We’ve all been there when it worked – in that mysterious, ineffable way that is so impossible to describe but unforgettable to experience. And we’ve all been there when it hasn’t – one of those interminable religious services where thoughts of a Chinese torture chamber become genuinely appealing.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. But only a little.
What is it that separates the first kind of experience from the second? What are the qualities, traits or techniques that make a prayer experience really impact the people involved?
I have recently returned from the fourth and final week of a program called the Davennen Leadership Training Institute – or DLTI – which is all about those questions. For one week, four times, over two years, a group of 50+ adventurous souls gathered on the shores of a picturesque lake in western Connecticut, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. We ate delicious mostly vegetarian food; percolated in the hot tub under crisp, starry skies; and in the rhythm of our most ancient Jewish traditions, came together to daven (pray) three times a day in cycle with the sun.
The members of the group came from all over: The Southwest, New York, Maryland, Alaska, two even schlepped over from Germany. Several of us welcomed babies over those two years – and three of those babies joined the holy chevra at one retreat or another. Several others experienced the loss of a parent, surgeries, separations from loved ones. It became, in short, the kind of kahal (community) one typically finds in a synagogue family – only our family would be, we knew at the outset, only a temporary one.
People join DLTI for different reasons. Quite a few of the participants are enrolled in rabbinical or cantorial studies programs. But there were several members who were already ordained clergy working in congregations, and who simply wanted to improve their service-leading abilities. Still others had no plans to pursue Judaism as a profession, but hoped to help grow and nurture the prayer experiences in their home communities.
We were not, by any means, all “uber-Jews” or “prayer freaks” whose lives revolve around three-times-a-day davenning. In fact, for most of us, it was an intensity and experience of prayer that we had never experienced before, and which was alternately enriching and exhausting, uplifting and maddening. How I felt at any given moment at any given retreat pretty much spanned the spectrum, which in the end, I think, is a good indication of just how authentic and deep the DLTI experience really becomes.
So, enough of the abstracts! What exactly do we do at DLTI?
Well, in the weeks before each retreat, we would receive a series of reading and study assignments about a particular aspect of Jewish prayer (for example, the Amidah and Kabbalat Shabbat were the focus of one week; learning the nusach and prayers for the weekday Shacharit service was the focus of another). We were also given service-leading assignments with anywhere from one to three other students, for either a Shacharit, Mincha or Maariv service.
Each day was built around those thrice-daily davenning experiences, and in between them, we would have “class” in the beit midrash (synagogue) overlooking the lake. Some classes were from the teachers on prayer-related topics (often based on a text rooted in Jewish mysticism); some were nusach (melody) labs with Hazzan Jack; and others were interactive exercises designed to get us to think about issues like transitions and role-sharing during service-leading.
One major component of each day was what they called a “lab” – usually on the morning’s Shacharit service. It is here that the teachers would call up the service leaders to do instant replays of small, specific parts of the service, and then, with the most-gentlest of suggestions, tweak it and make it better.
It’s hard to describe what this process was like – both to experience it and to witness it – but it was something akin to watching a flower open its petals. It was breathtaking to see what were, to my novice eyes, perfectly wonderful prayer pieces, and watch them ascend to a level I hadn’t even conceived of.
Not infrequently, it made people cry. A lot. And these were the good, transcendant kind of tears.
DLTI-5 is a community only on the Internet now; we will continue to communicate through Yahoo Groups and Facebook and small get-togethers when we can manage them. DLTI-6 is a community just now beginning to form, with their first session planned for August 2010.
The word on the street is that enrollment for DLTI-6 is already half-filled. My advice? Run, don’t walk, to the registration line. For more information, visit Isabella Freedman’s website here.