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What Am I Supposed to Do at Prayer Services?

“I show up at services to pray,” he said. “But what am I supposed to do there?”

There we sat at the coffee shop. He drinking his latte; me a spiced apple cider. While I tried to formulate an answer to his question, he hit me up with a barrage of questions intended to crack the cryptic code of the Jewish prayer service. One minute we were ordering our drinks; the next we were deep in a conversation about the frustration of being at services, and of trying to converse with God through the mysterious medium we call “Jewish prayer.”

“Rabbi,” he continued, “I can recite the prayers from memory. That, at least, I retain from that torture that passed for religious school when I was a kid. Thank God, that Or Ami’s school has more depth, creativity and openness than mine did! (I smiled.) But no one ever explained to me what happened in the synagogue. So I just went in and repeated the words I was taught. It felt empty. I stopped going. I just don’t know what praying is supposed to do. How do prayers work? When do I know if I was successful in saying my prayers? Sometimes I just sit there and absorb Cantor Cotler’s music. It takes me away. Is that part of praying?

Sometimes I find myself getting choked up singing the Mi Shebeirach. Is that emotion or spirituality? Sometimes I find myself so caught up on one of the gems of learning that you share in the service that I lose track of the words as I think the issue through. Is that sacrilegious? Often I wonder, is anyone listening out there?

In the business world, I am a powerhouse. People come to me for advice on how to navigate the world of commerce. Yet I have been a Jew all my life, and in services, or before my rabbi, I feel like a bumbling fool.”

10 Things to Do During Services:

  1. Say or chant the prayers.
  2. Let the music carry you away.
  3. Read through the English translations of the prayers.
  4. Close your eyes and just listen.
  5. Flip through the siddur (prayerbook) and soak up its wisdom.
  6. Meditate upon a single word or two.
  7. Sing loudly or sing softly.
  8. Give thanks to God for all the good things in your life or in the world.
  9. Take a break from the busy-ness of life to recognize the greater power within.
  10. Make up and say a personal prayer in your own words.

10 Purposes of Jewish Pray:

  1. To put you in conversation with God using age-old, time-tested language and sentiments to connect.
  2. To reinforce important Jewish values like Shalom-peace, Shema-Oneness and unity, l’dor vador-connections between generations, Hoda’ah-thankfulness.
  3. To build community (the 20th century German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said that God can be found in the experience of individuals giving themselves over to each other)
  4. To build community (the 20th century philosopher Mordechai Kaplan said that reciting communally defined words of prayer reinforce the sacred community)
  5. To open us up to be vessels of God’s will (the medieval teacher Sefas Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger, taught that prayer can lead us to let go of our own ego needs and thereby allow us to be filled with God’s divine purpose).
  6. To help us slow down and turn inward, thereby focusing on that which is truly important.
  7. To address the national and communal needs of the Jewish people by reciting bakashot, prayers requesting specific needs.
  8. To recognize how thankful you are for the blessings in your life.
  9. To practice the rituals that connect us to our past and to the present.
  10. To address the personal needs of the individual Jew by means of the silent prayer.

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