Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
When was the last time you felt #blessed to attend a Zoom meeting? For me, the answer is almost always “Just a few days ago!” That’s because once a month, I join the virtual gathering of a local broad-based coalition of faith institutions here in Mississippi. It’s always inspiring – and recently reminded me of the importance of having something special at the ready.
When we gather for these coalition meetings, our check-ins about collaborative strategies to address the problems facing our city are always bookended by blessings. It is a fascinating peek into the spiritual vernacular of so many different creeds, all delivered with a practiced pace and flow (and most with a Southern drawl).
As a community of leaders seeking to enact change in our city, we have bowed our heads to requests for strength, mercy, and wisdom in three different languages. We nod at earnest declarations of gratitude for the opportunity to be and do better, and for the gift of this moment together. At one of our virtual meetings a few months back, the clergyperson who had been appointed to say the closing blessings had technical issues, so the pastor from the Mennonite church was asked to give one in his stead. The pastor said of course, no problem, because he was taught long ago to “always have a blessing ready.”
I couldn’t help but smile at that phrase. What a wonderful way to walk through life, ready to give a blessing at a moment’s notice! On a spiritual note, it requires you to trust that there will inevitably be a reason to give thanks, share praise, seek help, or request a second chance. On a practical note, it ensures that you are never caught off-guard when put on the spot.
That’s what I call a “back pocket blessing.”
As one of the only Jewish students at my university in north Georgia, I was often frustrated to have to sit through mandatory school functions that included a Christian prayer. In response, I founded the Interfaith Alliance and offered to write and give non-denominational prayers at convocation, vigils, and ceremonies. Over the years, I developed a few blessings I could pull out from my back pocket at the last minute that could be adapted to the context and audience.
Here are some steps to help you write your own back pocket blessing. You can adjust the language to reflect your personal relationship with God or make it non-sectarian to be as inclusive as possible. The most important thing to remember is that it feels authentic to you and gives the community you stand with a moment of meaningful reflection.
The Five ‘A’s of a Back Pocket Blessing:
- Audience: Who are you praying with? Are you leading a blessing for other Jews, or have you been invited to represent the Jewish community in an interfaith group? Is there a specific group of people you are there to honor or assist?
- Address: Feel free to borrow from parts of our liturgy that speak to the moment. You may want to translate Hebrew into English as you go, or simply borrow from the Hebrew phrasing and give yourself a little freedom of translation (I find this helpful when trying to describe God without gender). Many Jewish prayers begin with the phrase, “Baruch atah Adonai… / Blessed are You, God….” The next part of the sentence usually describes God with one of God’s commendable attributes or actions. “…who brings us together on this Sabbath day.” Which Godly action sets the tone for your prayer? What is the first attribute you would like to praise or give thanks for?
- Blessed are You, God, our Creator, who breathed us into life and helps us lift our voices.
- Acknowledge: Give thanks for those who are present, or to God for guiding your paths to this moment and action.
- Thank You for the opportunity to gather today in peace and fellowship.
- Ask: What are your hopes for the gathering, and how can God help you with that? Introduce a call to action that you want the attendees to hold as their intention or motivation throughout the event.
- May we commit ourselves to speaking up when we see hateful acts committed against our neighbors. Guide our actions with justice, compassion, dignity, and the cautionary memory of what happens when the righteous remain silent.
- Amen: Lead the group in closing out the prayer together. Ideally, the blessing you gave is one that resonates with the audience, and this provides them the chance to seal it in their hearts and as a community.
- And let us say, Amen.