Now’s the Time to Figure Out How to Pray Alone

What does Judaism mean when there is no one around to see it?

At its core, Judaism is a communal religion. In fact, many of our important prayers — most notably the Mourner’s Kaddish — actually require a minyan, or a quorum of 10, to be said. And many of Judaism’s most important values focus on the “other,” like the pursuit of justice and welcoming strangers.

Despite Judaism’s foundation in community, anti-Semitism has frequently necessitated private and even secret observance. I grew up learning about the Maccabees, forced to disguise their Torah learning by playing with tops in order to fool the Greeks around them. I learned about the Conversos, Iberian Jews forced on pain of death to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition, who continued to observe Shabbat in secret. And, of course, I heard countless stories of Judaism being kept alive in hiding spots and concentration camps during the horrible years of the Holocaust throughout Europe.

Sometimes, it seems that the need to practice Judaism alone may never cease. No, I am not talking about contemporary anti-Semitism, though white nationalist attacks have undoubtedly infringed on our communal spaces. Rather, I am talking about COVID-19, the virus that has led to a true global pandemic. As COVID-19 has entered the scene, the Jewish landscape has recognizably shifted. Synagogue services and other events are being cancelled, tens of thousands of Jews in Israel and America are in quarantine, and rabbis are urging to skip daily services, rather than using the normal means to entice attendance. The Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi is even encouraging people to stop kissing mezuzahs as they enter rooms, for fear that the practice could transmit germs unnecessarily.

As the rate of those infected with the virus — and those who must enter quarantine — continues to increase, Jewish practice is increasingly being pushed back into the private sphere. Of course, the privatization of Judaism is different than those previous examples, because this time, it’s our choice. Yes, the virus may be forcing our hand. However, it is our leaders who are making the official decisions.

A phrase commonly heard in Jewish communities is “ahavat yisrael,” love for one’s fellow Jew. Every member of every Jewish community who stays home from an event he or she wants to attend is making a sacrifice. And this sacrifice comes from ahavat yisrael. It comes from love, rather than fear.

The decision to stay home from services, however, is not an easy one. Those who are not well-versed in Jewish texts may feel at a loss attempting to observe certain traditions alone. Those in mourning may struggle without a community behind them. Those approaching exciting life-cycle events such as marriage and childbirth may feel that their celebrations are being taken away from them. It takes an immense amount of love for one’s fellow Jew to stay home and eliminate any risk of passing germs to others.

Even once that decision is made, however, we are left with questions. Most importantly:

What do we do? What does it mean to be Jewish alone? I know this question is swirling in my head, as I made the decision to depart from my study-abroad program in Jerusalem in order to be at home during this challenging time. I will be going from one of the most Jewish places on Earth — somewhere where it would be harder to avoid Judaism than to find it — back to my home, where I must seek out Jewish observance for myself.

I know that, at this time, I will cling to my virtual communities. I will text my rabbis and check my Jewish Facebook groups more frequently. My favorite time of the week is Kabbalat Shabbat, the songful Friday night service, and livestreams from synagogues across the United States have made it possible for me to participate from the safety of my room. Rabbis and Jewish educators across the world are hosting classes online, hoping to connect people through Jewish learning. In fact, there is a new Facebook group entitled “JewishLIVE” created by the podcasters of Judaism Unbound, whose sole goal is to compile all of these opportunities into one, easily navigable place. Created only last week on March 12, the group already has over 4,500 members and counting.

Perhaps I will even pick up Daf Yomi, the daily study of one page of Talmud. In the excitement of the new cycle, which began in January, I tried Daf Yomi but quickly stopped once it felt like more of a chore than an opportunity. Now, however, Daf Yomi represents a singular opportunity to connect to tens of thousands of Jews across the world, made even more special by my lack of intra-community connection.

But it’s scary. To be honest, I don’t know how to pray alone. Yes, I went to Jewish school growing up. Sure, I sometimes recite the daily prayers in the silence of my bedroom. But I have never understood what it really means to pray by myself. In the past when I’ve tried, my eyes glaze over the words. I mumble them aloud, but I don’t think about the meaning. I don’t feel the meaning.

But now, I have no other choice, at least for the foreseeable future. Which means it’s the perfect time to challenge myself to take advantage of this situation. I want to dig deeper within me to ask: What does Judaism mean for me, specifically when there is no one around to see it? While this is a scary question, I know that, by asking it, I will be a better member of my wider Jewish community, once it is safe to return.

Image by Malte Mueller/Getty Images

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