Growing up in a Reform Jewish congregation, I grew up with religious services conducted overwhelmingly in English, with great musical accompaniment. They lasted about an hour, included an organ and cantor with a wonderful voice, and some responsive readings, again mainly in English. On High Holidays, our synagogue employed a professional choir, featured a violin solo and also highlighted several other impressive performances. Going to services was like going to a concert, and only done on occasions.
So davening in an Orthodox shul was a very different experience for me. The first time I walked into an Orthodox service, it was a small mincha service in the chapel of the synagogue in Birmingham, Alabama. I was one of two women there, and I completely missed the fact that there was a mechitza and that the men and women didn’t sit together. I sat down in the men’s section. The rabbi very kindly handed me a siddur opened to the correct page and pointed out the women’s section of the chapel. Although he did this in a very inconspicuous manner, I was so embarrassed that the entire service completely went by without me paying attention to a single word of it.
As time went by though, I began to see the beauty of the traditional davening – the fact that it really became a personal experience. The separation between men and women allowed me to focus much better on my prayers, on what I was saying. While I still don’t understand all of the Hebrew, there is something about the fact that people all around the world use the same language to pray to Hashem every day. And that the same Torah portion is read in shuls across the globe each week.
And that tradition transcends not only space but time as well. Throughout the centuries, the same prayers have been uttered by my predecessors and it gives me a sense of connection to those relatives of mine from many years past whom I never got the opportunity to meet.
So while davening can be hard, day after day, especially in a foreign language that I don’t fully comprehend, it is also a source of strength and unity in my life. It connects me to so many others – even those who might not wear the same clothing or speak the same language I do. Those who have lived in the past and who will live in the present. And the most important – it connects us to Hashem in a way that we can’t even comprehend.