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More Than Lip Service

For decades, most of the praying associated with Hadassah took place among patients and their families in hospital rooms in Jerusalem. The organization, America’s largest Jewish women’s organization, was better known for its Israeli medical center, women’s activism and Zionist advocacy than for spiritual growth.

But that could all change with the debut of “Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer” at the organization’s national conference in New York City from July 13 through July 16.

Following on the heels of the organization’s successful adult-bat-mitzvah campaign and programs marking Rosh Chodesh — the first day of a new month and moon — the book’s publication reflects an increasing interest among American Jews in both prayer and spirituality, a shift away from the secular affiliations of past decades.

“I don’t know if they will pray more,” said Carol Diament, Hadassah’s national director of Jewish education and co-editor of the study guide, “but I think they would be encouraged to be a bat mitzvah. It would connect them more to the Jewish community, and maybe they would come more on Shabbat.”

Given the range of observance levels among Hadassah’s 300,000 members, Diament, an avowed feminist with a doctorate in Jewish history from Yeshiva University, realized that she could not put out a prayer book, but rather needed to produce a guide that could serve as a companion to prayer books across the denominational spectrum.

“I wanted a traditional approach, so that we could create a polemic,” said Diament, explaining the strategy she devised. “The book is like a page of Talmud, and in the margins we have all kinds of voices, anybody we could find who was involved in liturgy. And that is really our contribution.”

To accomplish the task, Diament had to find someone with whom the progressive voices on liturgy could argue. She turned to Rabbi Jules Harlow, the renowned editor and translator of the Conservative movement’s “Sim Shalom” prayer book.

Harlow said he was a bit surprised when he received the invitation to discuss liturgy with the women of Hadassah. Although Harlow has long advocated many feminist positions such as women reading from the Torah, he left his name off the 1994 edition of “Sim Shalom” when the Conservative movement chose to include the matriarchs in the opening passage of the Amidah, the central prayer of the daily services.

“I’m not politically correct in terms of my attitude” on certain issues, Harlow said, “but that didn’t bother the [Hadassah] education department. And what came out as a result of that tension is a book that has more than one opinion.”

For example, in the “Pray Tell” chapter on the Amidah, Harlow writes: “No sensible person denies the importance of the matriarchs, who were partners in the formation of the people of Israel. However, the inclusion of the imahot [matriarchs] violates the liturgical and literary integrity of the classic text. It also breaks the close link of the language of the Bible and the language of the prayer book.”

But Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso shoots back in the margins, suggesting that the rabbis who wrote the Amidah shortchanged contemporary petitioners when they excluded the approaches of women.

“Including the names of the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in the first blessing of the Amidah,” she writes, “acknowledges that the way our mothers knew God, the ways they whispered God’s name, are a part of our Jewish heritage.”

Exchanges like this were exactly what Diament wanted in her study guide and in the upcoming conference’s “Pray Tell” workshops, at which Hadassah officials are expecting close to 100 of the roughly 2,000 conference-goers to attend. Varying viewpoints are also expressed by Harlow’s co-authors: Tamara Cohen, Rochelle Furstenberg, Rabbi Daniel Gordis and Leora Tanenbaum.

Released by Jewish Lights Publishing, “Pray Tell” invites Hadassah members to a discussion on traditional liturgy, challenging them with essays on the growth of feminist texts, the traditional private supplication of Orthodox women and the power of prayer in a post-9-11 world.

“I think everyone can find themselves in this book,” she said. “They can find something that upsets them, and they can find something that they agree with.”

Hadassah’s interest in liturgy is part of a growing search for spirituality within American Jewry that Harlow has observed across the country, whether at home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or at his High Holy Day pulpit in Omaha, Neb.

“What we still don’t have and what I think ‘Pray Tell’ can foster, is enough Jews who understand the structure and theme of what they are saying,” Harlow said. “Although great advances have been made in the Jewish community, I think ignorance of our tradition is still one of our great problems.”

“Pray Tell” has already inspired one group of Southern California Hadassah women to complete their bat mitzvah ceremony. Diament studied with about 25 of them in preparation for a Sabbath service they were putting together for April.

“It was almost magical,” said Sharon Krischer, chairwoman of the Hadassah of Southern California, “because one person would say they didn’t know the prayer, and another person would start singing it, and everyone would join in, because that was the commonality between all of us. We had all learned the prayers from studying together.”

Brian Mono is a writer living in Philadelphia.

* * *|

THE BLESSING

When we recite a brakhah [a blessing], we express not only our gratitude for a specific gift. Reciting a brakhah or one hundred brakhot each day, the experience can heighten our awareness of the wonders of our daily lives and help us to respond to them with gratitude. Since reciting a brakhah reflects an awareness of what has been given to us, we would call a brakhah a not-taking-for-granted. We need to reinforce this lesson daily, since too often we do take things for granted.

Allow me to share a personal example. During a hospital stay I was fed only intravenously for several days following surgery. My first solid meal was mashed potatoes and asparagus. I savored every morsel and I vowed that never again would I take anything for granted. Two or three days later I complained that the tea was not hot enough. Members of my family breathed a sigh of relief and said, “He’s returning to normal.”

To spend our lives enthusiastically acclaiming the wonders of the world would be unnatural. Yet if we never acknowledge the good things that are ours, we are ungrateful, and we can become deadened to an awareness of life’s precious gifts. Reciting a brakhah helps to restore the balance.

— From “Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer” by Rabbi Jules Harlow. Just published by Jewish Lights in Woodstock, Vt., the book can be purchased by calling 800-962-45447 or by visiting www.jewishlights.com.

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