Monday, February 18, 2013

Preparing for a Special Bar Mitzvah

The following video is an appeal for donations for a day school in New Jersey. I encourage you to watch the video to learn about the challenging process Tuviya's family went through to find the right school and outlet for their son's personal and spiritual aspirations within a Jewish framework.

I was personally moved when watching this clip, thinking of my own bar-mitzvah training, of my parents, and now as a parent who will have to prepare a son for this coming of age ceremony.  However, thinking about the state of tefilla in schools, I can't help but be frustrated that schools and educators are not doing enough to make the most of the davening potential. No, let me clear - what is super frustrating it is that there isn't much of a conversation about the present state of tefilla in schools. And the below video, does show hope for us all.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Burial of Prayer Books

The following Times of Israel article, picked up from the JTA, shares the sad fate of many old siddurim.  Whereas we live in a generation that thinks new is better, perhaps in the spiritual world, old has more history and heritage than the new.  So too for siddurim.  There is something very special to me about a well worn siddur, with pages having seen holidays, travels and tears.

This article also brings to mind a passage from Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish, about the prayer podium at the front of Kesher Israel in Washington, DC.

The shul feels so worn. A red velvet cloth is thrown over the rostrum at the front of the room, directly before the ark in which the Torah scrolls are housed. Here stands the precentor, that is, the leader of the service, that is, the mourner; and as I place my hands on this cloth, which is the color of wine, I see the traces of the hands that preceded mine. There are stains in the velvet. In places it is threadbare. This is an exquisite erosion. It is not neglect that thins these instruments. Quite the contrary. The more threadbare, the better. The thinner, the thicker.
This is the thickness of memory that is in the ever old siddur - now to be a buried treasure.

Debate over old prayer books goes underground

US synagogues face grave decisions about whether to bury holy texts
By CHAVIE LIEBER February 17, 2013, 1:27 am

NEW YORK (JTA) — After years of watching synagogue members die or move away, the Sephardic Jewish Center of Canarsie made the difficult decision to downsize.

The 50-year-old Brooklyn synagogue had been a thriving center for the area’s Sephardim. But after accepting that it could no longer pull together enough money to cover expenses, let alone muster the 10 men necessary for daily prayer, the synagogue disposed of most of its belongings and began holding Shabbat services in a nearby Ashkenazi shul.

But what was the center to do with its prayer books? It owned several hundred volumes in the Spanish-Portuguese liturgical style — some tattered, some like new and some belonging to older members that may have had significant worth.

“We donated some to a local shul, but we had to get rid of a lot of them and bury them,” said Rabbi Myron Rakowitz. “It was difficult because we didn't just want to throw them out or claim them unusable. We want other people to use them, to give them purpose when we no longer can.”

What to do with the old books — it’s a growing problem for synagogues across the United States.

In the past six years, the three major American Jewish denominations have released new prayer books. More than 1,500 synagogues have purchased the books, in some cases making older versions obsolete.
More than 700 congregations have bought copies of the Reform movement’s new Mishkan T’Filah, and hundreds more are expected to buy. The Conservative movement’s new High Holy Days prayer book, the Lev Shalem Mahzor, has sold nearly 260,000 copies to some 500 congregations since its 2010 release. And more than 200,000 copies of the Koren siddur released in 2009 have been purchased by more than 300 Orthodox synagogues.

Some congregations buy pricey lots in a Jewish cemetery; sometimes a gravedigger is hired to do the work.

The problem isn't going away. The Reform movement is working on a new High Holy Days prayer book, or machzor, that it expects to release in 2015.

According to Jewish tradition, prayer books are holy and cannot just be thrown out. Traditionally, they must be placed in a geniza, a repository for holy books awaiting burial. It’s the only religiously acceptable way to dispose of them.

“This problem is just rampant because now is the greatest time for creativity in writing new prayers and liturgy, and it’s going to get worse when the new machzor comes out,” said Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Boston, who is leading a committee working on the new Reform movement prayer book. “But our solution to bury them shouldn't be looked at negatively. This is an intentional disposal, not a mindless disposal.”

