Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our Daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look.
Perhaps the most perplexing problem affecting synagogue attendance today is lack of prayer literacy. Congregants who have great expertise in their professional field or who can attend a sports event and know all the plays and players feel uncomfortable in an environment where they are don’t understand the language and have no real clue what is taking place. Simply put, people who are used to being well-informed and confident tend to avoid situations where they may feel lost or unconnected. Some Synagogues have responded to this challenge by seeking the lowest common denominator; either by substituting English readings for the Hebrew prayers or by greatly simplifying the service. Unfortunately, the casualty in this process of simplification is often the prayer service itself. For thousands of years Hebrew prayers, such as those drawn from the book of psalms and others, have resonated in our Jewish DNA; providing comfort, compassion and inspiration. Hebrew language prayer has sustained us not only through generations but across geographical boundaries as well. Of course, the traditional Nusach – the prescribed musical language of prayer, has also provided a formidable chain that binds generation to generation and community to community.
The question becomes, then, how to tackle the problem of prayer literacy while retaining the quality and meaningfulness of the service. Instead of altering the prayer service, it may be more effective to attempt to change the prayer participant. While education maybe the most prudent approach, the real challenge is to avoid “preaching to the Choir.” That is to reach out to those who do not regularly attend the service and to convince them that it is safe and indeed beneficial, to come in to the Synagogue. It is to that end that the Have a Cup of Coffee with God service was instituted.
Originally developed as a Learner’s Service for Camp Ramah Darom family camp in Georgia, the Have a Cup of Coffee with God Service is about to promoted to the main service for our congregation in Omaha Nebraska for a series of Shabbatot. At Camp Ramah, the response to this approach was so positive that what began as a Shabbat only experience became a daily occurrence. It is very exciting to see the effect this will have on a mainstream congregation in Omaha NE.
At is core, the “Have a Cup of Coffee with God” service has a unique, homemade siddur called L’Havin U’lhaskeil. (click here for sample page from this Siddur) Focusing on the salient sections of the prayer service, this siddur features transliteration, translation and commentary in addition to the Hebrew text. The room is set in a large circle for the service so that there is no front or back row and no Bema or stage to separate the participants from the clergy. During the Cup of Coffee Service, coffee etc. and cookies are available and all encouraged to enjoy the refreshments throughout the morning. As we progress through the liturgy, the basic meaning of many of the prayers is explained and all are invited to ask questions or offer an opinion or explanation of their own at any time. In addition any actions associated with the prayer, from bending and bowing or gathering Tzitizit from the corners of the Tallit are clarified. The Cup of Coffee Service is enhanced by physical demonstrations such as using a tower of plastic blocks to illustrate the structure of the service or by combining the movements associated with praying into a two-minute aerobics class. In the past, augmenting the liturgy with Yoga, Tai Chi or meditation has added to the impact and spirituality of the Cup of Coffee service while at the same time opening congregants to the possibility of combining alternative approaches within the framework of the traditional service. The Have a Cup of Coffee with God Service ends with the Torah service so that, when offered as an alternative service, all can join together for Torah Reading and Musaph and conclude the prayers as one congregation.
The response to this approach to prayer has been extremely encouraging. When conducted on a monthly basis in my former congregation, those who were initially reluctant to attend a standard service attended the Cup of Coffee Service regularly. Of more importance, many who attended the Cup of Coffee service began to feel more comfortable in the standard service and increased the frequency of their attendance and the level of their participation. Transforming this service from an alternative service to the sole Shabbat Morning is a new evolution of this idea which is only possible with the encouragement and participation of our Rabbi, Steven Abraham. Surely all will benefit from the sharing of ideas, feelings and knowledge while maintaining our usual sense of warmth and of unity on Shabbat morning.
Empowering members of our community to feel ownership in their liturgical heritage is key to increasing synagogue attendance and ensuring the future of the Jewish prayer service. Services such as Have a Cup of Coffee with God give the individuals who are part of our community the opportunity to gain knowledge about the service in a comfortable, non-judgmental, relaxed atmosphere. By offering the Have a Cup of Coffee with God service we provide the community the opportunity to not only examine the prayers in a new light but also to draw strength and understanding from one another in the context of a meaningful liturgical experience.
I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.