I always felt a lack of connection to personal Jewish ritual, prayer, and practice. Attending High Holidays, Shabbat services or B’Mitzvahs at my Reform synagogue growing up, I would be physically present, but the siddur’s words or prayers never resonated with me. I struggled to find access to ritual as a queer and female person. Over time, I succumbed to the idea that I wasn’t meant to find connection to personal Jewish prayer and I gave up trying to find it.
I later discovered a deeper connection to my Judaism through summer camp and my social justice work. This led me to my profession, which involves building Jewish community. I want to give people the tools to forge meaningful connections to the Jewish community.
At the start of the pandemic I returned to feeling like I wasn’t connected to Jewish ritual again. I longed for access to the ritual techniques that my ancestors used in times of grief and the unknown. Sitting with this longing, I understood that it is my ancestral right to know and access ritual and prayer as a healing and sustaining tool. Without any sort of foundational access to it, I would have to find my own way towards it.
A silver lining of the pandemic was joining Taproot. The program provides resources for Jews seeking deeper connection to Jewish practice and ritual. My experience in Taproot was akin to Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold; filling in places of rupture with connection and personal reclamation. In Taproot, I learned the English meaning of the siddur prayers for the first time and experimented with creating my own ways of honouring holidays, like watching the finale of Transparent for Tisha B’av, as my access point for grief. I co-created a months-worth of ritual connection to Elul for my Taproot community.
Since Taproot, I’ve remained curious about developing personal Jewish practice. When I was given the opportunity to guest-edit for Niv, I became excited to speak to people in the Jewish community who I know are cultivating personal practice. From these conversations I would be able to learn from their personal explorations.
It felt important to incorporate perspectives further afield from what we normally hear, including queer and female voices. It also felt important to get a sense of how people are exploring and connecting to personal Jewish practice here on this land in Canada, as so often U.S. Jewish communities get the spotlight and therefore are the communities we learn from.
Two years since that moment of longing in the face of so much grief and unknown, I am grateful to have cultivated some new access points to Jewish ritual, prayer, and personal practice, and to be continuing my investigation with others.
I spoke with Aaron Rotenberg, the spiritual leader of the Annex Shul and a rabbinical student at ALEPH. He spends his summers as the educational manager of Heart to Heart, a society-building summer camp program for Jewish and Palestinian teens. I also interviewed Toby King, an undergraduate student, Jewish educator, poet and a member of the Habonim Dror youth movement; Maxine Lee, an undergraduate student, dancer and artist; Or Har-Gil, an art therapist and Kohenet-in-training. She’s also queer, a statement earring connoisseur, a quirky aunt, and a dog parent.
Below you’ll find excerpts from my individual conversations with them, with each offering a different way to think about and explore Jewish practice.
How is your personal Jewish practice informed by your lineages or ancestral practices?
Aaron Rotenberg: When I became more interested in taking on Jewish practice I felt discouraged from making choices for myself. I felt that picking and choosing what aspects of Judaism worked for me would disrupt the integrity of an intact system that had been passed down and preserved for me. These days I relate to it differently. Certain decisions had to be made to preserve Judaism through the ages and those decisions were made in a certain context which may be very different from our own. We need to make empowered decisions to bring life and energy into what we have been given. As Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi would say, we need to add some warmth and water to our tradition (and liturgy) that has been freeze-dried, in a manner of speaking.
Judaism is a dynamic tradition that has always had traditional camps and spiritual revolutionaries, from the prophets, to the rabbis, to the kabbalists, the hasidic rabbis and onward. I think it’s also important to remember that these groups of leaders were sometimes marginal groups to begin with until some rose to power and created further marginalized groups. There is always great spiritual potential in our community that gets overlooked because it sits outside of our usual frame of self-understanding. We stand to lose a lot if we don’t make choices that bring in those rich voices and perspectives, as we have always done.
