On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to Meaningful Tefillah in the Synagogue from Eliezer Diamond

Arnie’s blog celebrates, and rightly so, what is good about our synagogues. He also acknowledges that we need to do more to make davening a powerful and satisfying experience for our congregants. I want to expand upon these two themes. In what follows I first consider how and why shul and davening “work” for many congregants. I then suggest what is missing in our congregations and offer some thoughts about how to provide it.

Prayer is first and foremost about connection. For almost all those who come to shul, davening, or indeed one’s very presence in the synagogue—and at the Kiddush—strengthens a sense of connection with the community and with the Jewish people, past and present. For some, prayer brings about a connection with a divine presence. Some call that presence Hashem; some call it God. Yet others experience it as the force that animates all of existence. For some that presence is personal; for others it is cosmic.

In shul we leave behind loneliness and isolation. This is particularly true when we share with others our joys and sorrows through prayers for the ill, the recitation of kaddish, and the celebration of life-cycle events. When others comfort or congratulate us, we learn to value ourselves more because others care about us.

I think that being in shul, regardless of the quality of davening, brings about all of the above for the vast majority of congregants; otherwise they wouldn’t be there.

So what is missing in our synagogues? Prayer is meant not only to comfort us but also to transform us. Shul should be a place where we become fully alive by acknowledging and embracing our private fears, hopes, anger, grief, and joy. It should be a place where we allow ourselves to feel compassion for ourselves and others. It should challenge us to take a moral inventory and to consider how we can lead better lives by embodying the righteousness and compassion that we attribute to God. The person who leaves the synagogue should be different from the one who entered it. And it is this transformational element that is missing in most of our shuls and, I believe, the true source of people’s disappointment with prayer, although they themselves may not realize it.

How do we change this? First, by teaching our congregants that in shul we are meant to, as I like to put it, pray alone together. Prayer should have a private dimension as well as a public one. Congregants need to be shown how to pray rather than simply recite prayers. This agenda has to be made explicit in a way that is both gentle and confident and it needs to be pursued intelligently. Important components include rabbis and cantors sharing their own prayer lives with congregants; (re)configuring the sanctuary so that the clergy are in the midst of the congregation—and this can be done even in so-called cathedral synagogues if there is the determination to do so and the congregation is educated about the importance of this shift; leading prayers in a way that signals that the shaliah zibbur and the rabbi are daveners like everyone else; using niggunim, which should be available at synagogue websites; and offering classes that encourage congregants to talk about their own prayer lives while simultaneously exposing them to the teachings of Heschel, Soloveitchik kabbalists, Hassidic masters, and contemporary works on prayer. These should be taught as Torah, with an eye towards finding relevance for oneself in these teachings.

These goals are not easily achieved. To realize them requires time, energy, careful planning, a well-thought-out educational plan, and, above all, the belief that to bring this kind of prayer experience to our congregants is important enough to warrant all of the above. So often we ask: what do our congregants want? Let us also ask: what do they need?