Two years ago I had the privilege of leading a community Passover seder. Only at the end of the night, as we finished a raucous rendition of had gadya, did I realize that this is the one and only liturgical event of the year that an Orthodox woman can lead from start to finish. I led it with the tunes and niggunim I used at my parents’ seder table, adding new tunes and my own Torah throughout the night, drawing the attendees together in song and ritual. Afterwards it was clear: this is what it’s like to lead with my full energy and all of my God-given talents. It’s as awesome as I had always imagined.
I’d prefer to sing in a way that stirs something inside of you awake, reminding you of old and new and bringing you into relationship with the community and the Divine.
You wouldn’t necessarily buy tickets to hear me sing, my voice is full of imperfections. Even if you would, I’d prefer to sing with you, and not just because of kol isha, Jewish law’s prohibition on men hearing women sing in certain contexts. I’d prefer to sing in a way that stirs something inside of you awake, reminding you of old and new and bringing you into relationship with the community and the Divine. If I were a man, you would find me at the amud on Shabbat and holidays, choosing just the right melody combined with the beauty of our traditional nusah hatefillah. Instead, you’ll find me at a tisch or singing zemirot, filling a room with song and living the most spirited version of myself.
In 2014 I started learning morning seder with Rabba Dina Brawer at Yeshivat Maharat. Over our years studying for semikha we bonded over detailed halakha outlines, a shared vision of Orthodox feminism and our passion for tefillah. Rabba Dina and her husband had started a pop-up shul in London called Mishkan where they explored a more experiential tefillah. At the same time, I interned at Hebrew Institute of White Plains and worked with a congregant there on a project called PrayLab — a slower, meditative Shabbat morning Tefillah experience. On my trips to London I participated in Mishkan events and fell in love with the project of curated Tefillah experiences.
The pandemic has deprived us of all of it. No tischen, no Shabbat guests for harmonic zemirot, little shul and definitely no singing. Rabba Dina and I realized: maybe now’s our chance.
The pandemic has deprived us of all of it. No tischen, no Shabbat guests for harmonic zemirot, little shul and definitely no singing. Rabba Dina and I realized: maybe now’s our chance. People are hungry for a beautiful kind of tefillah that makes sense in isolation: not the normal run-of-show over Zoom that just aches for what used to be, but something utterly different. Meant to be experienced in private. A podcast. And if it’s not formal tefillah, then, like the seder night, we could lead. Orthodox women, creating a prayer experience start to finish, perfectly suited for our times.
Our podcast is a prayer experience, an oasis springing from your headphones, gifting calm, thoughtful prayer for just a few moments of reprieve and connection from the craziness of our homes. A PrayerFull moment. Each episode is ten minutes long, perfect for the little interstices of our lives.
And for me, the best part of it all? I get to lead you in song.
Take a listen, we’re PrayerFull on iTunes, Spotify, Google or PrayerFull.simplecast.com
Rabbanit Leah Sarna is the Associate Director of Education and Director of High School Programs at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. She is also the co-host of a new podcast, PrayerFull.
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