Thousands of Conservative Jews from around the world gathered together for prayer, song and a little Torah learning on April 5.
It wasn’t in person, of course; those who attended the Global Gathering for Healing, organized by the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, were there via Zoom. They heard from rabbis offering words of comfort, they wrote their prayers and gratitude in the chat box and were even treated to performances from Israeli musician David Broza and Rising Song Institute founder and co-director Joey Weisenberg.
To Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the incoming CEO of USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly, the Global Gathering for Healing felt like a form of prayer. Perhaps not “fixed prayer,” he said, but prayer nonetheless.
“It was a really beautiful, great event,” he said.
Blumenthal, who is at home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is far from alone when it comes to thinking about prayer during this period of social distancing. Rabbis in communities across the country are reporting that their streamed prayer services and educational events are drawing congregants in numbers rarely recorded for the typical in-person versions. That people seem to be turning to prayer in such large numbers, he said, demonstrates “a longing for connection and spiritual experience.” Prayer, Blumenthal said, seems to “meet the needs of the moment” for many people, when it comes to their fears and anxieties.
Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Elkins Park, certainly feels that way. In her conception of God, she said, God is “love-energy,” a “force of good in the world, “energy in our neshama, a spark of the Divine.” When groups of people gather together to pray with intention, something special happens. “We know that we can concentrate our energy if there’s groups of us in prayer, and we can magnify it,” she said. “In groups of people, we can focus and magnify our intentions for this Divine force of love and healing and goodness, and that is what I call prayer.”
Though gathering via videoconference can make it more difficult to feel the powerful forces that she usually feels during prayer, Raphael believes that the power of prayer can transcend such obstacles. One can feel the schechina, the Divine presence of God, she said, even looking into a little camera.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz of Kol Ami has led community prayer sessions via Zoom since just after Purim. Participation in regular Shabbat services, she said, has shot up. For some, the fixed prayer itself can be its own reward, but for many others, just the feeling of being in a group of people can offer just as much. Her congregants are seeking solace and comfort from their community right now, she said, and prayer has become a key part of that for some.
Perhaps even more so, she believes, prayer services have the potential to give shape to a worshiper’s life, to make clear the distinction between different periods of time in a meaningful way.
“I’m really seeing the value in connecting with community,” she said. Even watching a livestreamed Indigo Girls concert, Berkowitz said with a laugh, felt a little bit like prayer, as she saw the names of people she knew from all walks of life gather in the same audience for a shared experience.
Rabbi David Levin of Wynnewood is a part of the Jewish Relationships Initiative, a nonprofit that provides outreach to unaffiliated Jewish people in the Philadelphia area. Though ordained as a Reform rabbi, Levin said, he typically works with Jews across all denominations who seek to move closer to Jewish life and practice.
For Levin, prayer is “a chance to refocus oneself, it’s a chance to clear one’s mind and be present almost like a form of meditation, and it can also be a chance to set one’s intention.” Even something as simple as saying the Modeh Ani when you wake up, he said, thanking God for another day, can feel powerful. And though that individual prayer can provide some comfort, he believes, people who want to feel embraced should look to the people around them, through prayer or other means.
“In human connection, and in human relationships, that’s where God really is,” he said. “That’s God-like. That’s God being there. That’s prayer.”
Rabbi Tsurah August, a rabbi and chaplain with Jewish Family and Children’s Service, is wrestling with the same questions she typically does: What is the role of God in her life? How can she connect to the benevolence of the universe? The global pandemic, she said, is another iteration of a familiar theme.
“What this has done, as all crises do, is challenge what our theology is, and how we make meaning of life,” August said.
Fixed, text-based prayer can be meaningful, she said, but what has felt like prayer to her in the last month is the simple act of waving to a stranger from across the street in her neighborhood of Mt. Airy.
“When people call or even wave to each other, it’s a prayer,” she said. “‘Hope you’re OK! Strangers, hope you’re OK! I pray that you’re OK!’”