Prayer Conditioning

From Seth

It seems odd to say that after six years of education and 15 years as a rabbi that I’ve gained a new understanding of Shabbat, but that did happen on this trip.

After exploring Memphis and the civil rights museum–housed at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot and killed–we drove north towards St. Louis. We stopped at the Trail of Tears State Park on the Mississippi River as part of our justice tour (more on that later), and as we were making our way through some back roads in rural Missouri, we passed by a church. On its sign, on that hot and humid day, was the message, “Come on in, we have prayer conditioning!”

This was a Friday, and we knew that we would be spending Friday night in St. Louis. In our original itinerary we didn’t necessarily make any plans for what to do for Shabbat, but as we were reassessing we decided to find somewhere to go to Erev Shabbat services.

As congregational rabbis, we attend and lead many Shabbat services. So when it comes to vacation, since Shabbat is part of our “work,” we oftentimes choose not to go to shul and instead find other ways to wind down and relax. On the other hand, it is rare that we have the opportunity to participate in services as congregants, so that can also feel vacation-like. This trip we chose the latter.

We chose to attend Central Reform Congregation since it was close to where we staying and had known by reputation the senior rabbi, Susan Talve, who is very active in social justice work and played an active leadership role in Ferguson, MO after the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer. But attending Shabbat wasn’t meant to be a part of our justice tour, it was meant to be that spiritual pause that Shabbat is meant to be.

And this time, sitting in the sanctuary, that truly came alive for me. Since I didn’t need to lead the service, I could just absorb the energy in the room. I could sing, or not. Use the words in the prayerbook, or not. Speak, or just be in silence. We had been going non-stop on our road trip and justice tour. During the sweet services, I was able to find the time to just be. I was able to pause and deeply reflect on the trip and how far I have come personally since the day we left Olympia. I was able to express gratitude for this opportunity and for the ability to share it with my family.

And how necessary this is. The importance of Shabbat was renewed for me. And I don’t mean the formal structure of a service, or the traditional 25-hour observance or refraining from work-like activities. I mean the spirit of taking time out of the week for even an hour and half or so to sing, express gratitude, meditate, rest, receive, reflect, process, listen, and connect with others who are doing the same. We need this. And I don’t mean one needs to go to services to do it–though that is a place to find it–but one really needs to create that time and space for oneself. It is not always natural to do so, which is why we, as the church sign said, need to condition ourselves to make space for prayer, however we may define it.

Our visit to Central Reform Congregation turned out to be not totally separate from our justice and civil rights tour. By happenstance (kismet?), the congregation this weekend was hosting a local training by Bend the Arc, a national Jewish justice organization. The CEO, Stosh Cotler, was present for the training but also to present remarks to the congregation during services. (The Bend the Arc training also included a gathering for Jews of Color, an important reminder of the racial diversity within the Jewish community as we have been exploring racial justice.)

This wonderful coincidence reinforced the idea that there is no separation between spirituality and justice work. Indeed, so many of the leaders and organizers in the civil rights movement were clergymembers or churchgoers, many organizing meetings and trainings took place in the basements of churches, sermons were a vehicle for spreading news and messages of hope and justice. This spiritual foundation provided for much of the consistency and ultimately the success of the civil rights movement.

Sitting in the congregation this past Shabbat, hearing words of justice from the pulpit by a national Jewish leader, I felt that link. And just as being a congregant for this Shabbat really reminded me of the need to make Shabbat for ourselves, it also really reminded me of how the work for social justice can be reinforced by spiritual practice.

Stosh spoke beautifully about the work of Bend the Arc, the need to do the difficult work of resistance, and the need to–as Jews–reach out to others who are in need. She spoke specifically and relevantly about supporting immigrants–those who are under threat of deportation and especially now those families who are being separated, leaving young children scared and alone.

And she shared words that we had heard earlier in the week during our travels, the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who spoke just prior to Martin Luther King during the March on Washington. On that day he said, “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

We must not be silent, either in protest or in prayer.


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