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 IsraelLit. ''the one who struggles with God.'' Israel means many things. It is first used with reference to Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel (Genesis 32:29), the one who struggles with God. Jacob's children, the Jewish people, become B'nai Israel, the children of Israel. The name also refers to the land of Israel and the State of Israel. was daveningLit. Pray (Yiddish) Particularly, praying in a traditional manner, mouthing the words of the prayer softly while swaying. over Rosh Hashanah at an old shulSynagogue (Yiddish) 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, TorahThe Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general. 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 ShabbatShabbat is the Sabbath day, the Day of Rest, and is observed from Friday night through Saturday night. Is set aside from the rest of the week both in honor of the fact that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. On Shabbat, many Jews observe prohibitions from various activities designated as work. Shabbat is traditionally observed with festive meals, wine, challah, prayers, the reading and studying of Torah, conjugal relations, family time, and time with friends., 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 niggunA wordless melody., 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’arivLit. Evening The evening prayer service., 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 parashahLIt. Portion or chapter. The weekly parashah (parashat ha'shavua) is that portion of the Torah read weekly in synagogue. The entire Torah is divided into the number of weeks that occur over the course of a year. It is not not precisely 52 weeks because the Hebrew calendar is lunar, so some weeks have holidays with special readings, and some years are leap years., selected for its potential to inform the healing process. If we have a minyanThe group of ten adult Jews needed to read from the Torah and to recite some of the most important communal prayers. In Orthodox communities, a quorum of ten men is traditionally required. Today, most liberal Jewish communities count all Jewish adults as part of a minyan. and a mourner present, we recite the mourner’s KaddishThe Aramaic memorial prayer for the dead. Mourners recite this prayer at every service, every day, in the presence of a minyan (prayer quorum) over the course of a year (for a parent) or thirty days (for a sibling or offspring). The prayer actually makes no mention of the dead, but rather prays for the sanctification and magnification of God's name., 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 getA writ of divorce. Traditionally, only a man can grant his wife a get. Liberal Jews have amended this tradition, making divorce more egalitarian. in touch with our more vulnerable selves and our deepest prayers. We become like the angels imagined in the ShacharitThe morning prayer service. Traditionally, Jews pray three times a day -- morning (shacharit), afternoon (mincha), and evening (ma'ariv). liturgy, who, with nachat ruachLit. Spirit. Some new versions of blessings call God "Spirit of the World" (Ruakh Ha’olam), rather than "King of the World" (Melekh Ha'olam)., 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.
This article was originally published in CJ: Voices in Conservative/Masorti Judaism in 2013. It is reprinted with permission. Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein is an inspiring spiritual leader and writer. She is the author of a chapter entitled “Jewish Rituals across the Life Cycle” in A Guide to Jewish Practice (RRC Press). She serves as co-chair of the Philadelphia Chapter of PA IPL (Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light), communities of faith responding to climate change as an urgent moral issue, and she was one of the organizers of Yom KippurThe holiest day of the Jewish year and the culmination of a season of self-reflection. Jews fast, abstain from other worldly pleasures, and gather in prayers that last throughout the day. Following Ne'ilah, the final prayers, during which Jews envision the Gates of Repentance closing, the shofar is sounded in one long blast to conclude the holy day. It is customary to begin building one's sukkah as soon as the day ends. at the Lincoln Memorial in 2015. Malkah Binah is a graduate of Shefa Gold’s Kol Zimra Chant Leader’s Training and is also a devoted student of Mussar and Qi Gong (energy cultivation). She is daily learning the art of serving the Holy One with Joy, ivdu et hashemLit. The Name, referring to the ineffable name of God; used as a substitute for any of the more sacred names of God when not speaking in prayer. Particularly used in conversation. b’simcha!