Thursday, June 21, 2012


I just saw the follow goggle chat status from a friend:

Minyan is derived from the term “eidah” describing the spies. I guess that is what a shul is: 10 guys of questionable faith who speak lashon hara, and two guys who think they are frummer than everyone else.

I s it funny because its true?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Hardest Part About Davening

This morning I was thinking about this question - What is my personal hardest part about davening? 

For me, it is the conceptual effort to stand before my Creator - spiritually naked revealing all of my inner thoughts and deeds.  It is hard to do this on an ongoing basis; to look into the mirror and reflect on my ethical and material successes and failures.

Then I came across the following tweet (tip of the hat to Rabbi Yonah Bookstein) shortly after I davened and it brought a smile to my face:

Graciously, God reveals the depth of our brokenness gradually over time. If we saw every area instantly we'd feel hopeless.

Very profound.

What is the hardest part for you?

Monday, June 18, 2012

UN-Original Words of Comfort

Presently I am researching a class that I will be giving on Tisha B'Av on the topic of personal vs. national loss. A kind reader of the blog, with this knowledge, sent to me the following text from Baruch Feldstern (on the faculty of Machon Pardes).  I wanted to share this powerful piece in part because I think it identifies the modern's struggle with ritualized prayer.  Let me know your thoughts:

Last September, a friend sent me an e-mail to say that she was sitting in the congregation of her new synagogue on Rosh Hashana when the rabbi illustrated a point in his sermon with "a story that I heard from my teacher, BaruchFeldstern," some thirty years ago. I am not sure where he went from there, but already there are two important messages here for those of you entering the field of education: you never know who among your students is paying attention; and neither you nor they can be sure which casual remark that may or may not resonate at the moment, may become relevant and significant at the right time and place many years later.

But I want to focus on the story itself that this rabbi remembered. It concerned an occasion that had an impact on me - both at the time and in retrospect.

I was at a shiva where the bereaved was one of my teachers, and nearly the whole Jewish Theological Seminary faculty was present, including the esteemed Abraham Joshua Heschel. For those who have not read any of his works, let me explain that the most prosaic of Heschel's paragraphs blossoms with poetry; the spiritual strength of his Hasidic origins lifts the heaviest of his ideas to heavenly spheres. When Heschel was about to leave the shiva, he approached the mourner and I thought to myself - now Heschel, who is so articulate and profound and full of pathos, will surely say something original and deeply meaningful. When he stood face to face with the bereaved and merely recited the customary (Ashkenazi) expression, HaMakom yenahem otkha b'tokh sh'ar aveilei Tziyon Viy'rushalayim - May the Ever-present comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem - I was deeply disappointed. What a let-down; what a lost opportunity.

Later, after more reflection, it seemed to me that it had actually been an illustration of the genius of Jewish tradition. Often, no words are adequate - even for a Heschel - to alleviate the mourner's grief, and the traditionally sanctioned formulation reduces the distress of the comforter's departure. Like so much ritual, often denigrated as mindless rote (Heschel himself warned of the dangers of what he called "religious behaviorism"), such traditions enable us to deal with tension-fraught occasions where our own instincts, imagination and creativity leave us speechless and helpless. In a sense, the formulaic words of the consolation blessing are like a hug in words; but whereas a hug, beyond saying, "I care," is infinitely open to interpretation, the prescribed formula ensures that the brief exchange will express not only the comforter's feelings but also the tradition's interpretation of the occasion to mourner, comforter and observer alike. In this case the message includes affirmations that (1) comfort comes from God, (2) as profound as the grief in this room is, we are still part of a larger community, (3) which has its own tragedies, and (4) among them is the national tragedy of destruction and displacement. As a result of this one-line farewell, whenever a Jew exited a house of mourning during the past 2000 years, s/he was prompted to express the national dimension of our mourning: Jerusalem is in ruins and we are in exile.

This evocation of the tragedy of the entire people was intended in no way to deny the real suffering of the bereaved. Rather, it aimed, on one level, to prompt mourners to contextualize their own loss, to remind them that they were not alone and that, just as the Jewish people had found a way to continue living despite catastrophic loss, so will they.

