Posted on January 12, 2013 by The Director of Digital Media
As a self-identified progressive, liberal, secular Jew growing up at Jewish Day School, I spent a lot of my time and energy speaking about why prayer and G-d were NOT a part of my life. I actively ran from prayer. Once I had my bat-mitzvah, there was nothing my parents could do to get me to synagogue. I prided myself on my rebelliousness and frequently claimed my atheism as a controversial badge of honor.
For university, I continued on my secular path by attending Sarah Lawrence College, named the #1 least religious college in America by The Princeton Review in 2011. While Sarah Lawrence was the perfect school for me in all other ways (academically, socially, professor/student ratio, philosophy, classroom dynamics, etc.) it was very taxing on my Judaism. After my sophomore year, I decided to go back to Israel and study at Pardes to try to find something I felt I’d lost.
Deciding to come to Pardes in the summer of 2009 was a difficult decision for me as a proud, secular Progressive, and I was concerned about how it might feel alienating. I was right. My first summer here was challenging because I would constantly question G-d’s existence, argue against the truth of the Torah and the claim prayer as unnecessary. For Tova Leah Nachmani’s “Personalizing Prayer” class, I bought a Koren siddur (Orthodox) for taking notes (which I still use to this day), and still got chastised by peers for my “heretical” questions. Yet, for some reason, I came back the next summer for more.
Summer of 2010 was different. Perhaps it was the student community, perhaps it was me; but for some reason, I started wanting to pray… just to see what it was like (is what I told myself). I made some close friends, many of them women studying to be Jewish professionals of different kinds, and with them I found a desire for spirituality within me that I hadn’t known existed. I took a very powerful course on Rav Kook, which I think was the most concrete turning point for me. Of course, only one month at Pardes was not enough for me to fully explore my spirituality. I knew I would be back.
After graduating Sarah Lawrence and before starting graduate school for psychology, I knew I needed more from Pardes, even if I couldn’t articulate what that need was. First semester was challenging in many ways, socially, academically, but especially spiritually. I could not find that ephemeral thing I was looking for.
I started going to James Jacobson-Maisels’ weekly meditation classes and since I was a newbie, I had no idea what I was doing. It was intriguing, but eventually I realized I was going about it all wrong. I attended one of James’ silent meditation retreats and almost lost my mind from frustration, anger and contempt for this wearisome process. But, like many Pardes-related decisions, I joined James’ second semester Self, Soul and Text class in order to learn more about this intriguingly provoking activity.
During my spiritual journey in Self, Soul and Text, David Bogomolny facilitated an Ayeka series at Pardes. For me, it is impossible to separate the process I was going through in that class and what I began learning from Ayeka. After the difficulty of the meditation retreat and then deciding to continue learning about it, Ayeka was a welcome outlet. David’s welcoming, warm and compassionate personality helped create an open, safe space to discuss the difficult issues of prayer, G-d and spirituality from a personal perspective.
The module we did together was about prayer. As someone who was never really “into” praying and could not find much meaning from it, I was hesitant to delve so deeply and emotionally into this topic. During a time when I was trying to accept a part of myself that I never let in before, my spirituality, Ayeka, and the module specifically, helped me take control of this massive personal transition. We asked the question, “why pray?” and even though I still don’t have a clear-cut answer, I know there are places I can search for it, including within myself. Ayeka encouraged us to read historical texts and rabbinical opinions and then formulate our own understandings either with or without those resources.
While most of the questions we asked in Ayeka, like, “why pray?” do not have a definitive answer, the process of grappling with such a question was the gift that Ayeka gave me. After acquiring knowledge from the Pardes Year Program and the spiritual growth I was going through with Self, Soul and Text and my meditation practices, Ayeka functioned as an open, safe space for me to struggle with important questions from an emotional and personal perspective.
We talked about how our hearts are connected to prayer. We discussed quieting the heart before prayer and love and devotion for G-d (and G-d for us). As someone who grew up going to mainstream Conservative and pluralistic Jewish day schools, prayer was always a thinking activity rather than a feeling activity where we use our heads and not our hearts. Prayer was just another skill we were meant to learn as part of the Jewish education we were getting. 1+1=2… just the same as “memorizing” the prayers.
Coming to Pardes was the first time I even let myself, or learned how to pray with my heart. Ayeka was a place where it solidified the truest connection between my heart and my prayers. Aryeh Ben David came into one of our Ayeka sessions and said many meaningful things, but I will always remember that he said, “Education is not about the information but about the transformation.” While I know that is a somewhat cliché, and popular phrase these days, hearing him say that in this particular setting, the safe space of our Ayeka group, I heard it not just with my brain, but also with my heart.
We turned next to the Shema, which was never that meaningful to me. It was just another prayer that I memorized the words, the translation, and the “right” answers to get through day school. Learning it as a 23 year old was quite a different experience. David encouraged us to think about it deeper, about oneness. It was still hard for me to transcend the routine affect that the Shema has on me, but I really appreciated the community we created in Ayeka. While I was still struggling with this lesson, my peers (of different ages) shared many new thoughts, wisdom and perspectives that I will forever appreciate and cherish. It was that day that I realized what Ayeka could be not just for an individual, as I had already felt myself changing, but what it can bring to a group of people, who can search for meaning together.
For me, Ayeka was the cherry on my spiritual journey’s cake. The culmination of my time at Pardes, meditating, newly praying and Self, Soul and Text was beautifully topped off by the open space of Ayeka in which to talk out and share my journey while listening to others’. It gave me the space to listen deeper to my true desires and reflect the holiness of others’ paths. Within the framework of Ayeka (and Self Soul and Text) was the first time that I said out loud (and proudly) that I believe in G-d. The experience of being in Ayeka was a huge part of what I was looking for when choosing to come to Pardes.