Some synagogues have sought alternatives to the burial option. Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego takes its old books and those of several nearby congregations, and mails them to Jewish Prisoner Services International in Seattle. Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., sent its old prayer books to Hillel chapters throughout the state two years ago when it bought new machzors.

But finding a new home for all the leftover books, some of them decades old, can be difficult.

“Our machzorim we’re looking to get rid of now are usable, but they are from the 1940s version,” said Rabbi Philip Scheim of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am in Toronto, which is planning to upgrade to the new Lev Shalem machzor this year. “The English translation is incredibly hard for people to get through.” For most synagogues, if the books don’t eventually find a home, to the ground they go. Some buy pricey lots in a Jewish cemetery; others bury them near their synagogue. Sometimes a gravedigger is hired to do the work.

“It’s really a shame if we have to end up burying our books. They’d be of good use, but we just can’t find anyone to take them in,” said Marjie Cogan of Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, which has been trying unsuccessfully for years to unload 700 old machzors. “It’s a huge problem for us because we don’t have the means to store them.”

That’s not true of Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore. The synagogue’s rabbi, Daniel Burg, says there is space to temporarily store 1,200 books that are no longer used by the congregation. Burg hesitates to bury the books because he feels it would be wasteful.

A congregation in San Diego mails its unused books to Jewish Prisoner Services International

“On the one hand, we don’t want to destroy God’s name or have it fade by the books just sitting there,” Burg said. “But on the other hand, there’s a concept of ba’al tashchit, of not wanting to just waste things. And it’s difficult to just get rid of things that could still have use.”

Daniel Freedlander, the vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says his movement is confronting the problem of book disposal for at least the third time: first in 1975, when Gates of Prayer replaced the old Union Prayer Book; in 1990, when a new gender-neutral version was released; and again with Mishkan T’Filah.

“No weeks pass by without us being contacted by people looking to get rid of their old Jewish books,” Freelander said. “A good majority of them get donated, but we’ve come to terms that many will get buried, and the ceremony can actually be educational for kids. Those books can’t just sit in your attic forever.”  At Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, the congregation gathers each year before Passover to collectively dispose of unused books. A communal prayer is recited, as is the Mourner’s Kaddish, and there’s a moment of reflection.

“We gather together at the synagogue where members bring tattered prayer books and other sacred books that can no longer be used,” Rabbi Debra Robbins said in an email. “We developed a creative liturgical ceremony for families and members of all ages to participate in together, and we have a special grave site labeled sifre kodesh,” or holy books.

Zecher noted that Jews have been burying books for centuries to make room for new ones, and the practice will continue to grow as the religion continues to evolve.

“It might seem wasteful,” Zecher said, “but like everything we do, it’s with intention.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Unplug For A Day

Reboot is organizing the National Day of Unplugging March 1st - 2nd. I am a big fan of unplugging, not just for Shabbat but setting more boundaries of when I  am attached to electronic devices and screens.  It inspires in me a memory of William Wordsworth's poetry:
The world is too much with us, late and soon; 
Getting and spending, we last our powers.  
I have previously wrote about this verse, but I think it echoes our need to keep our values at the front of our cognitive and emotional mindset. In order to keep one's tefilla fresh, boundaries and perspective are vital and think that more moments of unplugging will enhance your spiritual focus.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pay Attention!

I received the following message from - a Breslov related institute that shares a "regular dose of hope, meaning, and courage".  Despite the fact that I have been receiving these emails for months I really have not found them engaging, either personally or professional. Until today, when I took literally the subject line to "Pay Attention".  

