Remove all obstacles to create ‘non-exclusive’ prayer spaces

Remove all obstacles to create ‘non-exclusive’ prayer spaces

With Shavuot behind us, our thoughts turn to the next major holidays in the Jewish calendar — the High Holy Days. Our liturgy for those days includes a verse in Isaiah (56:7) that is repeated scores of times:

“I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Isaiah makes it clear that prayer is intended as a universal human experience and that, ideally, prayer must be accessible not only to all Jews, but to all peoples.

Similarly, in Pirkei Avot (1:2) Shimon HaTzadik asserts that prayer is one of the three foundations of our faith. Yet, according to a 2017 Nishma Research study, only 42 percent of American Modern Orthodox Jews claim prayer is meaningful to them. That only fewer than one of every two people who identify as observant find prayer meaningful is deeply alarming.

Our prayers are almost universally recited in the first person plural, using pronouns such as “we” and “our.” Babylonian Talmud tractate Baba Kamma (92a) asserts that communal prayer is efficacious because God prefers answering our prayers for others over answering our prayers for ourselves. But if fewer than 50 percent of some religious-identified communities regard prayer as a meaningful practice, how can we expect God to find our prayers meaningful?

A term used widely over the past few years in religious communities is “inclusion.” It is frequently said that such communities need to work to include individuals who might otherwise not come to synagogue. While the effort to build “inclusive” communities is laudable, I worry that how we choose to frame the issue reveals a troubling attitude among members of these communities. By advocating to create an “inclusive” congregation, religious communities admit they are, by default, exclusive. The suggested remedy — implementing programs targeted at specific groups of individuals with the aim of including them — does not address the fundamental problem: that our communities are indeed exclusive.

I prefer the term “non-exclusion” to “inclusion.” The use of the former makes it clear that our synagogues must be places where all are encouraged to engage in the universal human experience of prayer. “Non-exclusion” implies the imperative to serve the same groups traditionally served by “inclusion” programs (such as those with physical or mental disabilities), it also implies we are casting a much wider net.

Questions a “non-exclusive” community might ask are: In what ways does our prayer space impede access to those with physical disabilities? What are we doing to reduce the prejudice and bias that lead certain cohorts — the LGBTQ community, Jews by choice, people of a different skin color or ethnicity — to feel excluded? What are we doing to make our prayer spaces physically and emotionally safe, so that no one need fear physical or emotional abuse? How do the ways we speak about Jews affiliated with movements other than our own alienate people from our prayer spaces and lead them to feel that they have no place among us?

Another important question might be: How does our manner of funding our prayer space communicate universal access to services; do our financial policies somehow exclude people — either implicitly or explicitly?

This last question is addressed in the prayer often considered a ‘highlight’ of Ashkenazi High Holy Day liturgy: Unetaneh Tokef, in which we proclaim that “return, prayer, and charity reduce the severity of the decree.” Charity is central to the High Holy Day season because it is one of the ways we can ensure our prayer spaces are funded in a “non-exclusionary” way.

Beginning this year, Maayan, a traditional, partnership-style congregation in West Orange, will not charge for High Holy Day seats. While we still need to fund our prayer space, we prefer to rely on voluntary donations to give those of limited financial means an opportunity to attend services without feeling economically marginalized or that an “exception” is being made (by offering a reduced rate) to enable them to attend. We expect that those of broader financial means will engage in charity to ensure that our prayer space is accessible and available for all, consistent with one of the central themes of the High Holy Day season.

On Yom Kippur morning, we read the haftorah from Isaiah, chapters 57 and 58. The first verse (57:14) is key to understanding the message of charity it contains.

“[The Lord] says: Build up, build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of My people!”

The purpose of charity is to remove obstacles so that all can participate — the purpose of charity is non-exclusion.

I encourage each of you to consider the many ways our communities unwittingly introduce obstacles that prevent the entirety of the Jewish people from engaging in our prayer spaces. The Jewish people, and the world at large, need God to answer our prayers more than ever. The best way to ensure that God will take our prayers seriously is to ensure that every Jew has equal access to them.

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