A Different Kind Of Prayer Education
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A Different Kind Of Prayer Education

New JTS center aims to address a rising ‘crisis in prayer.’

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers trends among youth and millennials, progress and pushback in the Orthodox world, women's issues, the Jewish LGBTQ community and Reform and Conservative Jewish life. She also heads the Investigative Journalism Fund, a special project of the Jewish Week to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting, and 36 Under 36, an annual special issue profiling 36 exceptional young leaders. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Rabbinical students at JTS. Courtesy
Rabbinical students at JTS. Courtesy

The childish notion of soliciting a white-bearded man in the sky is no way to pray like an adult, according to Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, director of liturgical arts at Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Many people today find prayer inaccessible,” said Rabbi Uhrbach, also the spiritual leader of the Conservative Synagogue in the Hamptons, in Bridgehampton. “Squaring the desire to pray with what one does or does not believe about God is becoming an increasingly difficult task.”

The JTS Block/Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts, an incubator for inventive forms of prayer and liturgy, aims to address the issue. Set to open next month, the center will provide classes and interactive workshops for cantors, rabbis, community leaders and JTS students. Rabbi Uhrbach, who will direct the new center on JTS’ Morningside Heights campus, described the project as a “laboratory space for experimenting with approaches to prayer.” Led by local experts in the field of inventive prayer, different methods, including poetry, responsive chanting, instrumental music, silent meditation and layering English and Hebrew within the liturgy, will be explored.

According to Rabbi Uhrbach, the new center is intended to combat a “crisis of prayer,” a term coined by the late Abraham J. Heschel in his 1954 book “Quest for God.” The crisis is a growing disinterest in traditional liturgy and synagogue services, said Rabbi Uhrbach.

“Adults haven’t been offered models of prayer that reconcile contemporary understandings of God, or at least help people live with the paradoxical tension,” she said.

The “crisis” is reflected in the numbers. A March 2014 Pew Research Center study found that millennials are increasingly unmoored from institutions. Three in 10 young adults between 18 and 33 say they are not affiliated with any religion; the study found that millennials have the highest level of religious and political disaffiliation recorded, in comparison to the post-World War II, baby boomer and Gen-X generations.

A recent study by UJA-Federation of New York on voluntary dues in synagogues corroborated the Pew study’s findings, indicating that Jewish young adults are far less interested in affiliating with Jewish institutions than their older cohorts.

To be sure, efforts to counter growing disengagement with alternative prayer services have been gaining traction. Romemu, a Renewal-inspired congregation on the Upper West Side led by Rabbi David Ingber, often replaces conventional Shabbat services with yoga, ecstatic chanting and meditation. On its website, the congregation describes itself as “unabashedly eclectic” and a center for “Judaism that will ignite your Spirit.” The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, a educational organization in Lower Manhattan, hosts retreats and programming to deepen the spiritual experience of community leaders and laymen, and Or Chayim, an alternative, egalitarian Orthodox minyan on the Upper West Side, allows traditional members to celebrate religious milestones in untraditional ways. (This past Shabbat it celebrated the aufruf, or traditional Shabbat service before a wedding, of two gay members.)

The Block/Kolker center adds to this growing movement to revitalize prayer, using a range of creative and untraditional means. This past Purim, Rabbi Uhrbach led a creative reading of the Megillah, setting each scene to different Broadway show tunes. In the background, images, humorous commentary and text played on a large television screen. The service was packed.

“People were laughing and enjoying themselves — the mood was light, rather than the heaviness often associated with services,” said Rabbi Uhrbach. “It’s not enough to work with clergy; the people sitting in the pews need to think changing prayer culture is possible.”

Still, though others recognize the problem of growing disengagement, they believe the solution lies not in changing the texts, but in re-examining them. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, executive director of Mechon Hadar, stressed the importance of preserving the traditional liturgy.

“Instead of reformulating the words, we try to reinterpret the words in order to connect,” said Rabbi Kaunfer, who holds a doctorate in liturgy from JTS. He emphasized Hadar’s dual approach of preserving the traditional liturgy while recognizing that the prayer “crisis” stems from a disconnect between the words themselves and the experience of prayer.

“How we perform the words oftentimes has much more to do with our experience of prayer than the words themselves,” he said. Melody and the “sound field of a synagogue,” the noises present in between prayers, deeply impact the experience of prayer. “If we are thoughtful about sounds, prayer can be experienced very differently.”

While many people choose to substitute English for the traditionally Hebrew prayers, Rabbi Kaunfer stressed the “power of praying in Hebrew.”

“Whether or not you understand the words, there is a rhythm and mystery to the traditional Hebrew liturgy.” He gave the example of Kol Nidrei, the service recited at the start of Yom Kippur, and the Mourner’s Kaddish. “It’s not something everyone can fully understand, but the meter of the words in Hebrew has a powerful force.”

Still, both Rabbis Uhrbach and Kaunfer agree that the search for meaning in prayer, though far from a new issue, is a pressing one. Rabbi Uhrbach, who served on the editorial committee of “Mahzor Lev Shalem: Rosh Hashaha and Yom Kippur,” a prayer book for the High Holidays, and who is in the process of editing a full-length siddur, said that directing the Block/Kolker Center feels like a circle closing.

“Heschel worked tirelessly to revive prayer, and to remind us what prayer could be. His teachings reached me, and now I’m trying to do the same. I hope to bring that conversation back to JTS.”

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