What If You’re In Too Much Emotional Pain To Pray?

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In 2002, when my husband and I were first married, we moved to Israel for a couple years to learn in yeshiva and seminary. I was working in Jewish outreach at the time and some people in Jerusalem had launched a TV station dedicated to Jewish outreach. Since I my childhood dream was to be on TV and my adult passion was to spread the beauty of Judaism, being asked to appear on some shows on this network was very exciting!

At the TV headquarters I met a receptionist who did not appear to be observant. As I returned to the station for additional filming, I got to know this woman better and discovered that she had been raised in the most insular and extreme religious neighborhood in Israel, in an abusive home. This was probably the first OTD, ex-hasidic Jew I had ever encountered. She told me her upbringing was so traumatic she couldn’t hear a blessing without falling apart. I couldn’t comprehend what that meant. In the middle of Israel, she found a non-Jewish boyfriend, just to get as far away as she possibly could from her past.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and much of my time now (at Project Makom) is spent hearing about and speaking to people with traumatic religious experiences. The Days of Awe are nearly upon us, and for someone with positive Jewish associations they can be seen with a hopeful lens: a fresh start, a chance to make amends, a day to focus on one’s purpose in the world.

For people who were guilted into submission, raised with a terrifying image of God, dreading all of their sins being counted and assessed by the Master of the Universe, these days can be unbearable. Many members of Project Makom have expressed these fears to us. Many have nothing left to say to God right now. They are either too hurt or too numb to even engage.

One member asked me what will become of her if she does not pray for a good year on the Yomim Noraim. She doesn’t have the capacity to pray right now. I told her it will be OK – we’ll pray for her. And then I had an idea. I looked to this week’s parsha, the portion we read the week of Rosh Hashanah, on the advice of our sage Ben Bag Bag, who would say: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.” I saw that it was parshas Nitzavim, when Hashem calls the Children of Israel together and tells them:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—

This is what I told this member. You may not be able to pray this year. You may not be able to do anything that looks or feels “frum.” But start with this one commandment: Choose Life.

Make that the growth you accomplish for this new year. That is your mitzvah. That is your prayer. Worry about the rest later.

These are the conversations we have at Makom. This is the work we do day to day. Helping our members choose life; helping them shift darkness to light in their perspective of Judaism. We understand these are challenging economic times for many, but we accomplish what we do by challenging people to take the step just ahead of them. So whatever you can afford right now, that’s all we’ll ask you to do: this is our annual campaign. This funding will allow us to continue our life-changing work. Please donate today, and help us help our members choose life.


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