When you were a kid, you might have heard your friends call to you, “Come out and play!” Or perhaps your elders urged you, when the weather was pleasant, to “Go out and play (and stop watching TV/playing video games)!” I’m here to suggest that you also “get out and pray” on a beautiful day.
Outdoor davening can be a great experience. It could also be imperfect. But it is certainly an alternative on many days in the summer, as well as the spring and the fall (and for those who are hearty, even on cold winter days). Outdoor praying can be done solo or with a partner or a group.
Some congregations have held their prayers outdoors due to the COVID pandemic. It has been viewed as a healthier option, to meet outside on the synagogue’s patio or backyard or deck, and hold services with folding chairs, a picnic table for the Torah scroll, and such. There are also Jewish prayer groups I know of that meet regularly outdoors in parks. One group a few miles north of me gets together (barring bad weather) in the grassy area between a public parking lot and a botanic garden. They asked for and received permission.
There are many pluses to holding outdoor religious services. For those concerned about the spread of Covid, this is a strong option. The fresh air and light are comforting. For some folk, it’s a nostalgic nod to praying while in sleep away camp or day camp. If you want to incorporate nature into your davening, outdoor prayer can deepen your kavannah, your concentration, and appreciation.
There are some humorous touches, certainly. My congregation has often held outdoor services during the past two years, and neighborhood cats walk over and watch us. (They are also drawn by the office manager’s cans of cat food.) One kitty, a white cat with patches of tan and brown, will sit and gaze at us for stretches, almost adding to our minyan.
Another aspect is the outdoor smells and noise. Some aromas have been lovely, from a nearby bakery and coffee shop. As for noise, I love to hear tweeting birds and cheerful kids racing by on bikes and scooters. But we can also hear vehicular traffic bumping over plates in the roadway, the wailing of sirens from ambulances and fire trucks, honking from impatient drivers, jackhammers and leaf blowers, occasional helicopters, and other intrusive noises. These can test your ability to tune out the irritating background. And some people might find it hard to hear the prayer leader.
Outdoor davening can be appropriate for certain Jewish holidays, such as Tu B’shvat (if it is warm enough) and for Shavuot (for the harvest connection). Torah parshot often have connections to nature (especially in Numbers, Bamidbar) and these can be mentioned.
For groups that do not have a permanent home nor ample finances, outdoor praying can mean the difference between having a chance to gather together or not. This applies, for example, to offshoot or satellite minyanim, or women’s prayer groups that don’t have a regular meeting place.
There are drawbacks to outdoor praying, especially for a group. Chairs, tables, lecterns and other furniture need to be brought out and back inside. Books for praying, including siddurim and humashim, as well as any Torah scrolls, have to be taken inside and out. Those involved might also want to use tablecloths or tarps in tandem with clamps.
The weather is probably the biggest factor, pro and con. Is it about to rain? Is there thick fog or high wind? Unexpected hail? Is it unbearably hot and humid? Hurricane or tornado? These can put a strain or even an end to a particular day’s service. And there should be a friendly reminder that wide-brimmed hats and sunscreen should be used.
Insects (especially pesky insects that bite) and allergens (seasonal in particular) can ruin the mood for davening. And there are halachic restrictions about praying near the presence of animal waste. If you’ve ever been outside and bird poo landed on you, you can sympathize.
If the group is meeting outdoors but not at street level, there can be handicap accessibility issues, for people who use wheelchairs in particular, as well as those with baby carriages. The group has to figure out ways to deal with these. And is a bathroom nearby for those in need?
There can be more dramatic vulnerabilities to outdoor davening. What if a person or people hostile to Jews or to the presence of people praying, comes by and threatens the group with violence, or at least with harsh words? It can be scary. Many synagogues these days do have more stringent security measures built into their premises (our congregation was given an in-depth demonstration by our shul president) but outdoors these might not be handy. Or the group could be vulnerable to innocent bystander violence or the domino effect of a car accident or falling construction crane. While these might seem far-fetched, those who are planning the prayer services should ponder them.
Let’s turn now to individual or partner prayer. We Jews can pray almost anywhere, and not just in a synagogue or study hall. The spirit could move you on a train, plane or bus; on a hiking trail in a forest; at the sports arena when your team is floundering; at a medical facility; a museum with beautiful artworks; and so on. If you are outdoors (at a beach, park or forest, farm field, etc.) there may be distractions you’d like to block out such as people clad scantily, or cows and horses making a “mess”. Can you move to a better spot? Could you use a beach umbrella or shelter tent, to block off for a more prayerful experience? Do you crave quiet, or does the background noise cause you no trouble?
Individual prayer and religious meditation, even study, can be a portable situation. A beach that is noisy during the day could be a fine place to pray late at night. The rooftop of your apartment building or office complex might be fine for prayer early in the morning or late at night.
Making the most of outdoor davening, whether it be for yourself or for your congregation, may take preparation – or sometimes it could be a spur-of-the-moment endeavor. Flexibility is key, and willingness is essential. Make it worth your while.
Our ancestors often prayed outside. Isaac notably prayed in a field. This may not be to everyone’s liking, but many of us have enjoyed our outdoor praying. Try it and see for yourself.
(Author’s note: I want to thank my friend Mindy for her commentary, as well as people who responded to my query on the Facebook page “God Save Us From Your Opinion: A Place For Serious Discussion of Judaism.”)