Of late, I have been struggling to stay focused in my tefilla as my work thoughts have intruded into my meditation space and my davening has subsequently suffered. I find the below message to be the near perfect prescription:
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught..."While praying, listen to the words very carefully.  When your heart is attentive, your entire being enters your prayer  without your having to force it."  (The Empty Chair*, p. 88) 
What does this mean to me?
There is a difference between just mouthing the words of prayer and really being present. Sometimes people get very complicated and think that they need some kind of mystical intentions for their prayers to really sing. Rebbe Nachman taught that the service of prayer needs to be invested with our attention for it to be complete. He emphasized that our hearts can be aroused to great emotion simply, by really listening to the words that we say and realizing that we are saying them. This, in turn, will help us to be aware of to Whom we are speaking. 
A prayer:Dear G-d, who hears the prayers  of His people with compassion,-  bestow Your mercy and lovingkindness upon us  for Your sake, if not for our own.  Prepare our hearts to pray to You  with all of our attention,  and help us so that our prayers flow freely in our mouths always,  And may no obstacle get in the way of our prayers.  (Likutey Tefillot/The Fiftieth Gate, I:2)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Doctor's Prayer

The following is an awesome article by Marjorie Ordene featured in Tabletmag - I love its honesty and moderns sense of struggle.  I think it raises a great point regarding how tefilla, when it breaks out of the synagogue into one's professional and personal world, feels a more significant tool for an individual to connect to God.

Praying for My Patients
As a doctor, I know there’s a power higher than me. That’s why I pray every day for the people I’m treating.
By Marjorie Ordene| February 7, 2013 7:00 AM |

Fifteen years ago, my husband came home from the daf yomi Talmud lecture he attended every day and proclaimed: “All good doctors go to hell.”

As a holistic doctor —and, I thought, a good one—I was taken aback. “Why would good doctors go to hell?” I asked. Brought up in a secular Jewish home, I had always believed in a rational, scientific world where doctors were treated with a certain respect or even awe. I had only become observant a few months before my marriage to Ethan, who’d been raised in a religious home. I wondered if this belief about doctors was common wisdom among observant Jews.

Seeming to relish my surprise, Ethan eagerly explained, “The good doctors go to hell because they don’t pray for their patients. They believe they’re doing the healing.” He waited for his words to sink in before asking, “And what about you?”

The question has stayed with me ever since. I took his point to heart and decided, after some reflection, to try bringing prayer into my medical practice. It didn't come naturally. At first, the idea of praying for anyone reminded me of my religious Christian friends, who were always offering to pray for me—which I found vaguely annoying. But then my aunt became ill and slipped into a coma. I remembered seeing my mother-in-law praying for people by name when she lit her Shabbos candles, so I decided to give it a whirl. After six weeks, my aunt recovered.

That convinced me. Ever since, I've prayed for my patients every day.

Growing up as a secular Jew, I had never put much stock in the power of spirituality until I took a trip to England in 1989 and stayed with my brother’s wife’s cousin, Aubrey Rose, who introduced me to a family secret: Aubrey and his wife claimed to have communicated repeatedly and reliably with their dead son David through a medium. I was so impressed with this new insight that I vowed to explore the hidden spiritual side of things—in general, and in a Jewish context. I started attending a Conservative egalitarian synagogue and, when that didn't satisfy (religion ended at the shul door), moved on to an Orthodox one.

Around the same time, my professional life as an M.D. was also shaken up. I was working at a small, not-for-profit clinic that offered alternative services like acupuncture and biofeedback. To fulfill my continuing medical education requirement, I attended a seminar in nutritional medicine at The Omega Center, a former Yiddish summer camp in Rhinebeck, New York, now serving as a retreat for holistic studies. But before settling into my assigned course, I first sat in on classes on qi gong, yoga, and mindfulness. When I returned to the clinic, I began to put my new spiritually informed medical training into practice, eventually leaving that office to open one of my own.

It was also around this time that I, a newly observant Jew, was introduced to and married Ethan.

When Ethan later made his big pronouncement about “good doctors,” I had already been praying for five or six years and practicing holistic medicine for nine or 10—but I hadn't thought about how the two might fit together. Mixing prayer with medicine can be awkward. It’s one thing to daven privately, but to introduce prayer into the doctor-patient relationship crosses a line, almost like breaching the separation of church and state. What right do I have to speak to a patient about God? What if he is an atheist?

