The Amen Phenomenon

by | in Inspiration

Throughout the world, groups of women are gathering together to share the importance and power of Amen.

imageIn 2001, while driving home to Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, twenty-six-year-old Alte Nechama Malka (“Malkie”) Wachsman was killed in an accident. Among the hundreds of visitors at the mourning house of her devastated parents in Bnei Brak, a friend of her mother’s observed that Malkie’s initials, A.N.M., comprise the word “Amen.” Her parents later realized that the word Amen (derived from the opening words of Shema—“Kel Melech ne’eman”) is the essence of emunah, or faith.

Halachically, one is required to recite 100 blessings a day, but responding “Amen” to another person’s blessing is equivalent to reciting the blessing oneself. In response to her daughter’s death, Rebbetzin Sara Meisels, the daughter of the late Bobover rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, decided to share the importance and power of the word Amen with others. With the encouragement of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky from Bnei Brak, a group of women in that community began to recite the Morning Blessings together to enable each other to respond Amen. These meetings have since generated a sea change among mainstream Orthodox women. Such groups now convene every morning before Shacharit at the Western Wall and elsewhere in Israel. In May 2006, an Amen Tefillah Conference in Jerusalem was attended by thousands of women, and parallel events took place in Canada and Australia.

Rosh Hashanah 2005: the movement spreads to the United States. Three women launch an Amen group in a heavily Orthodox New York City suburb. Today, some sixty women show up every morning to say Amen to each other’s fifteen Morning Blessings. These women include wives, mothers and grandmothers—some with considerable family responsibilities, some who have day jobs or are enrolled in university.

It is not a new concept to say blessings aloud to enable another to respond Amen, nor is it new for women pray together in the mornings. What is new is that for many otherwise ordinary women, it is becoming almost addictive to begin the day by responding Amen to the blessings of other women.

Sandra Michaels,* a housewife from Queens, New York, is one of the few Amen regulars with small children: “I used to agonize that I wouldn’t be able join the Amen group until my kids are out of preschool, and catching earlier school buses,” she says. “I had heard wonderful things about [the group], and I really wanted to go. Then, one day I arrived at 9 a.m., forty-five minutes after [the davening] started, to say Tehillim for my friend’s son-in-law who was surgery. I found I was able to daven, without any phone calls or other distractions, and I felt such a connection to all these special women.

“It feels like all of our tefillot are going up together. It is very powerful and very addictive. So now I go almost every day. When my husband or older children are home, I get the treat of being on time and experiencing the whole program. If not, I just catch the davening and Tehillim. Usually there are a few women who make a separate group for latecomers, giving me a chance to say my berachot out loud and answer Amen to others.”

Toba Ben David, a professional artist from Queens who has been attending the Amen group for over a year, speaks enthusiastically about her experience as well: “Throughout my life, davening has been a serious business, but not long ago I began feeling that it needed a major overhaul. Someone invited me to attend a local Amen group but I was unsure if I wanted to commit at that time. When I was asked by the same person again, I felt it might be a message. Davening with, and being inspired by, these women with their commitment to a Torah-true life has had a tremendous impact on me, and subsequently on my family. It is an experience like no other.”

There is a magnetic energy among the group, which attracts women seeking spiritual camaraderie. While there have been women who have attended only once or twice and decided it is not for them, the group has grown considerably over the past two years.

“And in the rain of Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, I am moved to tears.”

Some of the women who initially decided not to return have reappeared at a later date, when they have had a need to seek that sort of support.

The fellowship in the group grows as the women share each other’s joys and sorrows. Henya Tauber, a single mother who teaches preschool, explains that the group provides her with a forum for spiritual support. “[The Amen group] wasn’t something I was looking for,” she says. “Someone suggested I would belong there religiously, and it has really been so. I have been included in the semachot of several members of the group. They have become my ‘spiritual’ friends! The reason it works for me is because it’s every single morning, same time, same place—like coming home.”

The format for the Amen group has evolved over time. Currently, fifteen blessings are said by a leader, and all respond Amen. Individuals then stand to say their blessings aloud, with the group responding Amen to each one. A short lesson follows the blessings, then a reading from a book on guarding one’s speech. Finally Shacharit is finished individually and charity is collected.

The women seem to benefit from each other’s presence. Not bound by numbers
or by time, Amen groups add a deeper dimension to the fellowship of prayer.

Amen supper gatherings, called Me-Ga-Esh, are also held on or close to Rosh Chodesh, the night of the new moon. At the suppers, a psalm is read and a woman gives a lesson in Torah. Then, five types of food and drink are served separately, allowing each person to say the appropriate blessing over each food, and for all to respond Amen. Me-Ga-Esh is an acronym for the order of blessings said on various foods.2 (Maga esh also means “touch of fire” in Hebrew.) At these gatherings, prayers are also said for those who are unwell and charity is collected. Those who have young families can participate in these suppers more readily than in morning Amen groups.

The first New York Amen group evolved out of a shemirat halashon study group. Aviva Michaelson, a Rego Park lawyer, one of the group’s founders, had been to two celebrations in one family, eighteen months apart, and noticed a significant but elusive difference in the same women guests. Apparently, sometime between the two celebrations, the women had begun a shemirat halashon study group because two children in their community had become critically ill, and a rabbi suggested that learning the laws of guarding one’s speech could be helpful. Michaelson realized that these women’s conversations were, indeed, different at the second celebration—the women were more careful about what they said and spoke more kindly. Michaelson decided to start a shemirat halashon group in her community.

