Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, famed defender of the Jewish people, was visiting a town. Approaching the community’s synagogue for worship services, he refused to step in. “The synagogue is full of prayers,” he explained. The townspeople were confused. Prayers in the synagogue are recited by rote, without kavanah, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak said. “The prayers don’t reach Heaven.”
I had an epiphany in shul a few years ago—an unpleasant epiphany.
One Shabbat morning I walked into a synagogue I often attend. As usual, most of the pews were empty. As usual, many of the men were schmoozing with their neighbors. As usual, few people appeared to be actually praying. I’m in no position to judge people’s hearts, but I knew I wanted something that actually looked—or sounded—like real prayer. If I weren’t already Orthodox, I said to myself, I would never come here; if I didn’t know the beauty of Torah-true Judaism, I wouldn’t stay Orthodox.
I sensed no inspiration in that Shacharit. I didn’t get the sense that pray-ers were talking to God. It was like being back in elementary school, students in their seats speaking words that didn’t speak to them. I often feel that way in shul, often more inspired—or less distracted—davening alone. The fault, I decided, was mine—not an outsider’s.
I decided that I had to work on my own tefillah before I criticized anyone else’s, that my inspiration would have to come from within. I decided to improve my prayer.
My kavanah is too frequently deficient. My mind strays; I get distracted; I don’t pay attention to what the words mean—if I truly understand them in the first place.
I’m no longer satisfied with tefillah being a scripted experience, limited to words and directions (stand up, sit down, whisper, et cetera) in a prayer book. Why can’t my prayer, with historical roots in the words that accompanied the karbanot in the Beit Hamikdash, be impromptu, unscripted thanks and praise? I started reading from my shelf full of books on tefillah.
I considered my jogging background. I entered many races, usually 10-kilometer. I would never try to keep up with the faster runners or try to outrun those behind me; I would maintain my own pace, usually finishing in the middle of the pack.
Now, if I find myself out-of-sync with the shaliach tzibbur or other mitpallelim, so be it. I’m in shul to talk to God.
I considered my journalistic background. Every word, when writing or reading, is vital. If I don’t know what a word means, I consult a dictionary.
Now, stumped by a word or phrase in the siddur—why hadn’t I noticed a particular phrase in a particular way before?—I consider it at length, reading available commentaries. Then I move on. Then I catch up.
I thought of Christian worship services from a Black congregation I heard on the radio a long time ago, congregants shouting “Amen” as the preacher sermonized, declaring the blessings they had received that week. Tevye-like, they were speaking to a familiar God.
I asked a few people for suggestions: Shraga Schofield listens to the soft sounds—not on Shabbat or yom tov obviously—of inspirational music on his iPod under his tallit, in the spirit of the Levi’im in the Temple. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, the famed psychiatrist and author, hums a few melodies from a Sephardic siddur before he leaves his house for davening each morning. Hali Weiss attends her synagogue’s junior congregation, where the leader explains the prayers and encourages questions. Yaacov and Terry Kravitz, at home Friday night, lead everyone onto their porch for the last verse of Lecha Dodi—a la the kabbalists in Tzfat—and encourage everyone at the meal to tell how God blessed him or her that week.
These suggestions help, but my prayer life is still evolving.
I have a suggestion: a beginner’s minyan, sometimes called a learner’s minyan. Led by a rabbi or educated layman, a beginner’s minyan allows pray-ers to read standard prayers, stopping to analyze particular words or phrases in depth. What does this prayer mean? Why does it appear here? What is its message?
I look for a beginner’s minyan wherever I go. Unfortunately, I can’t go often enough; too few synagogues offer them. The National Jewish Outreach Program promotes these services, but they haven’t proven as popular as programs such as “Shabbat Across America.”
Just as many congregations routinely offer prayer options such as a hashkamah minyan and a young married’s minyan, every shul that can afford a beginner’s minyan should sponsor one.
Like the increasingly popular Carlebach minyanim, which appeal to the heart, a beginner’s minyan, which aims at the head, can help keep Judaism alive and vital.
A beginner’s minyan is a way to make sure that our synagogues are full of pray-ers, and not prayers.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at the Jewish Week in New York. Anyone who has other suggestions for improving tefillah can contact him at email@example.com.