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Our treehouse minyan taught me about empowerment

With a prayer group of just 20, every person had to be fully present and fully responsible. The same goes for how we each handle the Covid crisis.

This Yom Kippur was so very different. Of course, there are things that were missed. We did not have time for all our favorite tunes as we were praying outside and wanted to make sure to be finished before the sun was directly above us. I missed seeing so many people, so many friends, that this virus has kept at a distance. The evening after Yom Kippur is usually a time our family looks ahead towards a visit to family in the U.S., not a possibility this year.

But some of those differences are so very positive. Our “prayer group” consisted of merely twenty individuals reciting our prayers, both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in our yard, arranged on either side of our treehouse. Men acted as prayer leaders who had never had such an opportunity and would never have thought to volunteer – because they had to. Men and women read from the Torah and Haftorah — it was a joint, fully participatory effort. The children were counted and participated more than I have ever seen in a prayer service.

Every single person participated in some way. Each person mattered and each person counted (well, not officially for the “minyan,” but we’ll leave that for another day) – this was not a passive way to experience Judaism. It felt like a whole journey. And pretty much each and everyone of us said every single word of every single prayer. Outside our gates there was a much bigger gathering, spanning an entire street, much more reflective of traditional prayer experiences, but our much smaller community was very different indeed.

It made me consider the impact of full participation. The experience imbued in all of us such an earnest feeling of belonging and community but also an awareness of the power of the individual. No free-riders. We were all obligated and we were all empowered. Each and every one of us, men and women, was needed and was imbued with the power of prayer, the obligation to learn and the need to atone. And together we sent our prayers to God.

This kind of prayer struck me as particularly significant in this day and age. First, because during this second wave of Corona in Israel I have become increasingly aware that what we need more than anything is individual empowerment and democracy. Authoritarian shut-downs may help, temporarily, but can not save us. In order to overcome, we each need to be educated, and we each need to participate and take control of our own lives and our own actions. Each and every one of us needs to behave responsibly – no cheating, no hiding when the authorities look our way – that gets us nowhere in the fight against this disease. There is no relying on our leaders to save us, we need to act from the bottom up and not the top down.

Our leaders need to make sure we have the information so we can act responsibly. They need to inform us – where is the spread happening specifically? What have doctors discovered since the onset of this pandemic that may help us avoid complications? What are the new recommendations regarding testing and isolation based on prior experience? So, too, our prayers this year may not have been led by “experts” but we each took responsibility for their success. We each made sure we were educated enough to make that happen. There was no relying on anyone else.

Second, because I have been increasingly struck by the importance of empowerment. In particular, empowerment of the weak, of the vulnerable and the unheard. Corona, as the media has reflected, has shown us how we treat our vulnerable citizens. The million deaths the world has suffered – of the elderly, of those with preexisting conditions, of the immuno-compromised and of otherwise healthy people who just could not manage to overcome the virus. The way the world has been unable to save these lives from a tiny virus demonstrates both the absolute frailty of humanity and, yes, our failure to do more to save those who are traditionally disempowered.

One fix (tikkun) to the current situation is more empowerment. We, as a society, need to do more to demand empowerment of those who do not usually fully participate, who are not empowered — women, children, elderly and those with compromised health. Only with each member of society fully empowered, fully capable of acting to protect themselves and others, can we more ably overcome the challenges that face us. We need information so that certain populations – elderly, those with compromised immune systems – do not sit in panic and fear. They need to be enabled to participate in their own protection in meaningful ways.

So, as I’ve said before, I am not going back. I think one of the many lessons of the time is that we need to engage and be educated and participate – and we need that level of commitment from everyone. For me, I hope passive participation is a thing of the past and will make way for more active engagement for me, and for all parties previously empowered and those who we should work to empower. This sentiment applies to prayer, and prayer groups, but only as a microcosm of society more broadly. I am not saying there is no room for expertise or for government. However, perhaps, leadership should do more to empower the people as opposed to leading through power. The government needs to do more to empower the individual in order to facilitate real empowered and functional democracy – more education, more transparency, more representation, less corruption and authoritarian rule. But, we also have an obligation – to educate ourselves, to engage actively and responsibly in the issues surrounding us, be committed to being less passive and empower, as much as possible, more vulnerable populations.

About the Author
Pamela Laufer-Ukeles is Professor of Law and Health Systems Administration at the Academic College of Law and Science in Hod Hasharon, teaching feminist legal theory, bioethics, health care reform, and elder law among other subjects. 
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