(January 11, 2015 / JNS)
There has been much conversation recently about how we, as rabbis, can best reach out to all Jews—not just those who show up at synagogue for Shabbat or holiday services. We have seen studies show that an increasing number of Jews self-identify as “spiritual” rather than “religious,” and seek out our institutions sporadically, if at all.
As Jewish leaders, and as rabbis, we must find more ways to help Jews discover our traditions and to help them engage from where they are. We need to find ways to re-engage those who are not finding what they need in our religious institutions, even as we provide more for those we still see frequently. We must help each Jew connect to their Judaism within the context of their own lives, and to use the experiences and feelings that are most compelling to them as springboards to encounter the many ways that Judaism can guide us to grow through these experiences. Rather than teach Judaism and show its relevance, we can ask, “What is most relevant to you,” and explore those topics through the lens of Judaism.
Many Jews are familiar with the bracha (blessing) recited before eating bread, but how many know that we have a more specific blessing to recite before biting into our favorite cookie? Or that there is a blessing for seeing a rainbow or a beautiful flowering tree in the spring?
Conservative Judaism is rooted in the interplay of tradition and modernity. This is a challenge we still seek to meet today as we work to find ways to help Jews discover our traditions, and to help them do it in a way that is comfortable for them. These days, the easiest way to reach people is often through technology—through the phones and tablets that often accompany us wherever we go.
In embracing this new culture of technological connectivity, and in an effort to join the old and the new, the Rabbinical Assembly (the international association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis) has created a new app called “Sanctifull” for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. The app is by no means the full answer to the aforementioned larger questions, but it is a step in the right direction to engaging Jews where they are.
In creating this app, we sought out prayer-appropriate moments calling for which traditional texts do not exist—or where we found the need for prayers in addition to the existing ones—and have put together a resource that includes translations, transliterations, explanations (or kavanot), and recordings of major blessings. This new platform also includes meditations that draw on traditional texts and speak to critical moments when individuals seek a connection to Judaism, but have no traditional bracha to recite.
While our ancient tradition does not directly address every experience, today’s rabbis—as have our teachers throughout the millennia—draw upon our tradition and modernity, creating prayers and blessing that we can use in our lives today. Our Jewish tradition has sources to help us find gratitude or strength for almost every aspect of life, every challenge we encounter, and every step we take.
The free app includes, for instance, a new prayer for parents whose child is beginning school for the first time, and for when that child goes off to college or moves into his first apartment. There is also a prayer to give one strength when it is necessary to move one’s mother into a nursing home, and a prayer to recite after a fight with a spouse or close friend.
When our life experiences leave us speechless, these blessings will help provide the words and meditations to help us heal, reconcile, and grow. The app’s traditional blessings bring contemporary aspects to them, while the new contemporary blessings are rich in Jewish tradition.
The entry for the traditional prayer on wine, for example, includes a kavanah that reminds us, “Before I drink I pause to recall that wine can be a blessing or a curse. I commit not to drink and drive, not to allow this wine to make me act foolishly. As Rabbi Yohanan taught, for the wise, wine is always a blessing.”
Meanwhile, the new contemporary prayer for becoming a vegetarian draws on the age-old Jewish values of sh’mirat haguf (maintaining a healthy body) and tsar ba’alei hayim (compassion for the suffering of animals).
Prayer cannot be outsourced to others. We believe that each individual has their own personal relationship with God and that each individual has their own way of spiritual communication. We in the Conservative movement have taken on the task of making Judaism’s wisdom accessible for Jews in the rhythm of their everyday experiences. These new prayers have been created to accompany a variety of life’s moments that call out for a sacred connection, so that we can awaken all Jews’ awareness to the richness of Jewish tradition.
By making these traditional and new brachot available on the Sanctifull app, we are working to bring Judaism to Jews—wherever they may be.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international member organization for Conservative and Masorti rabbis.