Dear Friends,

What is Jewish prayer, and how do we evaluate the effectiveness of our own personal and communal prayers? A group of congregants and I have recently begun meeting regularly to discuss the challenges we face as we seek to connect more deeply with the ineffable Holy Source of all being. For many, weekly Shabbat services serve primarily as a social avenue  to  connect  us  to  Jewish   tradition,  history,  or  community,  or  as  an  intellectual challenge replete with rewards of Torah learning and debate about social and moral issues. Each of these is a worthy purpose. But isn’t prayer supposed to be something more than that? How many of us can use Jewish prayer to successfully connect to a higher power, to access something greater than ourselves, to tap into a
deep spiritual sense of the holy and transcendent? And how do we judge whether we have a rewarding personal prayer life, or whether  our  communal  prayer  services  are  “successful,”  especially  when  there  are  so many different views about “spirituality,” “G-d,” and “prayer”?

It is hard not to fall prey to judging the quality of our prayer services by critiquing content or counting how many people are present. Even in large crowds, I personally can feel lonely and disconnected from my own needs, from others,  and  from  G-d.  We  often  look  to  clergy  or   spiritual  leaders  for  a  solution.  “If  only  the  service  were  more entertaining  or  more  musical,  if  only  the  sermon  was  more  powerful,  if  only  the  prayer  book  was  easier  to understand.” “If only I got more out of the spiritual vending machine.” The question of value all
too often becomes more about what value one is acquiring as opposed to how one is investing in one’s own spiritual development. I would like to offer all of us a challenge.

First, let’s commit to being real. If you are struggling, come and speak with me. Don’t pretend you are loving routines that you don’t understand or that make you feel disconnected. I would love to hear what makes you feel personally connected to the transcendent, when you feel most connected to G-d, and to help you think about potential ways to deepen  your  own sense  of the  Divine.   Becoming  more  personally connected to prayer  and to  a  deep  sense  of  the ineffable requires us to take daily responsibility for what happens in our hearts rather than depend on clergy to do it for us once or twice a week. So much more spiritual power is accessible to each of us, but all too often, we check our own spirituality at the door, passively looking to clergy or communal
leaders to shoulder the responsibility of our own spiritual lives.

Second, find a point of access for your own spirituality, or help to establish points of access that don’t currently exist. Currently,  the  predominant  forms  of  spirituality  in  our community  are  intellectual.  We  have  for  many  years  had Talmud-Torah study groups, educational programs, scholars-in-residence, etc., and we will continue to do so. But I am  hearing  that  for  many,  spirituality  isn’t  just  an  intellectual  exercise.  It  is  equally  an emotional,  physical, psychological, and sensory yearning for the transcendent based on deep experience, connection, and comfort from multiple facets of divine existence.

As your spiritual leader, I hope to help us to cultivate multiple points of access to the Divine at Beth Israel, perhaps opening new doors to spiritual experience for every congregant. In our new class on Jewish spirituality and prayer, for example,  we  are  exploring  multiple  forms  of spirituality  and  prayer  in  addition  to  text  study  and  discussion.  I anticipate  new classes  and prayer-forms  to  emerge  this  year in our community,  such as Jewish  meditation,  sacred chanting and/or singing of traditional Jewish texts and niggunim, Jewish mindfulness
practices like Musar or Jewish Yoga, and/or varied forms of embodied and/or nature-spiritualty. I am committed to ensuring that these options are embedded in traditional Jewish practice, and to be authentically present as your fellow seeker and spiritual leader.

Rabbi Jama Purser