By Talia Baurer
On Simchat Torah, the celebration of finishing the year-long reading of the Five Books of Moses and of starting anew, I sit with fellow Avodahniks in the pews of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), a synagogue that has long been home to many LGBTQ+ Jews in New York City. As the service progresses, I zone out a bit as I always do during services. I flip through CBST’s siddur (prayer book) and find special prayers for Transgender Day of Remembrance and World AIDS Day which move me, particularly as a new hire at my Avodah placement, an AIDS service organization called Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC).
But when the service reaches the misheberach, the prayer for healing, I pay attention. The misheberach is one of my favorite moments in any service, as participants are given the space to name – in a call, a wail, a whisper, a silent request – those in their lives who are in need of wholeness or healing.
I do believe that if a god-like power exists, it heeds all human need whether or not that need is clearly stated in a religious setting. I also find intense meaning and relief in adding a name to my community’s prayer for healing, and have gone to services before just for that; somehow, at my core, I believe that prayer has an effect beyond pure therapy for myself. These two beliefs may contradict each other, but they sit side by side in my belief system as comfortably as two such big ideas could.
As I have grown up and started to weave together the Jewish value system on which I was raised and my more recently discovered system of social justice values, the overlapping significance of names has not been lost on me. In my (Ashkenazi Jewish and feminist) family, for example, my sisters and I each carry two middle names: the name of a loved one who died before we were born, and my mother’s last name passed down from her Holocaust-survivor father. Meanwhile, in movements that concern themselves with lives often silenced or ended by the violence of oppression (black lives, trans lives, the lives of sexual violence victims), names are read loudly with desperation and defiance (#SayHerName). In either set of traditions, and in the many places that they overlap, I find there is a unique hopefulness and beauty in reciting not only the names of the dead, but also the names of those who are still with us and still in need of the effort of our prayers as well as our actions.
On Simchat Torah, after a month of working at GMHC, I hit a wall as the prayer leader prompts us to share names of anyone we know who needs healing. As service providers, Avodah Corps Members work every day with individuals who may need healing. But what does it mean to say misheberach for those whose names you cannot disclose? How can I summon up, even to my mind, the dozens of names I want to hold onto for that mysteriously extra-potent moment of prayer? And how can I pray for those who may not want me to pray for them, to a God that they may not believe in and that I may not believe in either? Who am I to decide they need my prayers in the first place?
May the one who blessed our ancestors (yes, this is our history and tradition that reverberate through the present and echo into our wishes for the future) bless and heal those who are ill. May this holy one bring compassion (whose compassion? that feels pretty condescending) upon them to restore, heal, strengthen, and enliven them. May they be granted a full recovery (HIV has no cure), healing of the soul and of the body (where do housing and employment and affordable medication fit into this prayer?), speedily and without delay (sometimes it feels like we will never see the policy change necessary to transform our society). And let us say: Amen.
After the service, we dance ourselves into giddiness, celebrating the end and new beginning of a story our people has read to each other for centuries and which we will keep reading, like dedicated hamsters on a wheel, for the foreseeable future and probably beyond that. We pray now with our feet, with our laughter, with whiskey shots that tell me we are truly adults in a space that I associate with innocent childhood adventuring. We release the intention and reflection and desperate hope that we channeled into whatever parts of the prayer service we found connection with. In a circle, dancing with new friends who are already forming a support network, I let go of the frantic search for names to offer up in prayer.
My fellow Avodahniks and I are constantly trying to make sense of our individual struggles and contributions in the context of broader questions, around both our anti-poverty work and our Jewish community. Then we laugh at ourselves for having these conversations, call ourselves hipsters, imagine the eye-rolls of the unfortunate people forced to share a subway car with us as we continue group discussions on our way home from programming.
This is how we find our place in a timeless tradition for both Jews and those fighting for justice: we hash out the oldest and the biggest questions, over and over and from all the angles we can think of. We know we are not the first. What’s new to each of us is not new to the world. Even writing this, I am aware that if I poke through the archives I will probably find old blog posts by past Avodahniks that explore similar themes. I find comfort in this, in knowing that all my uncertainties and all my most strongly held beliefs are shared by a huge network of other people and by the god I choose to believe in.
Since starting Avodah, I have not been to as many prayer services as I promised myself I would. I struggle with prayer because I struggle with old ideas, and I get lost in my thoughts and criticisms, and this is tiring and uncomfortable and frustrating. My religious practice and community is now intertwined with my work and my social justice values in a way that makes it impossible to separate out the problematic aspects of certain prayers or certain services. The big questions can’t help but get caught up in each other, and this is uncomfortable. It’s also why I’m here.
Talia Baurer is from Philadelphia, PA, attended Wesleyan University, and is a Community Coordinator at Gay Men’s Health Crisis.