Or Har-Gil: I’ve been lighting Shabbat candles. That feels simple and powerful. When I light Shabbat candles I feel like my ancestors are right here. They feel super close, more than in a lot of other practices I have. There’s something also about these bigger, historic, collective rituals—there’s a lot of spiritual backing to them. It doesn’t need any extra zhuzzing, just showing up is enough. The act in and of itself is simple and powerful. When I think about growing up, my mom lit the Shabbat candles every week. My grandmother lit the Shabbat candles every week. It is one of those acts that does connect me to a direct line with the women in my family and my lineage. And even though there are so many ways that my life and Jewish practice doesn’t look like theirs, this one thread connects us.
Toby King: I have a base of Jewish literacy. I can read Hebrew and I have some basic understanding of Hebrew. That really solid base is something I’ve been handed from my parents and my family. The seeking that I’ve done on my own as an adult has been a lot more meaningful. Connecting to Kohenet practice has opened me up to a more feminine, multi-gendered connection to the divine. What I learned at Pardes gave me so many tools for understanding the more traditional formats. On Judaism Unbound Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg say what gives people the ability and tools to have Jewish innovation, to create new Jewish practice, is that there needs to be a certain baseline of knowledge to know what the material is—what you have to play—and you need the chutzpah to be daring about it.
Maxine Lee: I feel like there’s been a relationship between my artistic pursuits and my Jewish life. I traveled a lot while I was dancing and while I was starting to take on a Jewish observance. I was in different parts of the world and with communities that had their own little differences in the way they did rituals. That was something I was able to pick up on and I find there are little things I do that mirror what I picked up in one place or another.
An altar formed by Har-Gil featuring Shabbat candles. Photograph courtesy of Or Har-Gil.
How do you navigate sustaining your practice?
Or Har-Gil: Habit. Every single time you do it, it gets strengthened. While I don’t love the idea of proficiency in this context, the more you do it, the easier it is to drop-in, the more it can be a thing that supports you. It gets easier and more familiar. It’s something new I’m trying to do—the habit. In the last couple of years, my practice has been ebbing and flowing as I’ve been feeling called to it. If there’s something happening with more collective energy, I’d be more likely to do something. But I’ve been thinking more recently about daily and personal practice—it is something new.
Maxine Lee: Both ballet practice and daily [Jewish] practice have a similar rhythm. You have birkat ha shahar, your morning blessings, and a ballet class will start with plié. The root of the word bracha has to do with your knees. In the amidah when you do the first and last blessings, there is this bowing with the bending of the knees. For people who pray every day, they might feel like they don’t always feel like praying at all, but there’s something about doing—it produces a change in you. That connects really closely with a ballet class. Especially around this time of year, your body when you wake up in the morning and shlep to the studio, it doesn’t feel like it can do it and then over the course of practicing, it might take a little while for things to start happening, but the actual doing of it gets you there.
A siddur and tefillin rest on a tallit. Photograph courtesy of Aaron Rotenberg.
What does your Jewish practice look like?
Aaron Rotenberg: The kabbalists had a sense of God existing in three realms: space, time, and the individual. It’s a framework from the sefer yetzirah. Part of my practice includes Shabbat as a central anchor and having a weekly spiritual holy time that’s away from the commodified time of capitalism. I’m very grateful that Judaism provides that. Physically, I also feel interested in tying back to the earth and relating to being on this land. What are the practices that help me feel connected to the earth? Going for a walk in the evening can help me feel more connected to this place.
Toby King: Jewish practice for me is something that is rooted in Jewish traditions and is connective in some way. A classmate of mine at Pardes was talking about prayer in general and he had this theory about connecting on these multiple levels that are three dimensional. There’s a connection “across” to the community around you, to the wider Jewish community, to world Jewry. A connection “inward” to your inner self, your own being and feelings and groundedness. A connection “up” to the divine, to the universe to whatever your conception of that is. And a connection back and forward through time. I try to think about that when I’m engaging in ritual—what axis am I on right now? Can I reach a point where I’m connected to all of them? If I reach a real bliss or zen it’s because I’m on every axis.
Maxine Lee: Here is how I think about it more broadly and globally versus what I do. In terms of my Jewish practice, it dictates what I do day-to-day. At the same time, I don’t want my thinking about my Jewish practice to stop there because that would be a narrow definition of Jewish practice. People might look at me and say by their metrics, she’s not really doing x, y, and z, and I don’t want to fall into that way of thinking myself. I try to keep my thinking about it more open than my doing.
