Our office is closed through Sunday, July 5. Learn more.

Toward Shabbat: Tetzaveh

March 6, 2020

I have just returned from a trip to Israel and Berlin. It was important to me to pray all three daily services—shaharit, minhah and arvit—with a minyan (quorum of 10 Jewish adults) so I could say kaddish for my mother. I organized my days around the times and places of prayer. Making sure I was at the right place at the right time, at sunrise and sunset, gave me a sense of structure. I felt held and contained at a time when so much inside of me is in a state of dislocation following my mother’s death, particularly being away from my home and my work routine in New York. 

Kaddish took me to some really interesting places. Throughout my time away, I ended up praying in 13 different places, in a few of them more than once. I was in tiny synagogues, in larger sanctuaries, in yeshivas, but the most unusual were a parking lot in Jerusalem where dozens of neighbors converge every week for the evening prayer at the end of Shabbat, and a large house that functions as a veritable prayer factory: it offers daily 19 shaharit services between 5:50AM and 10:30AM, eight minhah services and 23 arvit services—the last one at 11:45PM. In each place, prayer had a different flavor—Kurdish, Moroccan, Russian, and more. Each place had its own social and cultural character, a true experience of the vast variety of the Jewish people. Save for one synagogue in Jerusalem which I attend each time I visit, I prayed among total strangers. And yet, as each service started, I found myself at home in the words of prayer and in the chants. When it was time to recite the kaddish, I felt seen and comforted. I was one among brothers.

I use the word “brothers” deliberately, because there was, after all, a sad and painful side to this prayer journey: there were no sisters around. These were exclusively male prayer spaces, and I was keenly aware of my privilege. I could never say the traditional formulation of the morning blessing “shelo ‘asani ishah”, praising God for not making me a woman. I find it revolting. And yet, I was able to participate and say kaddish for my mother in those spaces precisely because God did not make me a woman. I deeply felt and held the conflict. 

And I hold profound disappointment that daily egalitarian services are quite rare in the places where I was. It is sad that there is just not enough commitment to daily prayer in most liberal Jewish communities to implement shaharit, minhah and arvit services. We liberal Jews care about prayer, but not nearly enough to develop a regular practice and to come out to pray in a minyan. A lukewarm Judaism, unfortunately, won’t melt the ice in the soul and in the world. 

I feel all the more grateful for BJ’s beautiful and robust morning minyan. Our minyan has been in place for over 25 years thanks to the devotion and care of many members. Those who desire to begin each day with communal prayer, those who need a place to say kaddish as mourners or on a yahrzeit, and those who seek to mark a special occasion on Torah reading days, have expressed enormous appreciation for our BJ morning minyan. I love the warm welcome, the feeling of fellowship, the compassion and generosity of spirit and, of course, the meaningful prayerful atmosphere of our minyan. 

Last spring, we started an evening minyan that meets at 6:30PM, Monday through Thursday. Depending on the time of sunset, we pray minhah, arvit, or both. Attendance at our evening minyan has been somewhat tentative, we are not there yet. I remind myself that it took several years for the morning minyan to get to a firm place. Just as with the beginning of each day, I hope more people will discover the power of ending the day with communal prayer. 

My prayer journey in Israel and in Berlin was fascinating in its own way, though not uncomplicated. I am happy to be back home, among brothers and sisters who long to open the soul daily through the gift of prayer. 

J. Rolando Matalon

Written By J. Rolando Matalon

José Rolando Matalon, B’nai Jeshurun’s senior rabbi, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was educated in Buenos Aires, Montreal, Jerusalem, and New York City. After his ordination at the Jewis...