The publication of Just One Word by Esther Stern (Feldheim, 2005) emphasized how the word Amen can open up the Heavenly Gates and bring about positive changes. This publication inspired the group to grow to the next level.

What had perhaps the most impact on the group, however, was Ruth Jacobs’ trip to Israel. Jacobs, a participant of the shemirat halashon group, attended the Amen group organized by Rebbetzin B. Kanievsky in Bnei Brak. Jacobs was deeply inspired by the rebbetzin and the group of righteous women she encountered there. Upon returning home right before the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, she encouraged her shemirat halashon group to begin saying berachot aloud, as is done daily in Bnei Brak. “We reasoned it was Rosh Hashanah and we were doing it for teshuvah, repentance, for the past year,” says Jacobs. “We didn’t anticipate that it was going to become as [big as] it is today.”

The Amen group began with ten women. Malka Levy initially offered her home to the group for the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She has been hosting it ever since.

Levy was especially interested in hosting the group because of her experience the previous summer. Visiting Israel, she decided to go to the Kotel every morning for Shacharit. On the first day she did so, she witnessed an unusual sight. “It was very quiet at the Kotel before 7 a.m. … But I noticed women coming towards me,” she says. “I learned that they had arrived at 5 a.m. I decided to join them. It was amazing. The place was filled with women who had gotten up really early to be there.

“Then I noticed a group of women in a circle. They were saying berachot aloud and responding ‘Amen.’ Another group of women was saying Perek Shira. Yet another group was … explaining the meanings of the prayers. I was so moved. I wanted to bottle the feeling, the inspiration, and bring it home. And I wanted it to last with me every single day of my life. How do you perpetuate that? After returning from Israel on that spiritual high, your life becomes mundane again.

“So when my good friend Ruth Jacobs asked me if we could get together in the mornings to say Amen, I emphatically said, ‘Yes, and use my home for it.’ This was just what I wanted—to start my day with that feeling. I am not an early riser but in Israel I could not wait to begin davening at the Kotel. I didn’t recognize myself. And my davening was like Neilah, the Closing Service on Yom Kippur, every single day.”

Levy feels honored to be hosting the Amen group. “I am blessed that it is in my place,” she says. “It is a reason for me to get up in the morning joyfully.”

Initially, the group met at 6:30 a.m. in the Levys’ library because the organizers were afraid that if the meetings would take place later, participants would not be able to attend because of other responsibilities. After Sukkot, it became clear that a 6:30 a.m. start could not be sustained, and the time was changed to 8:15 a.m. But those who needed to meet earlier protested, so a second and third group were started in two nearby communities.

Word about the Amen groups spread, and the original group began to outgrow the library. In the group’s new location in the Levy’s basement, a wall-sized photo mural of the Kotel was installed. These days, on Rosh Chodesh, up to three hundred women often arrive, and the space seems elastic. Five smaller separate groups quickly form in different corners of the large room and begin reciting the blessings. Women come from all over, some traveling for up to forty-five minutes.

“And in the rain of Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, I am moved to tears,” says Levy. “If we average two hundred and fifty women saying Amen fifteen times and then add those who say the blessings aloud individually, that means at least two hundred and eighty thousand Amens come out of this room on Rosh Chodesh.”

On Rosh Chodesh, the women also sing Hallel, the special psalms for the festivals, offering an opportunity for women with beautiful voices to lead the singing, a rare joy for both singer and participants. A speaker is then followed by a small breakfast.

Amen groups are not interested in publicity; even my request to interview the participants was regarded with hesitancy. Women find out about such groups via word of mouth. The overall feeling at an Amen group is one of modesty and profound humility in the presence of each other and of the Creator.

The movement seems to have passed its tipping point and members now take ownership of it. One woman organizes the Rosh Chodesh speakers; one looks after the books and tapes available to borrow; there is a committee to distribute the tzedakah. In fact, the original New York group recently raised a remarkable $9,000 for young couples and families in need.

Chaya Brandwein, an accountant who regularly attends the Amen group, admits that she was hesitant about attending at first. Nevertheless, she started going and is thrilled that she did so. “Being a shy person, I wasn’t so comfortable beginning my morning with women I don’t know. But having the opportunity to say Amen to one hundred berachot a day was the pull for me.…

“Why do women leave their homes in the early morning and race to be there on time? I can’t explain it other than to say that there is kedushah in that room that just gets you in, emanating from the bond these women have created. And the bond embraces you with ahavat Yisrael. … Unless you have been there, you just can’t imagine what an effect the Amen group can have on your life.”

Postscript:
Amen groups have now crossed the globe. Rosh Chodesh Me-Ga-Esh suppers have now been celebrated in Sydney, Australia, and may soon be held in Melbourne.

For further information about Amen groups, contact theamengroup@yahoogroups.com.

Gael Hammer, a writer and teacher, is a founder of the Women’s Tefillah Group in Sydney, Australia, and has represented Australia at JOFA conferences in New York. She has participated in several Amen Tefillah services.

* All names and identifying details have been changed to respect the group’s wish for privacy.

Note:
1. When bread is not served at a meal, certain foods and their blessings are given precedence. Traditionally, each blessing also represents a particular request or prayer. ME–Mezonot (baked goods other than bread), represents the prayer for parnassah or adequate income. G—Gefen (grape juice or wine), represents the prayer for shidduchim, or those needing to find spouses; A—Ha’adamah, (berries and vegetables from the earth), represents the prayer for longevity; E—Etz,(fruits from trees), represents the prayer for children; and SH—Shehakol (everything not covered by the other blessings), represents the prayer for anything the person wishes to pray for.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2007.

Leave a Comment