This week, I did something unusual for me. I made a point to attend two women’s pre-Rosh Hashanah classes to get into the spiritual mindset of these days of prayer and reflection. One was organized by the Maharat in Potomac, Hadas Fruchter, featuring the insightful teachings of Sharon Freundel, and the other was a gathering in my own community, led by the powerfully thoughtful Aviva Krauss and Devorah Walder. 

These gatherings filled me up. They reframed the essence of these holy days. Some teacher long ago must have done a real number on me – I’m always so nervous walking into the High Holidays. So much pressure. So much guilt. So much opportunity for self-criticism. Let’s just say – around Neilah time, it gets pretty ugly in my head.

But last year, something amazing happened. A woman in my congregation, Rena, saw me trying to hide my Neilah sniveling snottiness in my machzorand she jumped over four people and a mechitzah to give me a wordless hug and her giant smile. Her action shocked me. I was so immersed in myself, in my prayer, in my inadequacy before God – that I forgot to look around.

She reminded me to stop trying to hide in my prayerbook, pretending that I was alone in this.

I looked around, and I saw so many of you. We were all there – all tired, hot messes, filled to the brim with our prayers. And then we all got together and YELLED at God – “HASHEM HU HA-ELOKIM!”

We yelled together.

And there is no way I could have yelled that loud alone. 

You all helped me get God’s attention. I needed you there.

And so, this past year, a few of my prayers were answered. Some are still pending. And I have a few new ones to tack on this week. But I needed you. 

I needed to pray with you. And next to you. And for you. And have you pray for me.

This is my idea of “minyan.” Communal prayer has never really been my thing. I am a guarded, introverted, back-of-the-classroom kind of person. But these gatherings remind me what I miss when praying alone. The support of those around me. The faces of those overjoyed to have survived another year. The tears of those who carry burdens greater than my own. You color my prayers, give me perspective, give me encouragement, bolster and amplify my own words to the One Above. It can be a minyan of two or two hundred. Being with you, surrounded by you, makes my prayers less insignificant, more eloquent. You are my tzibbur, my community. 

And that’s what these holidays are about.

Coming together to be vulnerable together. To stop hiding in our figurative machzors and remember that we’re here for each other.

Thank you, for being here for me.

Ariele Mortkowitz is the founding director of the Agam Center in Washington, DC, redefining the responsibilities of a mikvah to its community; establishing an empowering and supportive communal resource for Jewish women throughout their life journey, irrespective of an immersive practice.

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