Joshua L. Schonfeld

On praying alone

In the midst of this awful pandemic, our communal life has been disrupted and we are shut in our homes—except for the occasional run to the pharmacy or to the grocery store to pick up food.  That said, with a slower pace, there are a few bright spots such as more time to have family discussions, to take walks and bike rides and put together puzzles.  And there is one more benefit: the chance to pray individually–for our families, communities and ourselves.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have attended a Jewish Day School and Zionist  Jewish Summer Camp (Camp Massad).  I am grateful that my parents made the choice to give us the tools to live our lives Jewishly and that my years of day school education and camp enabled me to understand much but not all (yet) of what is said in Hebrew.  The balance, of course, is often on the facing page in English. At these institutions, we attended services daily.  As a result, I am quite familiar with the daily prayers (and can lead them when necessary or pray alone when it is not possible to join a Minyan).

Like many people, as life has gone on, I have, at various points in time, prayed more at some times than others.  Over the last few years, however, I have rediscovered how meaningful it is to pray, to take time out to contemplate things beyond the immediate and often falsely urgent matters we are so caught up with each day.  In a more intense way, it started after my father passed away some years ago…and that realization has continued to grow over the last year.

To me, prayer is most meaningful when it inspires.  It is at its most inspirational when the congregation joins in song.  As my father used to say, davening is not a spectator sport.

And, although I enjoy the chance to see friends and family while at services, I also believe that we are there for a purpose…beyond socializing (although that is also important).   Something that was instilled in me in school many years ago was that when we are present for a meeting with G-d, just as we would be in the presence of a king or president, we should pay attention and be respectful.  That always has stuck with me. So, when I am at services…I do my best to focus on why I am (we are) there and to remember before whom we are standing.

It is said that we are some 140 generations from the generation that experienced the Exodus from Egypt (celebrated just recently on Pesach) and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (that we will celebrate on Shavuot in the next few days).  Studying the words offered in prayer each day that relate to those events, many of which are excerpts from the Torah and Psalms, and which have been recited in each generation since, is quite powerful.  It grounds me, knowing that I am part of an unbroken chain that extends backward through the millennia.

Do I miss our communal services? Absolutely.  In some ways, this process of rediscovery I have been on has been interrupted.  It was also quite difficult to miss reciting Kaddish on my Father’s Yarzheit earlier this month (since that is a communal prayer offered in the presence of a Minyan).  And, though many are attending services via various social media…it simply does not connect me in the same way.  I look forward to the day (soon I hope) when we can all reconnect, celebrate life events, and pray (and even kibbitz) in our shuls.

That said, these days, I have found myself enjoying opportunities to daven alone.  Lingering over the words at my own pace, without any distractions, is quite profound.  Reciting these words, these prayers, in Hebrew, written hundreds or thousands of years ago…connects me with our people and provides me with peace of mind.

Standing quietly with my Talit and T’fillin, in the morning, before the day starts reminds me of my Grandfather Abraham Steinberg, who I would see davening in the mornings on his visits.  Saying the Shema before going to bed reminds me of my Grandmother Helena Schonfeld.  Now—I think I understand better than ever what they achieved in those moments of quiet reflection and meditation.

So, while we wait for the moment when we re-congregate, and perhaps afterwards too, I will savor private moments to reflect on the ancient words of our people and the chance to connect one on one with the divine.

About the Author
Josh Schonfeld lives with his family in Potomac, Maryland. He is originally from St. Louis, Missouri. He has served as a board member for a number of Jewish communal organizations and is an active member of the community.
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