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Socially Distanced Prayer, Outdoors

Ellen Levitt

Posted on August 30, 2020 21:37

3 users

I recently joined a socially distanced, outdoor prayer group and it's an interesting commentary on both my religion and on contemporary secular society.

For much of my life I've been fairly regular in my attendance at Jewish religious services. From second through ninth grade I went to youth synagogue services nearly every Saturday and holiday morning. During college I went most Friday evenings to services held on campus. As an adult, most weeks I have gone to Saturday (Shabbat) morning prayers. 

Why? Various reasons: a feeling of communal responsibility; to sing with people; to hear interesting sermons; to practice and sharpen my Hebrew language skills. It's also part of my identity. Many times it's also had a social dimension; to be in the audience for a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, pay respects for someone who died, etc.

Since I was seven I've attended services at a particular synagogue, with trips to other areas' synagogues or even synagogues I visited while away on vacation. But to make a long story short, I'd grown dissatisfied with certain developments at this particular synagogue. And when the Covid-19 pandemic broke, for a few weeks I was just praying by myself at home.

This synagogue, like many other Conservative Jewish and Reform congregations, chose to conduct online services via Zoom, and for several weeks I not only joined these services but also participated, mostly by reading parts of the weekly Torah portion. But then I made a bigger split with the congregation and felt adrift.

I'd read that some congregations were holding small, in-person services, but most were Orthodox groups and they prioritized men's attendance. However, I asked around and on a local Listserv I found a family not too far away from me that was holding an egalitarian backyard service.

I biked over one Saturday morning in July, with my prayer books in my knapsack, and wondered what I was getting into. The family, and a few of their friends, held a pleasant and laid-back service. It was quite nice! I even read a part of the Torah chapter. Participants wore masks and sat spread apart in the yard. Occasionally an insect would irk me, but overall it was worth it to pray with a group of nice strangers.

Then they invited me to attend occasional outdoor services at their Conservative synagogue, in the outdoor patio area. I'd been to this building twice over the years, once for the Purim holiday. They even asked me to participate, and this felt positive. 

Thus, twice I've sat (and stood) in a tent-covered courtyard, chairs scattered about, praying again with my co-religionists. It's a bit odd that our voices are muffled by masks, and we hear street noise constantly. But I missed the in-person prayer experience. Online services were boring and I found myself restless. I'd eat breakfast and listen to the prayers, and feel somewhat disconnected. Being at the actual synagogue (or with a group) helps my focus or "kavannah"; my degree of concentration. 

Praying somewhat outside my comfort zone, with nice people, is heartening and interesting.

Ellen Levitt

Posted on August 30, 2020 21:37

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Source: NYT

Social distancing and maintaining a social life.

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