The concept of kavanah was first introduced to me in a Jewish education class as a translation of ‘intention’ while in prayer. I understood it to be about being moved and being actively part of the experience. I’ve experienced it plenty of times, in a dark booth while running a perfectly timed show. Sometimes it’s just one scene that always works, or one performance out of the entire run that ran smoothly or, rarely, you get an amazingly cohesive cast and director combination and the entire show is just right and you never want it to end. I know that feeling. That draw. But I’ve only experienced it in a synagogue while running the fundraiser, not in any religious context.
Last year I attended Kol Nidre services for the first time in my life. I’ve heard people say it’s their favorite service of the year. I couldn’t imagine having a favorite. Don’t they all sound the same? It had been a stressful commute home from work, a desperate last meal before fighting weeknight traffic. Walking into the sanctuary, a room I know so well, was suddenly a different space filled with something that felt haunting and uplifting at the same time.
I can’t tell you the name of the prayers or repeat the tune, but I felt like I was watching a beautiful, carefully rehearsed performance. My oldest, who has music in her bones, shifted from memorized to exuberant glee when she recognized something she had learned at Talmud Torah. In 15-plus years of active synagogue participation, it was the first time I felt like I understood what kavanah means in relation to prayers. I looked around the sanctuary and saw so many people engaged in a way I don’t usually see. I realized I was a spectator; and for the first time — I was jealous.
Kol Nidre 2019 was the most beautiful religious experience of my life thus far and I promised myself I’d do my best to never miss it again. The holidays snuck up on me this year, as I’m sure many of us experienced. When there was no camp bus to meet in August and the first day of school picture was taken five feet from our makeshift desk that used to be my dining room table, it’s hard to get into the ‘holiday spirit.’
Sunday arrived and I logged in, and watching the number of participates rise, I couldn’t bring myself to turn on the camera. Even though I’ve attended services every week on zoom for the past six months, and I knew everyone who participated in the service, suddenly I was a spectator again. I put my view into gallery mode and looked at the faces of those who did have their cameras on. Faces of people I see weekly; some I haven’t seen in literally months and others I didn’t know at all. I watched them close their eyes and sing. Hold their prayer book to their chest and doing their best to experience something that’s felt lost to so many for what now seems like a lifetime.
I had to push myself to log onto services on Monday. We have a new Rabbi who is just getting to know the community. His voice echoed, standing mostly alone in our sanctuary while the rest of us were at home. His children on the bima helping open the ark, with one of his daughter’s dolls sitting in a chair. Other members of the congregation took on huge portions of the service from their living rooms. Some voices singular, some with boisterous children joining in, and some with looks of pride and love from partners. That made me feel connected.
We’re not done. We’re not giving up. We’re all just doing our best. I didn’t experience kavanah last year or this, but I understand how it could happen. Maybe next year in the sanctuary – but if not- together nonetheless.