Where are Profound Prayer Experiences Found? … Not Where We Might Expect

One might expect that living in Jerusalem (as opposed to, say, Columbus, Ohio) offers ready access to robust Jewish prayer experiences.  That is certainly what I hoped. I was so looking forward to the myriad meaningful communal experiences that would be available to me while living in the city at the heart of Jewish liturgical prayer, psalms, and Torah. In the Jerusalem of Gold that has inspired Jewish hearts and minds across the centuries ~ from kings and prophets to modern poets, philosophers, and musicians ~ I imagined living amongst such a vast array of shuls and synagogues that my appetite for varied prayer adventures would finally be readily sated. I would be inspired and engaged and challenged and energized.

And perhaps, if I were a man ~ permitted unfettered access and physical proximity to the words and tools (Torah, tallit, tefillin, ark/aron kodesh) of communal prayer, to the floorboards and benches inhabited by generations of daveners (pray-ers) ~ I would have a wildly different story to tell, one that would affirm the assumption that Jerusalem is alive with a plethora of passionate Jewish prayer. But profoundly meaningful prayer has been disappointingly absent from my time in Jerusalem. Its potency as a city pulsing with spiritual vibrations notwithstanding, too many of Jerusalem’s settings for prayer are impotent … at least for this spiritual fertile and receptive woman. And this dearth, though not completely surprising to me, is a source of deep sadness and heartache, far more than frustration or anger. Even inside the walls of my beloved and progressive yeshiva ~ Pardes ~ the egalitarian minyan feels like a “second class citizen” to the traditional mechitza minyan, and when we travelled, tefilla is always managed by the heavy hand of halakha.

I have had meaningful prayer experiences here; just not in the places I had hoped or in the ways I yearn to encounter prayer in Jerusalem. Instead, I have found the most nourishing experiences in other venues, which is strikingly similar to how I would describe my experience with prayer in the United States.  The catalyst in each setting? Intimacy and Connection with Sacred Energy.  

My most profound prayer experiences in Jerusalem have been achieved ~

  • in an a cluttered classroom with the accompaniment of ambient street noise during the brief and consistent daily mincha (afternoon) service with my Pardes classmates;
  • in a private home welcoming Shabbat or kissing it farewell (Havdalah);  
  • in the chanting of ancient or new melodies in harmony and in unison;
  • on a morning walk as I find the rhythm of the city beating with my body’s cadence.

Tonight, I find prayer enveloping me on the rooftop of a school in a mixed neighborhood (Arab and Jewish) overlooking the southern edge of the Old City and surrounding Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. I have walked to this rooftop lookout in Abu Tor (at the far western edge of the city) with a friend. The only other people here are a young woman with headphones piping music into her ears (at a decibel that makes it quite audible to me), and the old woman next to her on a bench whom I am guessing is her grandmother. After a while, the young woman answers a phone call and begins speaking loudly, unaware or unfazed that her conversation is now a part of our collective experience of the exquisite view and the sacred moment that is forming …

Of the four of us, two and two, I sense that I am the only one who has noticed the energy pulsating all around us in anticipation of the rhythm of prayer being called forth by the hour. Even with my easily distracted nature, I am not capable of inattention to the holiness present in this moment, pregnant with the sanctity that accompanies the two liminal times of each day when the light of the sun and the darkness of night touch gently. And, on cue, the sounds of my cousins, Christian and Muslim, reach out to me across the valley to affirm that attention is indeed warranted. 

I marvel at the confluence of the particular sensations that envelop me:

  • this view:  the Old City and its surroundings and the sky above as the setting sun allows me to count three stars (signifying the separation between Shabbat v’chol, distinguishing between the Sabbath and the rest of the week);
  • these sounds: the Muslim call to worship echoing across the valley, church bells pealing in the Christian quarter of the Old City, and my soul chanting the opening prayer for Havdalah;
  • these fragrances: the pear blossoms, lavender, and rosemary of springtime in Jerusalem perfuming the Presence of the Source of Blessing;
  • this taste: the delectable figs and orange slices I have with me reminding me that no fruit or vegetable tastes better than the fresh produce of Israel.

It is an absolutely exquisite symphony of seamless spiritual sensation and I gently weep with gratitude that I am inside this moment of prayer. In the moment, I am not at all bothered by the solitary nature of this encounter. [In hindsight, I realize how often I feel lonely in my witness of the sacred … how deeply I long for a partner with whom to share this ecstatic energy, one with his own spiritual radar who will enthusiastically alert me to that which I might otherwise miss.* I yearn to be surrounded by a community with whom to connect this sense of the sacred in daily experience and to share and renew the ancient prayer technology of Judaism.  

For now, my “companions” are in their own worlds. My friend told me, as we walked here, that he used to live in this neighborhood. He spends a lot of time in his past, in the Jerusalem he remembers with great fondness and speaks about often with a wistfulness bordering on melancholy. He is in that past as we stand on the rooftop. The young woman with the loud music was somewhere else entirely, and now, on the cell phone, I imagine she is in the future, perhaps making plans to meet up with friends. The elderly woman seems to be sitting in the present but her posture gives no hint … I am in all of those places too – past, future, present – creating my sanctuary in time and in space** – as the mixture of light and dark, darkness rolling into light*** calls me to prayer in Jerusalem. It is all so palpable on this rooftop with its timeless view.  

And I can’t help but wonder why this level of intimacy and connection is not the goal of those who create prayer experience in every shul, every synagogue in Jerusalem … 

* Just before leaving Israel, I travel with a friend to the Negev, and her attention to these moments, especially around food and bird-watching, is such a joy-filled gift of holy-witness companionship. Thank you, Eliana Willis!

** Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote so beautifully about the Jewish emphasis on the sanctity of time and the Sabbath as a sanctuary in time.

*** Reference to one of my favorite phrases in Jewish liturgy found within Ma’ariv Aravim, from the evening prayer service. In this prayer about the Sacred in nature, we say … Borei yom valailah, goleil or mipnei choshekh, v’choshekh mipnei or; Uma’avir yom u’meivi lailah, u’mavdil bein yom uvein lailah … Creator of day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light, transforming day into night and distinguishing between day and night …

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