Balancing Home and Prayer

Over the last few months, we’ve all experienced a number of sweeping changes to our lives–some financial, some logisitical, some medical–but the one overarching difference in our now normal routines is the blurring of any boundaries that we once took for granted.

We used to make a separation between work and home. Now those locations are the same.

We used to make a separation between going to school and being in the house. That too is no longer the case.

And even more than those examples–we once entered the synagogue to pray, reflect, read Torah, say Kaddish, and shmooze over black and white cookies. While some people had already worked from home before all this started, and others routinely took online classes or even home schooled their kids–pretty much no one ever thought that congregational life would be possible without, you know, actually gathering as a congregation. Sure, some people pray as individuals at home–but by definition that means omitting the communal prayers like Kaddish.

Another boundary blurred–home and worship space are now the same. And that provides a unique challenge.

Can one experience the same connection–the same kavannah— at home as when they’re in the sanctuary? One might think that I would have a lot to say on this topic, but I am probably the most mystified about this subject than most. Yes, I’m now well accustomed to leading all types of services while staring at myself on the Facebook Live screen or in my ubiquitous Zoom box. But I have practically no experience in being a congregant or participant in these services. While I have become comfortable with the once awkward task of leading prayer into a computer screen, I don’t know what it’s like to sit by myself in my den, kitchen, or living room and sing along with someone–to rise and be seated back on my couch.

And so I’d love to begin a dialogue on this subject:

When you watch Shabbat services or participate in a Zoom minyan–whatever your particular routine is–do you set aside a dedicated space at home that you know is your worship spot? Or might you sit with your laptop anywhere that’s convenient? Do you modify that space in any way in order to transform it into a holy space for prayer?

Do you sing out loud when there’s a congregational melody, or does that somehow feel awkward? Is there ever a feeling of self consciousness?

How much of the service has become passive for you? You’re now watching a service a lot like you’d view something on Netflix. Do you multitask while the service is going on? Do you have another browser window open or perhaps just have the service playing in the background while you walk into the kitchen for a snack or get some work done?

Do you make services a family experience–gathering together in front of the computer (or connected bigger screen TV)? Do you sing together as a family?

Looking ahead–would you enhance or alter any of your now routine practices during a potential virtual High Holiday service? Would you expect family members to be present, engaged, and participating in the service? How long do you think you could realistically sit in front of a computer or TV and have an effective worship experience? There’s a reason why TV shows are usually 30 or 60 minutes, and most movies hover more or less around the 2-hour mark.

I would be fascinated to hear your responses to these questions, which I’m sure will vary widely among everyone. Leave me a comment here or feel free to respond on my Facebook posting.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

2 comments on “Balancing Home and Prayer

  1. Bruce Levine

    You asked, “Can one experience the same connection–the same kavannah—at home as when they’re in the sanctuary?” To me, there is more kavannah because the connection with people and the intent we have in prayer is even more precious in the absence of what we had before. It is true that we don’t realize how much we would miss something until it is gone.

    I don’t set aside a dedicated space for worship in order to participate in service. I sit at my dining room table where it’s comfortable and the lighting is relatively good, and I’m on a stable platform. If I sat in my reclining chair, which I could also do, viewers of my countenance might be distracted by the constant rocking background, or they might be looking up my nostrils, as you so hilariously described in another post, with my computer situated on my lap. I wear casual clothes, as most other Zoom participants do, though there are a few exceptions to that rule as many of the ladies who dress elegantly for in-person service continue that tradition.

    I tend to not sing out loud, but mouth the words instead. I almost always mute my microphone during service, unless I am asked to read a specific passage in English. Most participants do not mute their microphone. When they are all singing together out loud, the words get lost in the cacophony of sound, and the singing of the passage slows to a crawl. I’ve suggested that everyone mute their mic except for the leader of the service, which would alleviate the problem. But I’ve been overruled, since it seems that most everyone wants their voice to be heard. I usually finish mouthing the passage well before the cacophony of sound washes through the computer. All that said, I sometimes do actually sing the melodies aloud, mic muted, and do not feel awkward when I do so.

    The service never feels passive to me. As I said earlier, because we are apart, it feels even more precious now. I would love to be in the company of my fellow congregants. I miss them very much. Though I could turn my camera off and set about doing something else, I almost never do so. If I were in synagogue, I might need to leave the sanctuary for some reason. Same thing happens at home, but very rarely. I certainly don’t feel as though I’m watching an episode on Netflix. Though not alone, my companion is not Jewish, so she does not participate in the service, so I “go” to service alone.

    I suspect that we will unfortunately need to continue to hold services through Zoom, or some similar platform, well past the High Holidays. I hope and pray that that is not the case, but I do fear that we will need to practice social distancing into next year. I will go to computerized High Holiday services, and it is my hope that my needing to leave services — or in this case, walking away from my computer — will be on par with what my experience has been at synagogue.

    I hope my comments have been helpful to you, Cantor Matt. Stay well.

    Bruce Levine

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  2. Reblogged this on Immanuel Verbondskind – עמנואל קאָווענאַנט קינד and commented:
    For four months CoViD-19 has brought many people in chains and because of lockdowns unable to go to their regular prayer-meetings.

    Some believers wonder if they can meet up with worthy prayer only at home. Some need to be convinced or given advice on how to make sure to have a worthy service for the Elohim, even when in a closed private or personal space like the living room.

    Those who went on to their balcony for singing out loud, and got the police at their door, avoid such public witnessing now. Many of our and other congregations still think on certain days we cannot make use of electronic tools like television and computers, and as such cannot take part in our weekly e-streaming. It would be nice if some other solution could be found for those to give them still a feeling of unitedness and gathering in prayer.

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