“How Did You Pray When You Were Younger?”
by Rabbi Melissa Zalkin Stollman
Last week, I had the opportunity to spend a morning with the URJ Kutz Camp’s Torah Corps major, which focuses on Jewish studies. I visited a major each day during my week on faculty, but this one was quite unique. The purpose of my being there, in addition to doing some funny ’80s-style prayer aerobics for the Amidah, was to participate in a “prayer interview” conducted by the campers. They all had notebooks at the ready, prepared to copy down any insightful remarks I might offer regarding prayer, worship, or God. Some of the questions were ones you might have expected: “What does God mean to you?,” “How do you pray?,” and “Do you find it challenging to pray?” The campers told me I was the first female rabbi they had met with this summer and asked me some questions about my journey to the rabbinate as well as my thoughts on egalitarianism and gender-neutral language. But the question that really struck me was, “How did you pray when you were younger, and how has that changed now?”
How did I pray when I was younger? This was a tough question. I told them that when I was younger, I believed that God lived over the lake at URJ Camp Coleman, where I spent most of the late ’80s and early ‘90s. After my first summer there, I returned home and told my parents how bad I felt for the rabbi and all of the congregants at our home synagogue. Why? Because they practiced praying there, but God wasn’t there! God lived over the lake in Cleveland, GA, and they had no idea what they were missing. They could keep trying and searching, but it was useless, and, as such, I told my parents, shouldn’t have to go there anymore, either (spoken like a true post-bat mitzvah). I think I even informed the rabbi of this theory. Well, I lost the battle and proudly became the synagogue’s only confirmand in 1992 (we lived in a small town at the time). I am glad I kept going because it eventually led me on the path to becoming a rabbi and Jewish educator.
As I grew up, I came to realize that prayer was a way for me to contemplate what God might mean to me, and because I can take prayer anywhere, I could probably access God wherever I was, as well. However, as I spent last week at Kutz, watching teens rise for the Amidah and approach the lake for their time of silent meditation, I suspected they were looking for God there, too; there is something about nature that helps connect us closer to God than when we are indoors. But camp also taught me another valuable lesson about prayer, which is that music helps to lift my words even closer to God. It helps me access prayer and feel it within me, as well as to understand the Hebrew a bit better.
I eventually became a camp songleader, and during worship at camp, my back would be to the lake as I led the congregation in the chapel. By then, I knew I didn’t have to face the water to feel God’s presence. To this day, I find music a powerful way to connect not only with God and prayer, but with my own emotions and the energy of the community with which I am praying. Thank you to the URJ Camps Coleman and Kutz for giving me these important lessons as a child – and for reinforcing them for me again last week.
Rabbi Melissa Zalkin Stollman, MARE, MSW,coordinates Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Certificate Program in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults. She tweets at @mzs.