DLTI offers a unique learning experience to help those who lead worship in a Jewish context to deepen the quality of communal prayer so that it activates the body, touches the heart, engages the mind, and nourishes spiritual growth and insight. Employing the participatory approach of an intensive master class, this program coaches you in the high art of leadership of public ritual and prayer.
Usually when I spend a week at Elat Chayyim I write one lengthy trip report, like this one from last summer, or this one from the summer before. But this time I'm going to offer a briefer and more crystallized reflection. I'll write more about the experience as I continue to absorb and assimilate the week.
There are 54 people in my DLTI class -- larger
than I expected, though by week's end we felt like longtime friends.
Some of us are rabbinic, cantorial, and rabbinic pastor students (in
the Aleph ordination programs or elsewhere);
others are ordained clergy; still others are laypeople. We come from every conceivable Jewish background (and a few non-Jewish ones, too); in our professional lives we do, or have done, almost every career you can think of.
The program is based around the rhythm of Jewish prayer, so we gathered for davvenen three times a day. Different groups of students led each of the services, until Shabbat when we got to relax into delicious davvenen led by Reb Shawn and Reb Marcia and Hazzan Jack. (Starting in week two, in February, we'll lead even Shabbat services ourselves.) When we weren't actively praying, we worked on community-building, beginning to learn the matbe'ah (the deep structure of Jewish prayer), and workshopping the services each group had led. I say "actively praying" advisedly; one of the texts we studied early in the week is this, from Rav Kook:
Prayer comes into full bloom only as we become aware that the soul-breath/the neshama is always praying. For does she not (in every moment) take wing and join her Beloved, so that they are always in intimate embrace? And when we enter into formal prayer, into our regular prayer-practice [ha tefillah ha-ma'asit], our awareness opens to this truth: that the neshama is always praying. And this is the sublime joy of daily prayer, its incandescent beauty...for prayer unfolds [us] like a rose: opening its petals to receive the dew or to catch the sun's radiant blaze. And so our Sages say: "if only we could pray every moment, the whole day through."
(That's an interpretive translation, by E. Ginsburg, from the commentary to the siddur The Offering of Vision. Gorgeous stuff, isn't it?)
For prayer-leading, I was paired with two other women -- as it happens, both women I already know from previous Elat Chayyim journeys -- and the three of us were assigned Friday shacharit (morning prayer.) We began planning on Tuesday afternoon, at the end of our first full day there. To my delight, it turned out that we were all interested in contemplative prayer, so we decided to lead a contemplative shacharit.
After much brainstorming, sharing of ideas and melodies, and late-night rehearsal, Friday morning came. We arrived in the barn extra-early to set up. When everyone arrived, we welcomed them in by singing "V'erestikh li l'olam", the beautiful verses that are recited upon winding tefillin -- read about that here if you're interested -- which we repeated several times as people doffed shoes and raincoats, withdrew tallitot and tefillin from their bags, and prepared themselves for prayer.
We touched briefly on all of the major prayers in the morning liturgy, and a few psalms and poems as well. Because we'd been together nonstop for days -- which felt like weeks, in the subjective time of the immersive retreat experience -- the kahal (community) picked up on our cues, and sang in multipart harmony. There were beaming smiles. There were some tears. By Friday morning of a weeklong retreat like this, it's pretty easy for one's heart to crack open.
When you pray, you are like a bed of coals.
After prayer, so long as a single spark remains,
A great fire can be kindled again.
But if that spark dies, there can be no fire.
Cling to God always,
Even at times when you feel unable to reach God.
This is how you may preserve that single spark,
So that the fire of your soul is never extinguished.
-- Likutim Yekarim 15b
Perhaps the most remarkable part for me was seeing Reb Phyllis in the room. On my very first trip to Elat Chayyim four years ago (can it only be four years, in calendrical time?) she led the first service I attended, a contemplative shacharit service that blew my mind. I had never seen women lay tefillin before, and had never considered that one could go so deeply into the liturgy. I still remember some of her teachings from that morning. And I remember leaving the yurt, at the end of the hour, thinking, "wow -- I hope someday I can create for other people the kind of experience she just created for me."
And last Friday, with help from my beloved colleagues, I did. Holy wow.
I love my shul, and love leading services there, but had been worried that it might not prepare me for doing this. (For one thing, at DLTI we all use our own different siddurim simultaneously. That one fact speaks volumes about the level of education that's presumed. Of course, we're not alone in this, as BZ's excellent "hilchot pluralism" series attests.) The use of nusach is beginning to teach me how melody and words can interact to create meaning, but it's also still pretty new to me. And many people in DLTI have a deeper Jewish education than I do. So leading prayer there felt a little bit chutzpahdik. Who am I to lead such pray-ers in prayer?
But within the space that Reb Shawn and Reb Marcia (and Hazzan Jack) created, stretching myself to lead a new kind of service in a very experienced community felt safe and possible. At the end of the hour, I found myself overwhelmed with joy and gratitude, which continues to resonate for me even now.
I am so fortunate to be on the road that I am on; to be learning what I am learning; to be connected with such gracious and tremendous teachers; and to be part of such a deep community. I feel energized now to strengthen my own regular prayer practice, and I can't wait to see how the work of prayer deepens my sense of self, of community, of time, and of God.