At the same time, it reminded all who counted themselves as members of the Jewish people that one component of the destiny to which they aspired was the restoration of national existence, a sentiment that found expression not only in a house of mourning but on every joyous occasion and, in fact, repeatedly in the daily liturgy. These prayers continue to give voice to an age-old longing for a home, proclaiming the Jews' own "right of return."

Your discussion about the defined structure of the discourse, with all the traditional layers of meaning from individual grief to the historical destruction and displacement resonates very deeply with me. The prescribed forms and stages of mourning/grieving are profound and comforting. They help define the very essence of what being Jewish means to me. Even when we are beyond words, there are words to sustain us, as part of a wider community.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Prayers from the (Sacred) Trash

I am currently reading Sacred Trash; The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza written by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole (published by Nextbook 2011).  Fascinating stuff, moderns combing through ancient texts.

Last night I came across the following passage that I felt compelled to share here.  In reviewing part of the saga of the discovery and analysis, the authors tell how one scholar (Davidson) finds a text with both Greek and Hebrew letters and identifies an important Hebrew text as a piyyut.  This leads to explanation of rich history of such a poetic tradition which enriched the prayer service in the late fifth century ce:
However exotic or ingrown their compositions might seem by our own standards, at their best payyetanim produced real poetry, sometimes of a major sort.  A vast allusive range; a feeling for dramatic possibility; an ability to extend scriptural narration; a varied repertoire of virtuoso musical strategies; and above all a developed sense of the tradition's homiletical potential and the congregation's hunger for the nourishment it might afford - all these were used to intensify the liturgical moment, to suck marrow from the seemingly dry bones of routinized prayer and to make it matter afresh, as the Mishna demanded: "Whosoever makes his prayer a fixed task," it cautions, "his prayer is not a true supplication." Other sources echo that call: "One's prater should be made new each day," the Palestinian Talmud tells us, and "As new water flows from the well each hour, so Israel renews its song." Extending that notion, other writes still have likened the payyetanim to angels, which - according to one midrash - are created by God for specific missions and vanish after completing them.  (p.110)
I have written previously about the concept of a trained mavens which reaches back to this tradition of the payyetanim, but is clear that our davening today has disconnected from such colorful flourishing (except for maybe Friday night davening).

One final comment - interesting that 1500 years from now, scholars might actual find bar-mitzvah tapes or CD's to hear the sounds and trop used during our davening and song, but we are restricted to the visual image of this poetry without the pleasure of the sounds and effect it had.  Sad and fascinating.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What's Wrong with Texting in Shul?

Are you guilty? Do you touch your phone in shul, check for a message or play a quick level of Angry Birds or Tetris to pass the time during davening?  (I am not talking about those who touch the siddur app in their phone).

Clearly young people today feel more comfortable with technology and social interactions and their own confidence in multitasking, but what exactly is their place in Jewish holy spaces? Previously I have written and shared about technology in the spiritual realm.  But can you pinpoint what's so bad about it?

In my opinion, this is a tell tale sign that the tefilla moment is not engaging and the person is willfully or subconsciously distracted.  We want out students (and fellow daveners) to be in the prayerful moment and to use the time to reflect and transcend, right?  How can you do that, let alone in a room by oneself not to mention it a crowded shul, when the objects (read toys) around pull your focus away?

On a daily basis, I am (unfortunately) often in meetings and it is obvious to me that the people fidgeting on their phones in the meeting don't see the conversation - at that very moment - a priority enough to give fill attention and focus.  I know because when I touch my phone it is because I myself am wandering away.

Isn't that one of the nice aspects of shabbat that we have less mundane distractions?  How do we teach students to overcome the mental and physical distractions that buffer their spiritual space and to teach them to negotiate this challenge during the 'profane' hours of the week?

Two post scripts:

  1. You can read the Yeshiva World News article on the topic, Please Turn Off Your Cellphone - I love the interactions!
  2. According to the Jewish Virtual Library article Synagogue Customs and Etiquette, one of the "no-no's" is the following:  The synagogue may be one of the last remain sanctuaries to escape cell phones and beepers. They should be turned off before entering.

