Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Davening Differently for a Week

By now you may have seen posted or have been forwarded Yale University senior Emily Langowitz's article in the online Magazine Reform Judaism Campus Life 201: Trying out Frum.

I think that Langowitz's experience, who's approach falls in the genre of contemporary books like A.J. Jacob's The Year of Living Biblically in which a person takes on a restrictive or radically different culture and shares lessons learned, has something significant to say about tefilla.

Langowitz writes: Prayer was by far the most challenging part of my week. It wasn’t carving out the time from a Yale academic schedule that was so difficult; in fact, having those necessary breaks and seeing the same people at the same hours every day because of a prescribed rhythm was incredibly calming. What was hard was figuring out how to have some sort of meeting with God on a fixed schedule instead of coming to it on my own. I was going to have to pray shacharit each morning at the 7:30 service whether I was ready to or not, so how was I going to make the experience spiritually meaningful? Also, the mode of prayer made me feel disconnected. There was just too much I didn’t know—I was using an unfamiliar siddur, and even though I’m fairly fluent in reading Hebrew, I could barely keep up with the pace set by my peers, who had a lifetime’s experience of saying the same words day in and day out. I was constantly trying to figure out how many pages I was behind or which prayers I could skip. It was a good day if I could make it through the Amidah once before the leader finished his repetition.

This is an eloquent summary of the perspective of our beginner daveners; yet no surprises here. It is a challenge. Davening on a routine schedule can be tough and sometimes listless. Rather, I found Langowitz's reflection to be captivating:

I did, however, gain a very important understanding from davening with others. Before frum week, I had assumed that more observant Jews were just speed reading through the prayers, as compared to the Reform Jews in my home congregation, who actively participated in musical prayer services—the kind of service which often helped me feel connected to God. But after spending so much time experiencing this different style of prayer, I begin to sense that the “mumbling” was really its own type of music, with its own rhythm, its own voice rising and falling.

What would it be like to drastically change the nusach or overhaul the style in which your class davened for a week or month? Would the class get 'used to' the new approach to tefilla? Langowitz never relinquishes her Reform beliefs or taste, but develops an appreciation and some new skills that she will take with her on her Jewish journey; this reflects her maturity as an adult and openness to her ideology. How can the mumbling hum of a tefilla be appreciate for its harmony for students who only see the mumbles?

I remember when I was in Israel for the first time, I was taken to a Yemenite shul for Shabbat morning. What a different (a term that is somewhat watered down here) experience it was for me! Our guide was able to give a educational frame to the experience that allowed me to be more open to this tefilla and not see it as horribly different just because it wasn't what I was used to in New Jersey.

One of the key take aways from reading this post should be to push yourself to stretch out your own personal experiences in tefilla and to offer similar outlets for growth in your students. For if there is one thing that I have learned in davening regularly over the past decade+ is that there is great consensus of what is WRONG with tefilla, and only a few ideas of what can really inspire and touch a soul.

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