By Jesse Bernstein
On April 5, thousands of Conservative Jews all over the world gathered together for prayer, song and a little Torah learning. It wasn’t in person, of course; those who attended the Global Gathering for Healing, organized by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, were there via Zoom. They heard words of comfort from rabbis, they wrote their prayers and gratitude in the chat box and were treated to performances from Israeli musician David Broza and Rising Song Institute founder and co-director Joey Weisenberg.
To Conservative movement leader Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the Global Gathering for Healing felt like prayer. Perhaps not “fixed prayer,” he says, but prayer nonetheless.
Blumenthal, who is at home in Gaithersburg, is far from alone when it comes to thinking about prayer during this period of social distancing. Rabbis in communities all over the country are reporting that their streamed prayer services and educational events are drawing congregants in numbers rarely recorded for the typical in-person versions. That people seem to be turning to prayer in such large numbers, he said, demonstrates “a longing for connection and spiritual experience.”
Prayer, Blumenthal says, seems to “meet the needs of the moment” for many people, when it comes to their fears and anxieties.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld certainly understands the sentiment. Herzfeld, who leads Ohev Shalom – The National Synagogue in Washington, says that he’s felt his own relationship to prayer “intensify” over the past month or so. The context of the global pandemic has underlined the precariousness of existence in new ways, he says, which has invested his prayers, on behalf of the sick and those caring for them, with greater meaning.
“I miss terribly the communal prayer in synagogue, and I can’t wait for that day to return,” Herzfeld says. “But in the meantime, I’m finding great meaning in the other forms of prayer that we’ve transitioned into.”
Six days a week, Herzfeld prays the three daily services on Zoom with his congregants. On Shabbat, he prays with his wife and their seven children. Those Zoom services are farbetter attended than their in-person counterparts usually were, Herzfeld says.
Rabbi Ilana Zietman is the community rabbi at GatherDC, an organization for Jews in their 20s and 30s. Zietman’s job, connecting those young Jews to the vast Jewish community network in the Washington area, is one that typically involves endless coffee meetings and having a finger on the pulse of local Jewish life. Though she’s unable to do either of those things in the way that she normally does, Zietman has found novel ways of working to forge community, for herself and for others.
Often, that takes the form of prayer.
Virtual, video-based prayer, Zietman says, is certainly different from the in-person practice, but it’s brought some unexpected fun. She can virtually “shul-hop,” dropping in services here and there, seeing new faces everywhere she goes. Shul-hopping, she says, “has actually been a really, really wonderful gift.”
In rabbinical school, as in prayer, Zietman thought a lot about the interplay between God, the world and herself. One thing she’s found is that people can find the products of prayer through means that are not necessarily from a siddur. She’s heard of many people who have taken to daily journaling in the past month, expressing their daily gratitude in a way that must be prayer.
Zietman has also come to feel, more acutely than ever, the utility of prayer rituals in distinguishing time periods from one another. GatherDC has been lighting candles via Zoom every Friday at 6 p.m., and that rituals appear to be helpful for the attendees, even for those among them who don’t regularly take part in religious practice.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, who serves a congregation in the suburbs of Philadelphia, has been leading community prayer sessions via Zoom since just after Purim. Participation in regular Shabbat services, she said, has shot up. For some, the fixed prayer itself can be its own reward, but for many others, just the feeling of being in a group of people can offer just as much. Her congregants are seeking solace and comfort from their community right now, she says, and prayer has become a key part of that for some.
Perhaps even more so, she believes, prayer services have the potential to give shape to a worshiper’s life, to make clear the distinction between different periods of time in a meaningful way.
“I’m really seeing the value in connecting with community,” she says. Even watching a livestreamed Indigo Girls concert, Berkowitz said with a laugh, felt a little bit like prayer, as she saw the names of people she knew from all walks of life gather in the same audience for a shared experience.
Jesse Bernstein is a writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.
Why Jews Pray
The regular ritual of prayer focuses a Jew’s attention on his or her connection to God, and adds holiness to every part of the day, from the first moment of awakening to the last moments before sleep.”
When people pray, they spend time with God. To pray is to serve God with your heart, obeying God’s commandment: “…to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 11:13).
“Jewish prayer is G‑d’s way of telling the Jewish people, ‘speak to Me and I will listen.’”
“I believe that prayer is a fundamental, defining human need. When our hearts are full or empty, when we feel deep longing, gratitude, humility, awe, love, or devotion, many of us — even those who don’t relate to liturgical prayer in a formal service — instinctively turn toward prayer, just as a flower turns toward the sun.”
—Rabbi Nancy Flam, Institute for Jewish Spirituality
“The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song.”
—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
“Prayers and blessings in Judaism are both spontaneous and set. They are institutionalized and extemporaneous. We pray in service to God, and in gratitude to Him. We pray for peace, health and redemption, and we pray before we eat or drink. We pray before we pick up a lulav, and after we answer the call of nature.”
—Aharon E. Wexler, writing in The Jerusalem Post