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  • Writer's pictureDavid Billotti

The PrayerSpace Network: Radio, and not TV

Written in collaboration with my partners from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) in thinking about the future worship for our reform and liberal communities.

Cantor Rosalie Will, Director Worship and Music, URJ, Worship Consultant and Coach Cantor Joshua Breitzer, Vice President, American Conference of Cantors; Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn NY; Instructor, HUC-JIR Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, Editor, CCAR Press

With COVID numbers decreasing across North America and increasing numbers of vaccinations giving us hope for an eventual end of social isolation, many of us have begun to think and dream about worship in the next chapter. We have begun to think about the new comfort and accessibility worship provided over the last months; we have observed that more people (at least by Zoom window counting) attend, and, even more interestingly, new faces, outside the regular pre-Covid Shabbat attendees, show up for our prayers and learning. We must acknowledge that many of us not only feel hopeful but also anxious to imagine the moment when we will be invited to gather again.

We consider our future gatherings, and realize that they will be both a product of the time BEFORE COVID as well as of the time WITH COVID. And we ask ourselves: What have we learned from the last months of online worship that might guide us on our next steps?

One of the things we learned is that praying, though we currently do it facing a screen, is not actually a visual activity. Praying is more like listening to the radio.

Reflecting on what we have observed during this year while also remembering the limits of our communal worship before lockdown, we are challenged to raise the simplest questions anew: Why do we pray? What kind of prayer do we really seek? What feels right? What makes space for God, for the transcendent, for the voices we usually do not listen to?

Over the last months, many of us have rediscovered basic truths. It feels good to mark time with Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah, when days seem to blur into each other. It is good to gather around Torah, read together , and engage in conversation when we are hungry for depth and connection. It is good to sing familiar melodies, when everything else has changed. It is good to cook and taste the most comforting food, when we are scared and feel a lack of control.

However, in some conversations, clergy have begun to wonder: Are our services meaningful? Were they before we went online? Do people pay enough attention? We see our people gather in pajamas in front of the TV; we see them preparing dinner; often, we don’t see them at all because they switched off their cameras. It might feel like watching our services on Zoom has become, for some, a mere background noise to their otherwise busy lives. And yet: they continue to come! What are our services to them, while they focus on other things or nothing at all? Is that much different than communal worship anywhere and at any time?

One Shabbat morning, Sonja went with her baby for a walk to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The cemetery is old and large; artificial little lakes, Canadian Geese, old trees and marble family graves spread over hills make up the scenery. At 10 AM on a weekend, almost no one was around--and so she entered the Zoom room of her congregation, and listened to the familiar voices and melodies while pushing the stroller and singing to her baby and breathing in the air and looking at trees, birds, and water reflections… and this is when she realized, and we began to talk about it: PRAYER IS NOT LIKE WATCHING TV. IT IS MORE LIKE LISTENING TO THE RADIO.

Often, when we pray, we are not consciously focusing on the content of the words or the pacing of the melodies. When we used to sit in shul, we did not focus on every word we spoke or sang; we did not follow every twist of the sermon; we often spent minutes, sometimes hours, looking at small details in the synagogue architecture. We let our minds wander. We let go. We thought about whatever came up--sometimes feeling guilty about it, but unable and unwilling to stop us from drifting along the flow of our rising thoughts. When praying, we are like dreamers…(Psalm 126:1).

The idea is not new: The Maggid of Mezrich has taught us that prayer is like dreaming; it opens us up to listen to the letters of God. Praying and dreaming, we connect with the voice too still to be heard in the busyness of our lives; our minds are drifting to realms we do not enter when checking the next box off our to-do lists. We do nothing--and yet, we do everything. We return to ourselves; we return to God.

One of the great gifts of virtual worship has been the addition of visual content. Many participants have shared that only hearing words and watching faces isn’t enough for the diversity of experiential intelligences, and that the opportunity to see beautiful scenery, or photos of familiar places, or faces of loved ones in our community has been a powerful addition to our virtual worship. And yet the visual content, particularly as many feel the need to increase creativity or volume of visuals in order to keep people’s interest, is not always helpful in reaching the dreaming phase of prayer Sonja and so many others feel when they are both within and with-out the prayer experience. Too often our eyes are inviting us to grasp, to understand, to reflect critically, and to move on to the next object or impression.

One of the beauties of the radio is that our imagination is allowed to wander. Some preferred the radio hours of the 40s over the same TV shows of the 50s. When listening instead of watching, we could embark on our own imaginary journeys, while at the same time being aware that we are connected to other people listening at other places. It is in music and in the rhythm of the calmly spoken word that most of us are able to get into that drifty space most easily. It is when we listen to music or news on the radio; when we hum to ourselves in the shower; when we sing our babies to sleep with the same old, familiar melodies, that we enter a state of drifting, of openness.

How often do we enter this state when we sit, focusing, in front of a screen? Perhaps rarely, if ever.

When our congregants shut off their cameras, they might take back what the screens deprived them of: the possibilities to let their eyes wander aimlessly; to rest on a little detail of furniture or clothing; the possibility to sway back and forth, to close their eyes, to stop listening and observing, and to begin drifting and dreaming….

The next step is to ask ourselves, and our people: What can we do, we who create online worship together with our communities, to help us all to become dreamers?



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