One of the things that most scared me about moving to Senegal for the year was the lack of community, and especially how that would impact me and my family during our daily davening (prayers) and on Shabbat. Before we flew, I met with several rabbis and mentors to discuss tips on how to maintain a meaningful spiritual life, without the support of a brick and mortar synagogue and a Jewish community.
To my great surprise, one of the highlights of our time here has been our ability to create our own traditions and rituals around Shabbat, davening and learning Torah. We have found that without the support and the help of a community, it is all up to us to be creative and make these parts of our lives exciting for ourselves as well as for our children. As one of my teachers said to me, “You have to learn to turn the enemy in to your friend.” And that is what we have done.
As many Jews across America and Israel prepare for a Shabbat when they won’t be able to connect with their family, friends and communities, I want to share some of our experiences and thoughts about how to make Shabbat meaningful, even without a shul.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of doing Shabbat without community is that there are no communal norms that you must abide by. You would never show up for services in your pajamas at your local synagogue because that is not respectful. It is important to get dressed up, even if you are just staying in your living room, as if you were going out to shul. Every Friday afternoon we wash up and get dressed up just as we would if we were in New York or Jerusalem. We need to create the Shabbat space for ourselves, and that starts with how we dress.
The second important lesson that we have learned is that there is actually an amazing learning opportunity here to engage your children. While in your synagogue, children are frequently a distraction and need to be watched, at home you can turn them into leaders! Before we start Kabbalat Shabbat every Friday night my 4-year-old son announces to my wife and myself “The African shul is starting in five minutes!” We have turned our son in to the president of our African shul, and he feels a sense of responsibility for our prayers. I would encourage you to think about ways to empower your children to feel responsible, and excited about the opportunity to turn your home in a family synagogue. Another way that we do this is by letting our son lead part of the ‘service’. He loves to sing the line “Lecha dodi likrat kallah” and we repeat it after him. This way, he remains involved and excited.
Like in all prayer services, it is also important to be happy. Whether you have children, a spouse or are even by yourself, I would encourage you to sing and even dance when during your private Shabbat service. Even if you are feeling lonely and down, singing and dancing has the potential to lift your spirits. There is of course a great irony here. Dancing by yourself, or in a room with only one other person can feel rather pathetic and even absurd. I would encourage you to embrace the absurdity of this experience and this moment and allow yourself to sing and dance anyways.
Another important lesson that we have learned is that part of the power is prayer with a group of people is that you can rely on other people to move the service along. There is a great strength to praying as a community. The Talmud discusses how prayers are best heard when they are said in a minyan. While that is not possible for many people, there is another suggestion for moving things along. The Talmud also discusses connecting prayers to the rising and setting of the sun. When you pray with the movement of the day, your prayers also move along with the changes taking place outside. I would encourage you to wake up early and pray as the sun rises and to say mincha as the sun sets. This way you connect your prayers with the outside world and feel connected to something beyond yourself.
Every morning my wife and I take turns davening. One of us watches the kids, while the other one has time to themselves. On Shabbat mornings when we are done davening we say kiddush, sing some songs and then do a family service of taking out the stuffed toy Torah scroll from the pretend ark. This is one of the highlights of our week. Our children proudly parade themselves around the apartment hugging their toy Torah and feeling like adults in shul. Again, this is something they would never have been able to do if we took them to shul every Shabbat and is a unique opportunity that this type of Shabbat presents us.
Lastly, I will share a more serious thought. There is a debate between Maimonides and Nachmanides if the requirement to pray is from the Torah, or a rabbinic commandment. The Rambam (Maimonides) wrote that there is a biblical commandment to pray every day. Nachmanides disagreed, he thought that daily prayer was a rabbinic institution, but not commanded by the Torah. However, Nachmanides says that in a time of great need and danger there becomes a biblical commandment to call out to Hashem and to pray.
We are living in an increasingly scary and dangerous world. It is not clear how long this virus will last or how many people will be affected by it. What is clear is that this is a moment where we need to praying for the safety, health and peace of everyone around the world. According to Nachmanides we are now at a moment where our prayers, even from our living room, are much more significant than they normally are when we go to synagogue. I encourage everyone to take care of themselves, their family and friends, and to pray for everyone’s well-being. Shabbat Shalom