On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Meaningful Tefillah in the Synagogue, Continued” from Jesse Olitzky

I once went to Shabbat services at a well-known independent minyan that consciously chose to not call itself a synagogue or affiliate itself with the Conservative Movement. This minyan prided itself on its dynamic tefillot, and, surely, the participatory service with singing and dancing was something that many synagogues could and should strive to replicate. Yet, no one said hello to me, no one welcomed me. There was no warm embrace, not even a wave or a smile. I sat alone during services. It was challenging for me to connect to God because I felt so disconnected from the prayer community. If we really want to create moments for meaningful prayer experiences, then we have to create welcoming communities. I believe this is what Chancellor Eisen is referring to when he suggests the synagogue needs to be a real community.

We must create opportunities to teach our congregants so that we all can access the liturgy. This may be through learners’ minyanim or Hebrew courses. The point is that we never stop learning. The more we learn, the more accessible tefillah becomes. When we are more familiar and comfortable with liturgy, we aren’t so dependent on liturgy. We are able to use the keva to raise our level of kavanah.

The need for music in the synagogue is vital and well established, but the need for music is not necessarily about the need for musical instruments. Music is about offering new melodies, and melodies that allow the entire community to participate. Music in the synagogue is about participatory services that encourage clapping and dancing and banging on pews and shtenders. Adding music to the prayer experiences means dancing until your legs are tired and singing niggunim until your voice is hoarse .

I also believe moments of silence in meaningful prayer experiences are essential, but we must understand that silence is more than quiet moments. Silence allows one to truly hear the kol demama dakkah, the still small Voice of God that Elijah hears. Prayer isn’t always about loud noises, with lots of melodies, banging, clapping, and dancing. Prayer is also about meditative moments that allow for personal revelatory experiences.

Amazing opportunities for study, communal participatory prayer experiences, and personal and private moments to wrestle with God do not matter if the community is not a welcoming community. A welcoming community turns a kehillah into a kehillah kedoshah. There is nothing easy about prayer. Connecting to God, talking to God, is sometimes the most challenging thing to do as Jews and human beings. If we first feel connected to community, then it also becomes possible to connect to God.