How Members of One Shul Sought to Change the Way They Daven
After Covid, people’s relationship to davening shifted. For some regular minyan goers, the opportunity to go at their own pace in their living rooms was hard to leave behind. For some nature lovers, the transition from outdoor davening (our outdoor space in Sharon, Massachusetts, is gorgeous) to the passionless pews of the sanctuary was a real letdown. For some who suffered loss, there were philosophical doubts. And for almost everyone, there was a sense that the crisis was now in the rearview mirror. Having survived a once-in-a-lifetime predicament, there was less desperation, at least on a daily basis, to reach out to Hashem for help. Put simply, there was less of a need to daven. Human nature is to feel dependent when there are imminent health, emotional or financial deficiencies. When we are not desperate, we think that we can wait until the next davening to really focus.
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik underscores this point in his explanation for why Chanah’s request for a child is finally granted.1 For the mother of Shmuel HaNavi, the pivotal moment of davening is immediately after her husband Elkanah tells her to move on and find joy where joy can be found. It is at this moment of intense loneliness, with the type of pain that risked breaking her entirely, that Chanah davens like she never davened before and shortly thereafter, merits to become a mother.
It is no surprise that Chanah’s breakthrough tefillah moment was when she felt most desperate, helpless and alone. But I wonder what happened after the crisis passed. How intense was Chanah’s tefillah the year after Shmuel was born? What about the year after that? How was her davening when things were calm, regular and routine? Did she have as much focus and intention? Devotion and emotion? We don’t know, but we could speculate that it might have been much harder to connect.
A Simple Experiment
On Rosh Hashanah 5783, I decided to address the davening challenges by introducing Davening Discussion Groups. Here’s how it worked: Each of the 220 families/adult members of Young Israel of Sharon was assigned to a group of six to eight other families/adult members. They were invited to join a WhatsApp chat for their group, create a fun name and become an active member. Each group was to meet four times between Sukkot and Pesach to discuss issues of faith and prayer. I provided material for the discussions and participated in the first and third discussions. Each group was assigned a captain who was responsible for scheduling. I really encouraged members to join. “Being detached and cynical about tefillah is all too easy; being earnest and invested is hard,” I told them. “We are going for the latter.”
“There is no hidden agenda or building campaign at the end of this initiative,” I told my congregants. “The goals are serious engagement with the experience of prayer, growing from one another’s struggles and successes, and developing relationships. The reward will be a more connected kehillah, full of individuals with invigorating relationships with our Creator.”
The Results Are In
We ended up with a total of 22 groups, after those who preferred to opt out. Of those, 19 made it to the second meeting, 15 to the third meeting, and 8 to the final meeting. Three nights a week throughout the fall, winter and spring, I was sitting in someone’s living room facilitating a discussion on davening, oftentimes two groups in one night.
Those who opted out were asked to answer a survey about why they were unable to participate. While the most popular reason was “I just don’t have time for this right now,” about one third clicked the option: “I can easily talk about the motions and mechanics of davening but I am not comfortable talking with other people about the spirituality of davening.”
The first session centered around Berachot 6b: “These matters [davening] stand at the top of the world and yet most people take them lightly.” I asked two questions on this text: Why does davening assume this lofty appropriation? And, why do many people struggle to relate to davening seriously?
I took notes on every session and now have pages upon pages of notes to reflect on. People opened up and shared some profound insights and personal reflections. A novelist said that she struggles to be passionate about a script that she did not write. A few parents remarked that they treat davening lightly because in their experience it just doesn’t work, as they have stormed the Heavens to request healing for their children who did not survive. An English teacher said that davening in ancient Hebrew with unfamiliar terms feels, more often than not, like wrapping her tongue around fossils. A convert shared that after decades of effort she still cannot penetrate the daunting fortress-like language barrier. A neurologist remarked that he cannot understand how the halachic expectation to say the same words, at the same time of day, every day, does not lead to routinization and mindlessness.
