It started out as any normal Thursday morning. I woke before 5am, brushed my teeth and headed downstairs. After taking a few moments to learn, I headed out the door and down the block to shul. Sounds like any other morning, right? But it wasn’t any other morning. The date was June 4th, 2020 and this was my first day back “in shul.” As I inched closer to the outdoor minyan location full of socially distant tents I quickly put on my mask, chose a spot, put on my tefillin and waited patiently to begin. In those few moments an uneasy feeling crept upon me. I felt out of place and out of sorts. I felt as if something was wrong.
Each of our collective memories are made up of a timeline filled with important dates – our birth, our first steps, the day we learnt how to ride a bike to name just a few. These dates mean so much to us as they represent the fabrics that, when sewn together, make up our internal systems and our individual identities. They make us who we are. On June 4th, 2020, I added another notch to my timeline belt but not for the reasons you might suspect.
As I waited for my minyan to commence, I wondered how this moment would feel. Months away from communal Jewish life and now, for the first time, experiencing a semblance of that which is so familiar once again. It should have been euphoric, a feeling tantamount to the joy and jubilation that our ancestors felt as they received the Torah on Har Sinai. Yet, that is not the emotions and feelings that I experienced during those few moments. Then, as if whisked away from a vivid dream, I was asked to lead the minyan.
As I said the first kaddish, barchu and the repetition of Shemoneh Asrei I was almost in tears as I attempted to look toward the skies through the solid canopy above for guidance and direction. Guidance, you ask? Yes, guidance to address the unsettling pit of concern gaining momentum inside as I wondered – do I belong here?
I have the unique pleasure of spending my life working with young men and women within Jewish formal and informal education. I relish in the opportunity to be part of their religious journeys especially in their connection and relationship with tefillah, prayer. While it is an extremely esoteric and challenging medium to connect with it possesses unimaginable potential for religious growth. We have struggled as a community to find meaning in prayer ourselves let alone to help our youth find it for themselves.
Over the months removed from entering a shul, I looked inward and searched to find greater meaning, relevance, passion and purpose in tefillah. I believed that our ability to communicate with the Almighty, as is true with our ability to connect with others, is directly correlated to how well we build and nurture our relationship with God. Using this time away, I began to feel as if I was uncovering an avenue of connection and intimacy that I long sought after but failed to realize. My first moment back in shul brought grief and heartache as I experienced a moment of loss in my newfound avenue of appreciation and connectivity. In essence, I felt at a loss and alone in shul and yearned to return to my makeshift shul at home.
As I concluded davening, wrapped up my tefillin, and headed back home I began to contemplate the cognitive dissonance that was beginning to rise to the surface. The ability to share moments of religious expression as a community brings greater sanctification to those expressions that, when done individually, it is incapable of achieving. Yet, for me, the reintroduction of communal religious life represented a fissure in the search for individual meaning and significance. I felt a sense of loss and loneliness as I grasped for answers.
Over the next few days and weeks this dissonance became louder and louder, banging against the walls of my mind, begging to be given the attention it warranted. The cacophony of sound it created began to overpower my attempts to silence it. As I mustered the courage and vulnerability to face the abyss that had become my internal struggle, I began to ask myself what was at the root of it all. What was causing all of these feelings to wake up now and not before?
Then it dawned on me – this all began to rumble to consciousness once we began to reintroduce elements of communal religious life that we previously took for granted. During the months of quarantine and isolation, we were forced to recreate the elements of our religious lives that we relied so heavily on our communities to create – our shul, our Shabbat tables, our Yom Tov experiences and our study of the Torah and Talmud. Without the ability to fall back on our communities and their resources, we began to meticulously identify how best to recreate or reimagine those elements with limited supplies, options and resources to rely on. What came next shocked me.
I found myself falling in love with this new found passion and purpose. I was able to tap into my children’s joy, excitement and creativity to design experiences that brought relevance and true substance to us all. Every free moment I found time to soak myself in study and contemplation as I invigorated my efforts to reconnect with my truest self. This intense exploration leaked into how I identified as a husband, father, son and brother. My search became much more than a quest to find value as a quest to find my unique purpose and self expression. The first minyan back felt like this process was coming to an abrupt end, halted and boarded up. I had come so far and was unsure how to bring both worlds together.
Since returning to minyan, I have faced many of the same challenges and concerns with communal tefillah that I had prior to the COVID-19 shutdown. Distractions, pressure for time, and the feeling that tefillah was a burden and not an integral part of my day to name just a few. At the same time, the path to finding synergy of these two experiences has begun to come into focus. As the adage goes, “You don’t know what you got til its gone.”
http://gty.im/1252157460 As we begin the next stages of reopening and expanding of Jewish communal life, I am pleading with myself to ask “What have we learnt? How can this tragic moment in our life’s story help to make a difference for its future?” Are we willing to ask the tough questions so that our children and grandchildren can benefit from the work we do? Ultimately, it is our ability to face this struggle, that internal dichotomy, that will be the determining factor if this moment will help to bring great meaning and growth once we regain it all. The only question left to answer is this – will you let this moment change you or pass by like a fleeting wind?