’s Newton Community Vigil the mayor asked how the assembled clergy how folks in our congregations were reacting.  Several of the clergy gathered responded with different responses.  I remember commenting that my feeling was that “people are in shock.”

Standing on the steps outside Newton City Hall a short while later, as our community gathered for its vigil, there was a noticeable measure of comfort in being with friends, neighbors, and yes even folks we don’t know.  Simply being together as a community brought comfort in a very trying time.

Mayor Tom Menino

Mayor Tom Menino

For me, that feeling was underscored and intensified as I sat in the congregation at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross yesterday for the Healing Our City Interfaith Service.  I had not planned on attending the event.  Guided by advice from leaders in our Jewish community, I planned on watching it, like most of you, on television. Then I awoke yesterday morning to messages from two Christian colleagues informing me that they had included me on a list of folks to attend the service.  I was deeply touched, and hurriedly dressed and headed for the Cathedral. I’m glad I did.

Governor Deval Patrick

Governor Deval Patrick

Sitting in that community, and especially in a part of the assembled in which I sat surrounded by Christian, Muslim and Jewish colleagues, I found myself reminded even more potently of the power of community.  I know that power in my bones. It’s a feeling I often experience in our Temple Shalom community.  However, it’s not often that I have the opportunity to sit in the community, in the congregation, and simply feel that power.

President Barack Obama at Heal Our City Interfaith Service

President Barack Obama
at Heal Our City Interfaith Service

Hearing the words of my clergy colleagues, several of whom are friends; hearing Mayor Tom Menino (and watching him heroically project a strength that his body clearly belies); hearing our Governor and our President – all amounted to a powerful experience that brought a sense of comfort that has been elusive for so many of us this week.

As Jews, we live out our rituals and customs in our families and in the larger context of our communities.  Judaism has never been about solitary activity.  I often speak and write about community.  Indeed, Judaism is most powerful when we experience it in community. Whether it’s study, prayer, tikkun olam, celebration, and yes, gathering to find solace and comfort, we are hopelessly (or should I say hopefully) communal.  Indeed, I often speak of our “Temple Shalom family.”  For me, they are not mere words.  They are an expression of a feeling that was instilled in me as a child growing up in my home congregation.  It is a reality I have tried to recreate in each of the communities in which I have served over the course of my thirty years in the rabbinate.  When I teach children in our Temple Shalom family, I am teaching my children.  When I celebrate – a new child, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a wedding or whatever, I am with family.  When we suffer a loss, we share that loss.  This week we have felt that sense of shared loss, uncertainty and shakiness together.

Sitting in the congregation at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross I felt part of a larger family – the Boston clergy family, and the family of Greater Boston.  And indeed, we have all felt part of something larger as friends and other communities have reached out to surround us with their love and concern since Monday’s tragic events.

As I write these words, like many, I am watching the news reports as this very surreal day unfolds with the manhunt that has frozen our greater Boston area in place.  Let us pray that in the coming hours this crisis will come a conclusion without any further loss of innocent life.  Even as it hopefully will end quickly and definitively, the days ahead will still be ones of uncertainty as we take our first shaky steps back to normalcy – or perhaps I should say, to whatever our “new normal” will look like. As we do, let us remember to reach out to those around us – that the steps we take will be easier if taken together.

It is my hope and prayer that we will be able to gather for Shabbat worship this evening, to remember those who have died and pray for those in need of healing.  It is my hope that we will be able to lift our voices together in prayer and song – and to stand together as an affirmation of our commitment to embracing life, and all that is holy as together we walk towards wholeness and healing.

Let me end by echoing the words of my friend and dear colleague, Rabbi Neil Hirsch, “Please let Shabbat come.” And let it bring a sense of Shalom! 

Stay safe everyone – I hope we can gather tonight!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Please Let Shabbat Come

With events and news currently breaking I want to share a story that I have been thinking about since Monday’s explosions. A few weeks ago, before we would have been able to connect the words marathon and bombings, Lisa Berman–Temple Shalom congregant and Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim–relayed to me a story about Pope John Paul II. It has lingered with me in full force. 

Pope John Paul II traveled constantly. In every trip he made, he met with Catholics and others all around the world. He would sit with those individuals, and he would often pray with them. As they prayed together, he would take on their prayers, their confessions, and their stories. The Pope weaved a cloak out of these experiences that he would wear and take with him from location to location. The more visits he made, the more prayers he took on, and the cloak would become heavier.

When the Pope would arrive back at the Vatican, no matter the hour of the day, no matter the day of the week, the first place he would go was St. Peter’s Basilica. He would make his way across the grand floor, straight to dais. Yet, he did not stay there. He made his way into the tombs underneath the Basilica, kneeling at St. Peter’s grave. There–alone–he would take that prayer-filled cloak, and lay it down at St. Peter’s feet.  All of those prayers, all of those confessions, all of those stories from the people he had met all around the world were left in Catholic safe, sacred territory. 

Every time the Pope traveled, he was witness to the brokenness and woundedness of our world. As he met with others, those breaks and wounds became his own. Yet he knew he could not let those weigh him down permanently. He had to take them somewhere, to leave them somewhere, to do something with that hurt. For Pope John Paul II, he transferred that weightiness through his own prayers at the feet of the man who was the first to hold his post.

Given the events of this week, we too need a place to take our prayers, our hurt, our brokenness, and our woundedness. If it were near the High Holidays, I would say that we Jews have Tashlich as an opportunity to cast off those worries. Yet, we need immediate help, and so I give thanks that Shabbat is coming. Events continue to break, and we do not know when it will be safe to go about our day. Should it be safe for us to congregate tonight, I cannot wait for us to be together, to share in prayer, and to lessen our burdens. Please, let beautiful Shabbat arrive. 

Tagged , , , , , , ,