I then shifted the conversation and asked: Who are your role models in davening? Whom do you think about when you are trying to connect? And under what conditions have you experienced euphoric davening moments?
With this prompt, an educator shared: When I evaluate my struggle with tefillah and other areas of similar struggle, I arrive at my relationship with healthy eating. One is about bodily health and the other is about soul health. I know that certain foods are good for me, but if I am not actively working on it, I am sliding backwards. The upkeep is constant. I always need to be exerting effort, making hard choices that involve sacrificing certain pleasures for something else that sometimes doesn’t feel so enjoyable. I often get lazy and justify that I will make a better choice next time. With davening, this means that if I am not engaged in iyun tefillah, learning about the meaning of the words and the layers of the siddur, then I am just coasting and getting by. I often make the justification that I can wait until my next davening to get it right; for now, I’ll just take it easy and let my mind wander wherever it wants to go. But when I put in the effort, I feel vitality, fully alive, fresh, crisp, just like when I make healthy food choices.
At the end of the first session, I handed out davening modality cards, a compilation of fourteen different paths for connecting to our Creator, based on Rabbi Aryeh Ben David’s book, Godfile: 10 Approaches to Personalizing Prayer. Each card had a title, such as “The Listener,” “The Mystic,” “The Malcontent,” with Torah sources explaining that pathway to approach Hashem in davening. I asked each person to use this card as a bookmark in his or her siddur over the next few weeks and to come prepared to share his or her reflections on that modality at the second session, led by the group captains.
Captains were charged to take notes on that conversation, which I then discussed with them prior to the third session —a workshop on the first berachah of the Amidah. After connecting some of the comments from the captains’ sessions to the structure and themes of the Shemoneh Esrei, I handed out pens and a worksheet on which the contents of the first berachah were divided according to their poetic structure, with provocative questions on the tefillah. We slowly and methodically went through each phrase of the first berachah. We traced back all the primary texts upon which the paragraph is based, examined the poetic structure and explored the imagery through the commentary of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.2
At the conclusion of the third session, I handed out another essay by Rabbi Kaplan, “Conversing with G-d,” which bemoans the reality that davening has for the most part been relegated to formal tefillah b’tzibbur in shul. He provides specific guidance for having a conversation with our Creator whenever and wherever we are. We should be more comfortable speaking directly to Hashem while running carpool, going for a jog or at the many transition points in our day.
The fourth and final session focused on Rabbi Kaplan’s article. While I was not in attendance, one of the captains shared with me that an older woman in her group didn’t understand why I had assigned this essay as it was obvious and extraneous to her. For this is how her mother and grandmother had taught her to daven at every stage of her life. She remarked: “I have a fixed date with the Eibishter every night when I do the dinner dishes. That is when we catch up about the day and discuss the day ahead!”
One of my mentors, Marty Linsky, taught me the concept of “getting up on the balcony,” which describes the practice of getting off the dance floor and stepping back to gain a more wholistic perspective on what is really going on.3 This is what our community achieved in the domain of davening through this simple experiment. We stepped above our prayerful lives, created some healthy distance and examined what we have been doing, why we are doing it and how we could do it better. Over these last several months, we tried to upgrade our davening personalities and become a more connected community—both interpersonally and with Hashem. In addition to these primary objectives, there were some other positive outcomes that were not insignificant. This included having substantive conversations with some individuals who had never attended a class with me before, engaging with millennials who struggle to show up for weekday minyanim, and forming new friendships between likeminded people in different age and social groups. Most significantly, our daily minyanim are stronger than they have ever been. I am grateful to all the captains who did much of the heavy lifting and for the privilege of serving a kehillah that is seeking to grow through davening.
Rabbi Noah Cheses, a former OU-JLIC educator at Yale University, is rav of the Young Israel of Sharon in Massachusetts.
1. See Harerei Kedem 22.
2. Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide (New York, 1985), ch. 12.
3. Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change (Brighton, Massachusetts, 2002).