“Creating meaning” is a phrase we hear often in the discussion of contemporary American religion – congregants in religious communities across the country seek a spiritual and real connection; a space in which the words of our prayer books and sacred texts speak a message that enables us to understand both ourselves and the world around us in new and profound ways. It is a complex task to create such a space, however, as we ask ourselves, what exactly does it look like to “make meaning” of a prayer on a Friday night or Saturday morning services? How do we go beyond the translation and history of the prayer so that synagogue attendees can truly find a way to connect spiritually with the words on the page?
Several congregants have approached me in recent months and said something to the effect of, “I come to services often, but I still don’t know what the prayers mean.” This surely is a challenge in the 21st century, where many are flocking to other sources of spirituality because they could not find it in their synagogues and churches.
Admittedly, I too find it challenging each week to recite the words in our prayer book with a full sense of meaning and understanding. Over time I have come to realize that making sense of the prayers and building true connection with God takes time, even a lifetime. I think there is a direct correlation between life experiences and making meaning of the prayers; it is only as I get older and experience more that certain prayers begin to make sense.
It was only after the birth of my first son, Koby, for example, that the Hashkiveinu, a prayer from our evening liturgy, began to make sense, that it started to fill with meaning for me. As I sat beside his crib during his first months of life, with my guitar in hand, I sang the words of Hashkiveinu, hoping to lull my newborn baby to sleep, praying that God protect him and provide this baby with a shelter of peace throughout the night. Now, when we sing that prayer at Friday night services, the words transport me back to those moments of singing to Koby, praying to God for the protection and peace of my child, a moment that any parent would treasure and can understand. I think that making meaning of a prayer is about connecting a life experience to the main idea or theme of that particular prayer.
These conversations about meaning with our congregants sparked an idea: If creating meaning is about connecting our life experiences with the themes of the prayers, then what if we created a space in our prayer services for congregants to do just that – to share a moment from their lives that highlights one of the themes of the prayers. By hearing these stories, others may feel a new spiritual or emotional connection to the prayer, or they may think about moments in their own lives that connect with the meta-themes of each prayer.
And thus the Prayer Stories film project was born.
With the immense help of our congregant Jeff Taylor, we created eight short films, each one featuring a B’nai Israel congregant sharing his or her story. Every story connects with one of the themes of the prayers. We plan to show the films throughout the year at Friday night services, as well as to our Religious School students and on our website. We hope this project will create a space for others to make meaning, share their own stories, and learn about others in the community.
We plan to show our first film at
services on January 23.
We hope you will join us to be part of
this special project.