Commitment is something that is important to me. I want to have a sense of follow through for myself—if I say I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it.
Why is your Jewish practice something you prioritize?
Or Har-Gil: My spiritual practice is something I prioritize because of the way it gives me access to how I want to feel, which is grounded, present, and experiencing a sense of ease and flow. Having a spiritual practice that initially wasn’t connected to Judaism did not feel great. The idea that in my spiritual practice I wasn’t [rooted] in integrity or in a good relationship, didn’t feel right. It started to click when I found Jewish spaces and Jewish practices and Jewish leaders that integrated those things for me. It [the practice] felt so much more [rooted] in integrity. There’s a deeper nourishment—it’s like eating a meal you know you’re getting real nourishment from—a complete protein.
Maxine Lee: I try to do some learning every day or at least a few times a week. I love Shabbos and at this point in my life, I don’t know what I would do without it. On one hand, it makes things harder sometimes because I have a lot of work to do. And sometimes I have a paper that’s due partly through the week and I’m thinking to myself, when am I going to do it? And there’s this empty day when I know I’m not going to work on it, but I’m also not going to be doing anything else. It gives me space to be without having to produce work which is an important thing I think for any person to have.
Toby King: I have a terrible back and another inconsistent practice in my life is doing an extended salute to the sun stretching every morning and every evening. And again, I don’t do it every morning and evening because sometimes I run out of time and sometimes I get distracted by the Internet because it’s 1 a.m. But I know my day is going to be better if I make time to do it. And I feel the same about the regular prayer practice. I don’t always wake up eager to do it, and I don’t always make the time for it, but I know when I do, I’m making my day better, I’m setting myself up emotionally and spiritually for a better time.
An altar honouring the pomegranate and other fruits. Photograph courtesy of Or Har-Gil.
How is your practice in conversation with this land?
Aaron Rotenberg: Certain Jewish practices are not in conversation with this land, such as food culture. A lot of Jewish pieces are connected to material objects and I think there is something to be done about finding sustainable practices in relationship with this land. For example, sourcing parchment for Torah scrolls is currently part of a troubled system. I only recently learned about how kosher parchment has long been a byproduct of the industrialized meat system. Thankfully there are people like Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem in the early stages of creating sustainable alternatives. Those materials are so central to our practices. Which is to say that I wish I had more practices that felt like they were rooted here.
Where and how are we as Jews relating to Indigenous land and people? If we’re going to try to create things here, how can we do it in a way that is decolonizing as well? I was thinking about the four species for Sukkot—the lulav and etrog—some people have spoken about the pawpaw. All the Torah says about the etrog is that it is a glorious fruit (in contemporary Hebrew it means citrus fruit). What is a glorious fruit that is local here? Maybe being involved in efforts to rewild some of the landscape here could help us gain insight into other branches and fruits that exist. Who holds that knowledge? Who knows what’s here? Indigenous knowledge is an important aspect of that.
Etrogs sit in a vertical shaped bowl. Photograph courtesy of Aaron Rotenberg.
Do you have advice for starting a personal practice?
Toby King: My main advice is not to be afraid of fucking around and finding out—try stuff! Mix and match what works for you. Try a practice every day for a week and then stop and don’t feel guilty about it. Pop into a congregation for one holiday and another for Shabbat. Take Jewish learning classes that interest you and ask a question you’re worried sounds stupid. Try to balance that experimentation and chutzpah with learning, but don’t worry too much about knowing everything. There’s great online resources like Ritualwell, Keshet, Sefaria, and Facebook groups like De-assimilation Education to ask questions. I really believe that we’re in a great age of Jewish expansion and experimentation. It makes me excited and hopeful about the Jewish future.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein and Orly Zebak.
Cara Gold is a Jewish community builder, organizer and dreamer working at the Miles Nadal JCC. Cara sits on the board of Hashomer Hazair Canada and is an alumni of the Taproot Community Ritualist training. She holds an MBA in Social Impact and MA in Jewish Professional Leadership from Brandeis University.