At my congregation in New Orleans, I teach an adult beginner Hebrew class. There are many different types of students in the class: Jews who want to be able to better follow the prayers in Hebrew during services; Christians who want to be able to read passages from the Bible in the original language; Jews preparing for an adult bar/bat mitzvah; and those in the process of conversion to Judaism.
Last week I fielded a question from a woman in that last group. Her question was not about Hebrew, but about Judaism: “I am coming to the Rabbi’s classes, I have learned the history and holidays and all pertinent information, I am learning how to read Hebrew… but I still don’t think I understand what it feels like to be a Jew. What should it ‘feel’ like?”
I invited her to attend Shabbat services with me that Friday night and sit with me so I could show her in live action what being Jewish feels like to me – how praying, hoping, and coming together with other Jews moves me, personally. She was hesitant at first; wasn’t there an easier answer? Could she “Google it on her own,” or figure out some other way to get this question answered, on her own time frame and by herself?
Quite simply… no.
Judaism is a communal experience. Yes, we can learn information on our own, but when we attend a class or have a study buddy, that’s when there is debate and discussion— and that is the Jewish way to learn. Yes, we can pray on our own, but when we attend a Shabbat service, meet and greet others, and pray together, we share a bond with our community like no other—and that is the Jewish way to pray. Judaism is, above all, a shared experience. No matter how big or small our Jewish community, the fact that we come together is meaningful.That sense of connection—that is the way to “feel Jewish.”
I don’t know if there is a way to teach someone a feeling, but when you show them how you feel things and where you feel things and why, they begin to understand and maybe can feel it for themselves. My student did come to services last Friday night, and sat beside me. After being nervous about the initial peer pressure to get up and greet someone that you don’t know, she participated. After experiencing the connections, right from the beginning of the worship experience, she said to me: “This really is a communal experience.”
Quite simply… yes.
Here’s a lesson for Jewish kids I came across this December — which is a pretty good lesson for adults, too.
One of my favorite things about teaching young children is watching their faces relax into a trance when they are absorbed in a read-aloud storybook. The dreamy look on a child’s face as they listen to a story read is amazing. It’s unlike any kind of entertainment a mere screen can provide, new doors opening as a child is completely absorbed into the story.
At our last Children’s Shabbat at Temple Sinai in New Orleans, I was privileged to read aloud the wonderful book, The Only One Club by Jane Naliboff. This book tells a story that begins with a Jewish child sitting in a classroom as the teacher announces that for that day, they will be making Christmas decorations. From there, the child decides to create a new club called “The Only One Club,” as she is the only Jewish child in her class. One by one, each of the children join The Only One Club as they each have something unique and special about themselves that qualifies them for the club.
After reading this charming story, we went on to create our own unique Hanukkah wrapping paper with hand and foot prints which of course the kids loved!
At this time of year, it’s a nice reminder that we are indeed unique — and that we should celebrate not only what makes us special, but also what makes everyone else special. It’s like the Margaret Mead quote: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”
Wouldn’t it be amazing if all of us adults looked in the face of “the other” and marveled at their own uniqueness instead of fearing the differences between us? That’s a lesson I think we can take from Hanukkah and carry right on forward with us into the new year. Here’s to a great 2015!
I have always derived great pleasure from personal prayer during worship services. Spirituality is core to my identity; the journey of our Shabbat and holiday liturgy is familiar to me and comforting to me. It is my time, which might sound selfish—and I had not realized just how dependent on that selfish time I had become, until recently when I became a Jewish professional.
Last year, in addition to my work with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I accepted the position of Educator at my home synagogue in New Orleans. Along with this amazing dream of a job comes the awesome responsibility of teaching others how to involve themselves in worship. One way we do this is by teaching the liturgy in Hebrew classes and prayer services; another, for me, is by setting the example of being sincere in my own prayer.
The irony? Sincerity in my own prayer has never been an issue—until now, when I am on “display.”
Trying to strike a balance between teaching, leading, and praying is not an easy task! During the High Holidays last year, I was so very busy trying to keep up and catch up with all of my responsibilities that frankly I did not even attempt very much personal prayer. This year, by contrast, I was totally prepared, and had all of my projects for families and children set up in advance… in an effort to set the stage for my own prayer space once again.
I still wasn’t back to my usual spiritual self. Even with all of the preparation, the holiday experience was still just off-and-on successful. I feared a return to truly meaningful prayer while “on display” might be a lost cause for me, until a good friend and cantorial soloist pointed out something really simple and profound:
My personal prayer and spirituality can be every bit as sincere and meaningful as it once was, if I accept that it will never be the same as it once was.
My cantorial soloist friend taught me that now, my greatest spiritual moments were to be focused on enhancing the worship experience of the congregation. This is where she derives her Shabbat and High Holiday holiness, outside of herself. And this is where I am now learning to do the same thing. Part of this experience is not taking myself so seriously! I began to see the insanity in what I was trying to do, and it made me laugh at my own self, and simply relax and let it be.
With this new role, I also appreciate new elements of prayer. I still, and always will, value my private prayer moments, too. But when I see a kid have an “aha” moment connecting the dots in our liturgy, or lead a prayer with confidence, or an adult catches my eye during a sermon because he or she remembers that we discussed a similar point, or I notice someone following along in the Hebrew because I helped them learn how to do that, these will now be my personal worship experience focus!
What has been your journey as a lay person or a Jewish professional in personal prayer? How is it different as you have aged, grown or changed roles?
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