My dad, Rabbi Meyer Miller, was ordained at the Jewish Institute of Religion (the Reform Rabbinical School in New York City). I grew up a P-K (preacher’s kid). At that point in social history, attending services wasn’t a choice. I remember chomping at the bit for services to come to an end. I would sit next to my mother in the right side pews and try to find ways to survive the hour or so it took. Adon Olam and Ein Keloheynu were favorites because they signalled the end of services.
Saturday mornings passed a little easier when I joined the Junior Choir. We occupied the choir-loft above the bimah with a curtain ensuring that we were unobserved by the congregation below. Loud conversation was out of the question, but one could read or find other amusements, and I must confess that I do remember a few times when remarks were addressed from the pulpit below to the group of young people growing a little too restless up above.
Right before my Bar Mitzvah my father gave me a set of tephillin and taught me how to put them on. To this day, whenever I put them on, I remember the verse my father used to count the number of windings on the forearm. He pointed out how he would leave a little extra space between windings number four and five.
A significant moment occurred when I turned fifteen. I discovered that I could understand the Hebrew in the prayers. All of a sudden, praying no longer remained a chore. To this day, time seems to compress when I’m in services. I suspect that has something to do with being invested and focused.
Since we didn’t pray with tephillin in my dad’s congregation, I decided to make the first Sunday of the month the day I would put them on. I still remember trying to daven the traditional service. I discovered that there were so many prayers that preceded the parts with which I was familiar. By the time I was half way through, I was worn out! I moved back to the familiar Reform prayer book.
I would have to wait until my first year in Rabbinical School—Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati—for the next major change. As part of our course in studying the development of Reform Liturgy, we had to attend a weekday Orthodox minyan for a month. Imagine graduate students getting up at 6 a.m. so as to attend services at 7 a.m. Would you believe? I discovered that I loved it! In fact, even when the requirement was over, I continued to attend. I enjoyed the ability to pray both personally and in public at the same time.
I was attending daily services at the Orthodox Jewish Old Age Home when the person in charge of the minyan asked me to lead services. At the time it seemed a daunting challenge, but I was willing to try. I was placed up on the bima with a super-sized siddur in front of me, and managed to get through the service. (Thank God, the print was large!) Afterwards, the leader had some pointers to share, and I could look forward to future opportunities to lead.
Since arriving in Santa Rosa, I’ve felt a deep sense of spirituality around me. It’s reflected in the overall attitude of the people; it’s reflected in the Mediterranean climate which mirrors the climate in the land of Israel and it’s reflected in the wonderful scenery. It even lies in the mists and fogs of Sonoma County and our proximity to the moody Pacific Ocean.
I can tell you that, for me, praying twice a day has gone through its own evolution: times when it was a delight, and other times when it became a challenge on all sorts of levels. It feels like a way to anchor the day.
I hope that, in time, more of us will be able to enjoy this unique way of stepping out of time and tapping in to timelessness.