Davening in the Summer?

Some of you may have seen this article in (I tweeted about it today) titled The Five Lives of a Jewish Day School Grad by Micha Lapidus. He presents one profile of the graduate:
2. Spiritual Life. After davening on a regular basis, living the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, and participating in limmudei kodesh (study of Jewish texts and topics) our graduates should be spiritually connected. While this spiritual connection may take many forms and guises as it necessarily evolves and matures, our graduates should be spiritually vibrant and engaged human beings. While I often wonder whether our students are “connecting” during tefila I have no doubt that they will miss the experience of setting aside time in the middle of their daily routine to pause, reflect, refresh, and connect. Rather than simply “missing” this context for spiritual exploration, our graduates should find new outlets and ways of connecting once they've left our schools.
While I agree mostly with the assessment and direction of the article, it really makes me sad to see such "wonderment" and lack of doubt that students won't continue davening when the school year is over.  Indeed it is nice that students "should be spiritually vibrant" upon matriculation, but how is your school evaluating this?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Any Takers for a Shiva Minyan?

What does it mean when your shul sends out the following email?
A member of our congregation is unfortunately sitting shiva for his parent.  It has been brought to our attention that he has not been able to get a minyan all week. 
Please, whether you know him or not, and if you are able to - please help him make a minyan tonight or tomorrow morning. 
A community is hard to establish and even harder to maintain.  In light of my recent post asking about minyan times and when the entire congregation gathers together as one - this recent email had me thinking about a reciprocal problem: how to best to garner commitments from people to sustain each and every minyan!

My father was a person who was adamant about supporting and sustaining a daily minyan and I remember once, when I was on recess in afternoon Hebrew School, leaving the basketball game at the request of the shul beadle to help make a minyan.  I could hear my father willing me out of my free time exercise to go help those that wanted to say kaddish; I think this says a lot about the value of community and the sacrifice of individuals for that cause.

One of the essential questions that drives this blog is how one can evaluate the success of teaching tefilla and I have struggled to share and offer qualitative resources.  Two instruments to measure 'success' is counting who shows up or whether the prayer happens on a regular basis.  If it is a school minyan, does the tefilla start on time or is it delayed because of stragglers?  Or despite the enthusiasm, can you celebrate that the tefilla has happened each day of the school year?

Regardless if these are your instruments to evaluate, sending out the above email to your congregation is a poor indicator of tefilla values.  Either there is a lack of attention to sustain a minyan under more extreme circumstances or there is a significant lack of kindness extended to those out of your immediate circle of friendship.   

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Is Less Davening More Meaningful?

I have written before how I am personally of the preference that less davening is better davening.  But after some serious reflection this past Shabbat, I firmly want to redact and perhaps contradict what I wrote.

Indeed I think that it in order to get to the level of prayer where shorter davening is meaningful and transcendent, you need to experience marathons of time spent in shul and hours flipping pages in piyyutim and prayers.

On Shabbat, in reading the story (Bamidbar 12:13) of Miriam and Aaron's concern over Moshe's marital situation, I was struck again by the simplicity of Moshe's prayer to heal Miraim's leprosy.

 וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה, קאֶל-ה" לֵאמֹר:  קאֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָה

And Moses cried to Hashem, saying: 
'Heal her now, O Gd, I beseech Thee.'

The authority and power of Moshe's simple prayer stems from his individual greatness and recognized mastery and knowledge of Gd.  He is also known to be a sincere mediator and one that he can pray at great length (see Mt. Sinai 40 days and 40 nights for those doubting).  I think this signifies the key quality for a brief and powerful prayer.

For a more modern example, one small throwaway comment from the President of the United States on a specific topic could send the stock markets or political issues through the roof - whereas my own personal pontifications about the S&P, Bonds, or the Supreme Court will not make the waves at my family dinner table.  The power is in the authority of position and communal value placed in the leader.  Otherwise any student could rise up and say, "get well soon" without moving the congregation.

