The first time I participated in a prayer service in a circle I felt awkward and uncomfortable. It felt exposed—everyone could see me. For me, prayer is a private matter. Indeed, one of the highlights during my years after college studying in Israel was davening over Rosh Hashanah at an old shul in Tel Aviv, where perhaps 15 men were gathered below as I prayed in the women’s balcony, the only woman there. Yet I have come to appreciate the power of gathering in spiritual community in a circle in a way that honors my need for privacy as well as my yearning to connect. For the past 13 years, I have been attending and leading healing circles, including for the last four years a monthly gathering at Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia, and these gatherings are among my most transformative spiritual practices.
A healing circle is very different from a typical prayer service. When we gather for prayer, meditation, Torah study, and sharing in a circle, we sit in a community of equals, symbolically reminding ourselves that we are fundamentally the same: mortal beings who experience loss and pain and fear, joy and pleasure, as well as the potential for renewal.
What so many of us yearn for, particularly when we are struggling, is an affirmation that we are embraced by God and our kehillah as we are. My personal journey informs my commitment to leading and promoting healing circles. As a lesbian who spent many years afraid to come out, and as a rabbi who took a slower-than-typical career track, I sometimes wonder whether I will be a fully accepted member of the Jewish community. Many of us experience marginalization in our Jewish communities, asking ourselves, “Do I really belong here?” In a congregation, a Jewish healing circle is a subtle, yet powerful, statement to the community that, “Yes, each of us belongs here.” Each one of us, in our brokenness and in our wholeness, in our differences and in our similarities, is an integral part of the interconnected whole.
Unlike most of our other services, a healing circle—or service, as it’s also called—has no standard liturgical form and does not require a set time or place. There is room for creativity. I prefer to schedule a healing service on a quiet morning or evening, rather than on Shabbat, to honor those who are not up for the socializing that a Shabbat often involves. The services are generally an hour long, and we make it a priority to begin and end on time.
At the Germantown Jewish Centre, we meet in a small circle at the front of our sanctuary, and we beautify the space with a small table holding a candle and flowers and other objects associated with the season. We also place a “prayer bowl” on the table. We begin the service slowly chanting a niggun, followed by a welcome, which orients newcomers, presents a theme to reflect on and sets an intention for the gathering. This is followed by a brief selection from Ma’ariv, since the service takes place in the evening. Following a silent meditation and prior to our sharing time, participants are invited to write their prayers and place them in the prayer bowl, which one of the congregation’s rabbis keeps in her office. Sharing is always optional. We emphasize the role of the gathered community as loving witness and make the commitment not to repeat what others have shared.
To facilitate sharing, we pass an object, reminiscent of the Native American talking stick, and whoever is holding it is invited to speak aloud or to receive a silent blessing from the community. We also explore together a brief passage from the week’s parashah, selected for its potential to inform the healing process. If we have a minyan and a mourner present, we recite the mourner’s Kaddish, or if we have a smaller group, we read a poem instead of Kaddish. At the conclusion of the hour, I invite participants to check in with how they are feeling and to speak one word aloud. Participants often say words such as “peaceful,” “comforted,” or “connected.”
Since the early 1990s, Jewish healing circles have played an increasingly important role in the spiritual life of our communities. Fundamentally, a Jewish healing service is a quiet, nurturing space for sitting in Jewish community in the healing presence of the Divine. Having attended these circles over many years, I have experienced and witnessed the healing power of coming together in this way. One gentleman, who was caring for his wife with Alzheimer’s, shared that he had gone to many support groups, “but this was the first time I felt better after.” One active, vibrant woman in her late 60s who was diagnosed with a degenerative disease described herself as someone who was not “touchy-feely,” yet after her diagnosis, she made the commitment to attend our monthly service. She eventually began bringing her husband, recognizing that he, too, needed spiritual support. Among our participants have been those dealing with illness in the family, with professional challenges, with grief, and with depression.
One of the traits I have been developing as a healing service leader is anavah (humility). My role is to sit in the circle, opening my heart and holding the space for the mysterious unfolding of spirit during the chant, the silence, the sharing, and the Torah study. The work of this sacred gathering is to create spaciousness for one another to be present to “what is” and to get in touch with our more vulnerable selves and our deepest prayers. We become like the angels imagined in the Shacharit liturgy, who, with nachat ruach, a gentle spirit, “lovingly give permission to one another to declare their Maker holy.”
A healing service offers the potential for profound healing for the individuals who attend. It also transforms the culture of a community, beyond those who choose to participate. Hosting a healing service communicates a clear commitment to caring for the spiritual wholeness and well-being of each member of the kehillah. I believe that each healing circle, each authentic interaction through which we support one another to hear the still, small voice deep within, brings us one step closer to olam habah, the world to come.