I had read of studies showing that prayer promotes healing, but it wasn't until my aunt’s miraculous recovery that I began to consider prayer on a more personal level. Something shifted inside me. I had moved from being someone who felt uncomfortable praying for anyone to someone who felt a desire, even an obligation, to put in a good word for those who suffered. As I sat at my kitchen table each morning, I would add the names of ailing people to my prayers. I started with my parents and elderly relatives, then added the names of people I’d heard about in the community, and finally, tacked on “and all my patients,” at the end of the list. I was determined not to be one of those “good doctors” who didn't pray for her patients.

The first time I prayed for a specific patient was when a woman with ovarian cancer gave me her Hebrew name and asked me to pray for her. I added her name to my list. Later, when another Jewish patient was diagnosed with uterine cancer, it seemed appropriate that I inquire after her Hebrew name. Although not religious, she readily told me her name, Nechama, but she had to email me later with her mother’s name, which she gave as Laura. In both these cases, I was not actively treating the patients for their life-threatening condition; as a holistic physician, the conditions my patients see me to treat are rarely life-threatening.

Over the years, I've noticed that praying draws me closer to God, and it also brings me closer to my patients. If I prayed for a patient in the morning and she walks in during the afternoon, I feel a special connection, like seeing a long lost friend. I think this works both ways, like the patient who regularly calls me and begins by saying, “Hey, Doc, it’s me, Miriam bas Esther.” She knows I’m praying for her.

There was one patient, though, I couldn't help. She was suffering from terrible anxiety—so much so that she was too anxious to try any of my treatments. This patient I prayed for. I never told her, just added her name to my list. Sadly, the one treatment she wanted was estrogen, and when she later developed breast cancer, she became convinced that it was the estrogen I prescribed that caused her cancer. She decided to sue me.
Now I faced a conundrum: Should I still pray for her or drop her from my prayers like a hot potato? I decided to wait for Shabbos and ask my brother-in-law, who is a rabbi. Upon hearing my story, his answer came swiftly: “You can tell her to go to Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire! Do not pray for her; and if she ever wants to come back, do not see her!” I dropped the potato. If the Almighty wants to heal her, I figured, he will—with or without my prayers.

I’d love to report all my successes with prayer, but unfortunately I’m not aware of any. Some patients—including the woman with ovarian cancer, an elderly gentleman with urinary retention, and an octogenarian with Alzheimer’s—are doing reasonably well, but I can’t say it’s because of my prayers. The patient with uterine cancer passed away. But in fact, it’s the very nature of prayer that we don’t always get what we ask for. That doesn't mean our prayers aren't answered; they are, just not in the way we expect. Still, no matter what the outcome, I know patients take comfort in having someone pray for them.

Offering to pray for a patient can feel like an admission of powerlessness. After all, patients come to doctors for answers. A physician is an authority figure. To turn around and say I need to speak to a higher authority could be seen as a sign of weakness, ignorance, or at the very least, lack of confidence. But that strikes at the heart of the Gemara—“Tov she’berofim leGehinnom— the best of doctors are destined to go to Gehinnom [hell].” I’ve researched this Gemara and discovered its real meaning. It’s not as I originally thought, that doctors who don’t pray for their patients go to Gehinnom. Rather, it’s doctors who don’t feel a need to ask anyone else, neither other doctors nor the Creator, so confident are they in their own abilities—they are the ones who go to hell. Some commentators say that these “good” doctors either omit the refa’einu blessing—the prayer for healing—in the Shemoneh Esrei or else say it without intent.

I will never have that kind of confidence. I enjoy consulting with other doctors and attend medical conferences to keep up-to-date. There I listen to the authorities, leaders in my field. Attendees sit in rows with their laptops open, taking notes. After each series of lectures, there is an “ask the experts” session with the presenters. No one talks about God, no one mentions prayer. But I for one am thinking of him. I bet some of these other doctors, these experts, are doing the same—and I bet some of them also pray for their patients.

