For anyone who prays, wants to pray, or wants to want to pray
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For anyone who prays, wants to pray, or wants to want to pray

In Teaneck, Rabbi Dov Singer launches his book about engaging liturgy with concentration, mindfulness

Rabbi Dov Singer leads a workshop for prayer facilitators.
Rabbi Dov Singer leads a workshop for prayer facilitators.

If you pick up “Prepare My Prayer: Recipes to Awaken the Soul,” don’t expect to read about cooking. The recipes referred to in the subtitle are not recipes for dishes to eat. They are suggestions to satisfy your soul rather than your stomach.

The book was launched at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck on February 26. Its author, Rabbi Dov Singer, is recognized as a trailblazer in education, spirituality, and neo-chasidism in Israel. His Study Center for Renewal attracts thousands of Israeli Jews of all persuasions to workshops and prayer events to explore and enhance their spirituality beyond what he calls “ritual choreography.”

In his debut book in English, rendered into English from his bestselling Hebrew-language “Tikon Tefillati” by translator Leah Hartman, Rabbi Singer presents 11 practical steps and actions to develop and enhance your prayer skillset. The book’s layout is in the style of a cookbook with poetic elements.

Each “recipe” begins with short quotations from sources ranging from the Bible to the Talmud to such chasidic masters as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

“The recipes in the book address different aspects and situations,” Rabbi Singer said.

“For example: How to enter a room and enter into prayer. How to heighten and sensitize our senses. How to focus on personal desires and aspirations before praying. How to be present and then try to feel ‘the Presence.’ Becoming aware of the different positioning of parts of the body during prayer. Relating to concepts such as thanks and praise.”

For Jews who pray regularly, and especially those who daven three times a day, it is challenging to avoid getting stuck in a prayer rut. It is difficult to maintain concentration and mindfulness, to find fresh meaning in the words of a liturgy recited again and again. For those who don’t pray regularly but want to, the prayer book can seem daunting.

This challenge is as old as formalized prayer itself, which began taking form following the destruction of the Second Holy Temple in 70 CE.

However, Rabbi Singer said, the challenge is greater today than ever. At its essence, he says, prayer is communication. And we all know that the increased quantity of modern communication all too often paradoxically has led to a deterioration in its quality.

“As technology develops, our attention span shortens, and our methods of communication become more practical and pared down,” Rabbi Singer said. “If we find it difficult to communicate on a deep level with others, it becomes more and more difficult to communicate properly with the Divine or with our own inner being.”

And yet, Rabbi Singer insists that at our core, we are praying beings as much as we are thinking beings. In his book, as in his workshops, he guides readers in connecting with that inner instinct and not getting stuck on questions such as “To whom am I praying?” and “Why I am praying?”

Many books have been written for people seeking a better understanding of the laws of Jewish prayer and the deeper meaning of the prayers. This is not such a book.

“‘Prepare My Prayer’ is not about Jewish law and practice, although it does bring some of these sources,” Rabbi Singer said. It is not about the meaning of the words of prayer, although this comes up in the book as well.

“What it is, is a toolbox for different methods of arousing and developing the basic human instinct for prayer in different situations and conditions, based on various Jewish sources including Jewish mystic, chasidic and halachic sources.”

Here is one passage:

“In the race that is life
In which we run from task to task
Prayer can easily become yet another task.
The secret is in the pause — to arrive early, to sit for a bit.
To move from doing to being,
To quiet the motor
That pushes me constantly
Forward, higher.
To intensify my presence, and that of the world around me,
To calm my mind
To awaken the inner desire concealed deep within
To stand before God
To enter God’s gates.”

Rabbi Singer wrote the book for “anyone who prays, who wants to pray, or who wants to want to pray,” he said. As the longtime headmaster of Makor Chaim, an educationally progressive yeshiva high school for boys in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, Rabbi Singer knows only too well that the question “Does prayer even work?” can be a nagging doubt that keeps people from engaging fully in the service.

This question was brought cruelly to the fore when two 16-year-old Makor Chaim students, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer, as well as 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach were kidnaped and murdered by Arab terrorists in June 2014.

During the 18 days between the kidnaping and the discovery of the bodies, Makor Chaim became the headquarters of the “Shuvu Achim — Return our Brothers” campaign that inspired prayer gatherings and acts of kindness by Jewish groups across the world.

Rabbi Singer came out of his own deep prayer retreat to speak at the joint funeral for his students. He asked the 100,000 mourners there to join him in declaring their commitment to the mitzvah “Love your friend as yourself” as a Jewish response to the blind hatred that took the boys’ lives.

But when people pray so fervently and their hopes are dashed, how can they not ask, “Does it even work?”

Rabbi Singer answers that question by quoting Naftali Fraenkel’s mother, a renowned Israeli teacher of Torah. “As Racheli Fraenkel said when we were all praying for the return of our students, ‘We have to remember that we work for God. He doesn’t work for us!’

“The secret of prayer is not in the answer, but rather in the question — in the quest to create an intimate connection to the Divine,” Rabbi Singer said.

This approach has proved so resonant with his students that Israel’s Education Ministry funds a program in which Makor Chaim faculty trains prayer facilitators at hundreds of religious state schools across Israel.

Rabbi Singer’s appearance at Congregation Rinat Yisrael was organized by member Faye Landes, whose late husband David was a lifelong scholar of trends in modern Judaism.

“I met him for the first time at the home of our mutual spiritual mentor, Rabbi Shagar,” Rabbi Singer said. (“Shagar” is an acronym referring to the late Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg of Gush Etzion, whose essays were posthumously published in English in “Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age” by the Maggid imprint of Koren Publishers, the same imprint under which “Prepare My Prayer” was published.)

Rabbi Singer launched his book in Teaneck, and also in Boca Raton, Cleveland, New York, Woodmere, and New Rochelle. Just as it is not standard to launch a book in more than one place, the format too was unconventional. It wasn’t a lecture, a reading, or a standard question-and-answer.

Instead, he said, “The program calls for studying, feeling and implementing a source on prayer in an interactive fashion, interspersed with musical selections.”

“Prepare My Prayer” was released officially on February 15. It costs $19.95.

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