Getting More Comfortable With the Culture of Prayer in the South

In the South, people pray a lot. It’s all around us: on TV, on billboards, at football games, even at public schools (despite the alleged separation of church and state). As Jews living in the Bible Belt, sometimes it can be a bit much.

I’ll admit that I have had a rather cynical and even judge-y outlook on all of this praying … until recently.

I was chatting with a woman I know, a mom who shared a story about seeing a young family at a restaurant together and gathering their small children’s hands and leading them in a “sweet prayer” before they ate. I have seen a similar scene countless times and most of the time the reaction to people praying is to stare as if what they are doing is so foreign to us. This mom characterizing it as a “sweet,” tender moment gave me pause. She went on to say that she loved seeing these parents teaching their children how to pray.

Well, that made this Jewish mother stop and think. Have I taught my kids to pray, outside of services, and really think about God in mundane moments? The truth is that I haven’t, because I am not really comfortable praying. I love going to services at my synagogue, I’m not talking about that — I’m talking about being comfortable enough praying on my own as a part of my daily life, outside of temple walls.

I’m pretty sure this is true for many non-Orthodox Jews. We tend to be rather uncomfortable praying, especially in the public sphere. It’s just not what we do. There’s a new trend of healing services and prayers in progressive Jewish circles, but even then it’s done within our own buildings, generally in a very controlled way and with someone leading the way for us.

But praying in the public sphere seems so comfortable for our Christian neighbors. How many times have we seen friends on Facebook or other social media sharing prayers or asking for prayers? That seemed an obvious starting point, so I’ll admit that I did follow suit there — and even then, I read and re-read my comments making sure that I don’t sound “too religious” when sharing a prayer-post (what does that even mean?).

I once taught a class about Judaism to a Methodist church and at the end, they gathered in a circle and asked for people to share if they needed any prayers. People asked for prayers of good luck, prayers for good health and just basic prayers of support. I was freaked out! What if they asked me to share a prayer?! Even worse, what if someone offered me a prayer? And yet, it was a beautiful and warm moment. Why shouldn’t they want to acknowledge and support each other’s prayers? Why would this make me feel so weird?

I do think that some of our negative feelings and discomfort about prayer stem from prayer being shoved down our throats, especially when those prayers don’t include our religious beliefs. Public prayer in the South can make a Jewish minority feel extremely isolated and excluded. Public prayer is a contentious topic for many of us and evokes negative memories that have shaped how we feel about our own prayer. But should it? Is there any way we can reclaim and make our own this notion of gratitude and worship, even outside the synagogue?

I thought back to this young family praying wondering what the impact of their lessons on prayer would be on their children. Would they grow up to do the same? Would they pass this habit of prayer onto their children? Or would their children grow up to rebel, to recall being gawked at by people like me every time they went out to eat? It’s hard to say but I’m sure that it’s a lesson worth trying to teach your kids. After reflecting on it, I have to admit that I envy people who really feel comfortable with prayer. It’s something I’m more and more not only accepting of, but also admiring in my Christian friends — and it’s something I’m really trying to explore for myself in my own Jewish life.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from other Jewish people exploring prayer in the public sphere…

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