 Thus, we are moved by Moshe's elegant prayer knowing that he can also daven the long prayer.  My personal conclusion, we need to teach the long form of prayer even though the students probably prefer the short form.  I will enjoy try to enjoy and explore more this paradox.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Debate over Bringing Kids to Shul

This blog is an outlet for educators to discuss and explore approaches and resources on tefilla. As I write from an educator's perspective, a lot of what I share involves approaches of students and children to davening.  There is a sincere need to have a conversation about children in shul as they pose a tremendous educational opportunity and danger to the unique environment for daveners.

Tonight, in doing some research, I have come across a lot of websites dealing with adult approaches to children in davening.  I have shared before on this topic and just reread "In The King's Presence" Teaching for Tefillah: A Communal Responsibility by Dr. Wallace Greene and once again fascinated by the different approaches parents have to bringing kids to shul.  But this article, published last year in The Yeshiva World News site, takes the cake.

Titled, "Why I am going to let my kids run around shul", this article elicited 60 responses that run the gamut, that is the gamut for YWN readers.  My personal favorite line is "Judaism (and life) is about trying your best. If you can't do something perfectly, you do it imperfectly." Nonetheless I thought this article was worth sharing because there really is no single 'Best Practice' when it comes to what age and when to bring your kid to shul and really comes down to a subjective calculation on your child's personality and mood, the atmosphere of the synagogue, and the educational opportunity that is present.

What is your synagogue's policy on children in shul?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shul Options

I have ripped this following list from a large US shul to demonstrate how one (orthodox) shul offers many options for their congregants.  I have tried to protect the name of the shul.  Let me know if you notice any trends that I miss:

Shabbat Services 
Main Sanctuary 9:00AM - This service is the cornerstone of the shul.  The Rabbi’s weekly sermons address timely and timeless issues and speak to the congregants’ relationships with one another and with Hashem. Our Cantor leads the service with melodies and songs that never fail to inspire. 
Hashkama Minyan 7:45AM - This early minyan meets on Shabbat morning. With a close-knit feel, this minyan features a 15 minute shiur taught in conjunction with a hot Kiddush immediately following davening. It is an ideal service for early risers, spouses who want to help acclimate their children to Shabbat morning groups and people looking for a spirited Shabbat morning mini shiur. 
Young Leadership Minyan 9:30AM - This weekly Shabbat morning minyan is the nucleus of the Young Leadership Committee’s social and religious programming. The minyan features a sermon each week followed by a Kiddush which provides a wonderful venue for young community leaders to interact after services every week. 
Carlebach Minyan - This monthly Friday night service meets every Shabbat Mevarchim. Led by our Cantor, this minyan uses the tunes of Shlomo Carlebach to inspire us and transform our Friday night experience. 
Beginners Service 9:30AM - A Saturday morning service designed for people who know little or nothing about Jewish prayer. The Beginners Service is an anxiety free, “no Hebrew-necessary, user friendly” prayer experience that will keep you looking forward to Saturday mornings. Service is followed by Kiddush, refreshments and socializing. 
Sunday and Weekday Services 
On Sundays and legal holidays, Shacharit is held 8:30AM. On weekday mornings, Shacharit is at 7:00AM and 8:00AM. 
Minchah and Maariv follow the schedule on the calendar. 
Women’s Tehillim 7:15PM - Join us every other Monday evening as we recite the entire Book of Tehillim (Psalms) for those who need our spiritual support and for the safety and well-being of our brothers and sisters in Israel. We divide the Psalms among all members present so that we may articulate a meaningful and complete prayer as a group.

First of all I observe that there are options for early rises and late comers, old and young, beginners and advanced, and those that like to sing and those that want to get it over as soon as possible.

Next, notice that food (no surprise) is a key ingredient to the communal tefilla experience.

Finally, when is everyone together in the same room?  There is a halachik concept of ברוב עם הדרת מלך - "in the great multitude the king's glory is enhanced" - which proposes that it is better for amass more people for a religious experience.  When does this community really get together - to daven or even just to socialize?