Every morning, when I daven, I come back to the refa’einu blessing. I recite my list: Miriam bas Esther, another few patients, a sick relative, a few friends, and then “all my patients.” In praying for my patients, I’m speaking directly to the Creator, making him a partner in my medical practice. It’s not that I don’t trust my skills as a doctor; I do, but I also know that there’s a power higher than me. I’m not one of those “good” doctors who know it all. I really need his help, and that’s why I pray.

Marjorie Ordene practices holistic medicine in Brooklyn.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Guest Blog: Fire Over Tefilla

The following post originally appeared in Shibley HaLeket, a thoughtful blog by Daniel Shibley, sharing his reflections on a Shabbat tefilla under the threat of danger.

Although we are now a few weeks removed from the tense days of war that came to define the month of November, the exact moment of the first siren has remained with me, a quasi-trauma, a frozen second that I imagine will probably never depart my psyche. In a previous blog, I wrote regularly about t’fillah, aspects thereof, and I would be remiss to leave this particular experience undocumented.

Kabbalat Shabbat, a compilation of Psalms designated by the Kabbalists of the 16th Century, which is recited, often sung, every Friday night in most communities has become one of the most significant aspects of my week. When done “correctly,” the combination of singing, energy, and outpouring of emotion, can reach some near euphoric state. Somewhere between the vibrations of voices mingled and the sheer passion, there exists a supreme peace, an acknowledgement that the six working days have concluded and the transcendence of time and space, Shabbat, has begun. That is,until with a shrill and defined wail, the sound of an air raid siren shatters the peace.

It takes a few seconds for synapses to fire, it takes a few seconds to realize, it takes a few seconds to be able to uproot ones feet when davening is quieted at yeshiva and the announcement is made about incoming missiles necessitating an immediate scramble to a sheltered area. That Shabbat I was hosting a dear friend, as the entire yeshiva began to move as one towards the shelters, our eyes locked, nothing was said, everything was said.  After the all-clear was given, and the rockets had impacted nearby, we emerged from the shelter looked skyward, usually the direction of our t’fillah and the source of desperately needed rain, to see the smoke trails of rockets, smoke trails caused by people who wished harm upon us.

Davening resumed from exactly the point where it had been interrupted, with the line final line of Psalm 29, “The Lord will give strength unto His People, the Lord will bless His people with Peace” (JPS). No doubt a poetic conclusion, as well as the yearning of all in attendance. We resumed with a new vigor, with the intensity only created in the wake of a traumatic instant, speaking only for myself, and probably for others, tears streamed down my cheeks, hot tears of anger, tears of pain, and tears of relief. We again reached a crescendo in the final line of the piyut Ana Bekoach.

Ana Bekoach, as seven line piyut (liturgical poem), was composed by Rav Nehunia Ben Hakannah. The piyut contains a coded link to the first 42 letters of the Torah, the creation story, with the hopes of connecting the reader to the unlimited Divine energy that fashioned the world itself. Each line is said to correspond to a day of the week, and so it is only appropriate that as we began the seventh day, that verse rang most true. “Receive our pleas,  hear our cries, He who knows the mysteries.” As soon as the last words left my lips, I realized, that I had indeed plead, and that I had indeed cried out to the Knower of mysteries.

What had for several years been the section of Kabbalat Shabbat that unfurled the red carpet for L’cha Dodi, the central poem of Kabbalat Shabbat, was now laden with meaning. As those tears on my face began to evaporate and L’cha Dodi began, I realized that rationale for having missiles fired over our t’fillah may never be known to me, that even as I cried out, there exists some things that will forever be beyond my comprehension, and on that Shabbat evening it was the will of men wishing our harm and destruction.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Prayer at the Super Bowl

One thing is for sure, there will be a lot of players praying before the Super Bowl and many "thanks to God" after it is over by the victors.  What is the role of prayer at sporting events?

I am of the (humble) camp that we have more important things to pray for - and hope that sport is seen as just that, sport and entertainment.  While it may be natural to mix the two, it often leaves a watered down effect on the davening part.  After all as it says in the Talmud, a person is not to "rely on a miracle" for salvation.  Then again, maybe I am spoiled since my prayers and hopes for my team didn't get them into the playoffs.