Jewfem Blog

What does it mean to really listen in prayer?

Yael Vurgen, a classmate of mine at HUC rabbinical school and a fellow-Modi’in resident, led a morning prayer service (tefillat shacharit) this week that was unlike anything I have ever experienced. And it was all around the very basic concept of listening.   She transmitted this by doing the tefilla in sign language. Here is a clip of Yael teaching the prayer "Ha'azina" -- "Listen" -- in sign language. This is the prayer that opens up the idea of listening in prayer, where we ask God to listen to our prayers.    Notice that in order to sing this in sign language, you need hands free. You can’t be holding your prayerbook or anything else. Also notice that you need to use your eyes. You have to be present and focused and awake. In fact, sign language requires using your entire body in a sense. This makes the prayer experience something visceral, fully felt. There is no skimming or absently going through the motions. Here is a clip of Yael teaching the morning passage Moda Ani, “I am grateful”, in sign language.   Here is how Yael explained the significance of this to us: Today we are praying in signs of hearing, or the absence of hearing, and a different type of hearing. Sign language enables us to “hear” by seeing, as in “Seeing the sounds” It’s  about recognizing a different quality in the words. Not their sounds, but rather to think about how they look. How would the word “spirit” or “soul” look? How would the words “light” and “darkness” look? How about “compassion”? Here is a clip of Yael teaching the prayer "Yotzer Or" in sign language:   To engage in prayer with this kind of consciousness is to transform the prayer experience from one that is about repetition and tradition to one that is about awakeness and presence. In this exercise of beginning to think about the diversity of the human experience, we are able to open ourselves up to the vastness of humanity as well as the potential of broader spiritual and human engagement. You are not just you. You are not just your immediate senses. There is more to the world, to the earth, to this thing called life. Open your eyes to see this vastness, to others, and only then to fully see yourself. The prayers at Hebrew Union College, led each time by different students who bring their own passions and life lessons to the event are so often like this. These are prayer services that are both rooted in tradition and creatively unique. There is no going through the motions at the HUC tefilla. Each moment is thought through, meant to be experienced fully. As one Orthodox staff member told me, “I go to my regular [Orthodox] morning minyan to get the job done. But I come to the HUC tefilla to talk to God.” Exactly that. I’ve had this debate with some of my classmates. One friend says that the Reform tefilla...

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So.... I'm becoming a Rabbi..... a Reform Rabbi

So this week I did something really new. I began my journey to become a Reform rabbi. For the next four years I will be studying at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. And I am positively ecsatic.  You probably have questions. The most common question I've received so far is, why Reform and not Conservative? There are several ways I can answer this question. My primary answer is that the Reform movement is the only place where I think a woman can truly be free to be a whole person. And as a woman, I place that high on my list of priorities! There are all kinds of people serving as Reform rabbis -- with all kinds of identities, cultural backgrounds, and practices. During my first conversations about taking this path with Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, a beautiful rabbi who actively combines compassion and scholarship, Rabbi Lisitsa described HUC as the ultimate "big tent", the only place in Judaism where everyone truly can belong. She also showed me how  many Reform rabbis keep Jewish practice with no visible distinction to Orthodox Jews. They keep Shabbat, kashruth, and ritual immersion practices and engage with Jewish law. One of my most esteemed mentors, Rabbi Professor Rachel Adler, is a brilliant scholar whose commitment to halakha is unquestioned, and deeply compelling. Everyone has a place, and that is a powerful vision. This is a place where nobody is judging your practice. It is where you are fully embraced for being who you are. That is so refreshing, so new, and so healing for me.  The other question that I get is about abandoning Orthodoxy. Most of my Orthodox feminist friends have been loving and accepting, and I keep hearing from them that it is clear that this is exactly where I belong. That has been a beautifully validating experience. I feel like I have been fighting for a long time to find or create a suitable spiritual home. And it seems clear that this is it. Still, other people have been  less generous. One Orthodox friend told me that this will delegitimize me. Yes, of course it will, in the eyes of certain Orthodox self-assigned gate-keepers. I have been called "Reform" for much of my adult life, in a way that uses the word as a slur. Orthodox feminists in general are called "Reform" as a way to delegitimize them all the time. Most of the time, the response is, "I am not!" But now, my response is, "I take that as a compliment!" To be Reform means to place human compassion before all else, to understand that we must be human beings before we are Jews. I am so excited about  the idea of really living that way, and being surrounded by people who also live that way. And rather than internalize the notion of delegitimizing the other, we should figure out ways to truly see one another, to understand what is the ethical force driving each other. Rather than internalizing the hate, we...

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How I learned what it means to be a rabbi -- warts and all

On my first two days of rabbinical school, I arrived late. Two days in a row, despite starting my day at 5AM to arrive at HUC by 8:30, I failed this most basic task of getting there on time. The first day, I completely miscalculated the traffic, and was cursing myself for half an hour on the 2-kilometer stretch of the 443 from the Pisgat Zeev exit to Ramot. The next day, I left half an hour earlier, and *only* arrived ten minutes late. Only. I spent most of that drive practicing my apology to the head of the school. I walked in on the first day, towards the end of the tefilla, the morning prayer service, and gave an embarrassed nod to him, Rabbi Ofek Meir, who was sitting in the front row. He smiled gently, with a clear gesture of reassurance. He was smiling and breathing – as opposed to me. I was not smiling and not breathing. On the second day, walking in earlier in the service when Ofek was smack in the middle of leading a soulful rendition of the Shema blessings using his gifts with the guitar, I stood at the door for a few moments to catch my breath and take it in. There, I began to fully appreciate the extraordinary moment I was in. it wasn’t just the beautiful singing and musical accompaniment that filled the room. It was something deeper, a genuine spiritual intention that was contained in this space. My excitement at the thought of being here for the next four years swelled, and began to overwhelm all else. This is tefilla without any power dynamics mixed in, I thought. This is what it sounds like when there is no coercion, no judgment, no exclusion. After the tefilla, I walked over to Ofek and tried to apologize again for being late. He wouldn’t hear it. “You come from Modi’in, right?” It was as if he knew what I was going through before I did. He reassured me and said it was really fine. “Fine for you, “ I said, “but not for me.” He smiled. It really was all okay to him. This entire exchange was completely new for me. What is the word for this? Acceptance. Ah, yes, acceptance. The idea of accepting a person as they are, of accepting myself as I am – such a basic thing, it is often so elusive. Acceptance is not something that the Jewish community often trains itself in. At least not in the places where I have been circulating until now.   I was remembering my first day at work, 19 years ago, at a Jewish communal foundation. It was my first job after completing my Master’s degree in Jewish education. It was also my first attempt at holding down a job with three little children at home under the age of five. I was eager, anxious, and green. I walked into the front door, on this glorious first day, and greeted the...

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