For the most part, we Jews indulge in public prayer only in our synagogues. Not so our Christian neighbors. I’ve seen groups praying together at the park, on the beach, in restaurants, hotel lobbies, wherever religious people happen to be gathered. Especially at meals.
This lack of public prayer might be because I hang out with the wrong groups of Jews, but I don’t think so. We just tend to be more reserved about public prayer. It’s a carryover from the “bad old days” when Jews were persecuted simply for being Jewish. And I’m not talking only about the Nazis — things have been pretty tough for Jews for centuries; we’ve been thrown out of countless countries (including from England in 1290; the expulsion wasn’t formally lifted until 1656), forced to convert, and killed en masse. In that kind of environment, where the price for Judaism could easily be exile or execution, it was wise to keep one’s religious observance to oneself.
Which makes the story I’m about to tell even more remarkable. I’m reminded of it every time I’m in a hotel or conference center with a Jewish group, and since tonight is my last night at the hotel with my Technion colleagues, it’s been on my mind all week.
It happened in 1996 or ’97, when I was attending a national conference of endowment and planned giving fundraisers. At the time, I worked for the Norfolk Jewish Federation as the #2 person in their foundation. I’d worked there for a couple of years and had many friends across the country in other Jewish federations and foundations.
This particular conference was non-secular, so there were hundreds of people from a huge assortment of non-profits. At the opening cocktail party, I wandered through the giant ballroom, seeking out friends and colleagues. I ran into Michael Friedman from Baltimore who was with a woman from a west coast federation who I didn’t know well. Michael grabbed my arm, said he was glad to see me, and said that the woman’s father (or mother? I can’t remember) had just died and she needed to say kaddish.
Kaddish is the prayer that Jews recite when we’re in mourning. It’s said daily for about a year after a parent’s death (11 months to be precise, for a convoluted reason having to do mostly with superstition) and even though many people don’t stick with it for the entire year, the first week and month are a pretty intense time and lots of people make sure to recite it every day.
But here’s the problem. You can’t say kaddish without a quorum of 10 adults. If you’re Orthodox, that means 10 men, but the rest of us include women.
I happen to think this is a lovely thing (the quorum, not the sexism). It forces the mourner to seek out others during one of the hardest periods of a person’s life. You can’t hide at home and wallow in your sadness. And it forces Jews to make themselves available so that the mourners among them can fulfill the requirement. This is what community is all about — being there for each other, especially during hard times.
So Michael and I agreed to meet outside the main doors and set off in opposite directions to find 7 more Jews. It didn’t take us long; within 10 minutes we were back together with about 10 or 12 people. But now what? Kaddish is recited as part of a regular prayer service, you don’t just rattle it off. We didn’t have a chapel, we didn’t have prayer books, we didn’t have a rabbi. Just ourselves. But Michael is pretty observant, and he had a siddur (prayer book) with him. Plus a kipah in his pocket. (aka a yarmulke.)
The next step was to find a quiet place facing east (towards Jerusalem). And that’s how I found myself standing just outside a huge hotel conference center, facing a bank of telephones, with a small group of people quietly praying the afternoon service together. Michael led us, and whenever he got to a prayer that we knew we’d chant with him. People wandered by and we tried to ignore them, tried to pretend we were somewhere else, someplace special and apart. The truth is that we were someplace special, not because of the where of the situation, but because of the what. We had created a sacred space.
We recited kaddish, the woman wiped her eyes and thanked us, Michael pocketed his siddur and kipah, and we scattered as people headed off for dinner or the evening’s entertainment. It lasted for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, but it was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I felt both awkward and uplifted, a little embarrassed and immensely proud. We had gone out of our way and very far out of our comfort zone to help someone who needed us. It doesn’t get much better than that.