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Renewal Rabbi Reaches Beyond Philadelphia

November 9, 2011 By:
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Rabbi Marcia Prager
Rabbi Marcia Prager likens the prayer experience to sitting for a six-course meal in an exquisite restaurant: It's not meant to be rushed through, but rather something to be savored.
 
And if it takes two hours to finish the morning prayers that precede the Shabbat Torah service, well, what's the hurry?
 
"Davening is a sequence of experiences that opens centers of awareness in the soul of a person," says the 60-year-old Mount Airy resident. "Davening is an opportunity for inner growth, personal connection, inspiration and a clearing out of the soul. It's a neshamah reboot."
 
Eighteen years have passed since Prager took over the spiritual leadership of P'nai Or, the Jewish Renewal Congregation of Philadelphia, after her mentor, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the movement, left the area.
 
Prager shares Schachter-Shalomi's decades-old critique of Jewish worship -- that services in many American synagogues have become rote exercises.
 
She views the P'nai Or community -- where services are often led by members -- as a davening laboratory of sorts. She's experimented with the use of chanting, meditation, movement and drama, drawing heavily on Jewish mysticism.
 
Lately, Prager's been receiving plenty of accolades from far beyond the local community stemming from her work training rabbis and communal leaders across the country and internationally.
 
Late last month, close to 200 people gathered at Summit Presbyterian Church, where P'nai Or meets, to celebrate Prager's chai anniversary leading the synagogue.
 
She has helped the congregation grow from a few dozen families back in the early 1990s to more than 100 member families, but her goal, she says, has always been to reach beyond her own small community.
 
"It's not clear to me that the maintenance of rigid denominational boundaries is the most desirable future for liberal denominational Judaism," says the rabbi. "In fact, I look forward to more sharing, more collaboration and more open boundaries -- more cross fertilization. We all have so much to offer one another."
Rabbi Marcia Prager leads a workshop at the Davening Leadership Institute, which she co-founded a dozen years ago.
 
Prager likens herself and other Renewal rabbis to the mystical Chasidic masters, who were known for their spiritual intensity and eccentricities.
 
It's hardly every synagogue where the rabbi talks about the four worlds of spiritual energy or wears a colorful, flowing robe.
 
Although Prager's style might not fit many synagogues, certain practices pioneered at P'nai Or, and by Renewal movement rabbis in general, have been adopted by the larger liberal streams, according to Rabbi Leonard Gordon, who led the Germantown Jewish Centre for 16 years and is now at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Massachusetts.
 
Expressions of spontaneous prayer and creative liturgy, as well as practices such as unfurling the entire Torah scroll on Simchat Torah, originated at P'nai Or and are now mainstream, says Gordon, an editor of the Conservative movement's new High Holiday prayerbook.
 
There's something else to keep in mind about Prager, he says.
 
"At the time when she entered leadership in the Renewal movement, most of the main figures were male," he says. "Her gentle presence added a whole dimension to that world that had been dominated by a male charismatic energy."
 
Prager's Mount Airy home, which she shares with her husband, Jack Kessler, a cantor and musician who often plays acoustic guitar during services, is difficult to miss, with its purple porch and lush gardens. Inside, their home, which dates from the 1890s, resembles a museum, with artifacts everywhere. In one sitting room, a statue of Buddha, an image from the Kabbalah and a selection of ouds -- a Middle Eastern string instrument -- share close proximity.
 
When she's teaching or leading services, Prager can employ sweeping gestures. But in her home, sitting for an interview, she moves little when she speaks, often pausing for long periods, choosing her words with care.
 
Prager grew up attending an Orthodox synagogue in the Jackson Heights section of Queens. Like many of her generation, she became involved with some of the social-change movements though eventually, she says, she became bothered by the left's denigration of organized religion and the State of Israel. (She's still firmly on the left politically; she's a member of J Street and is sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street movement.)
 
She earned a Master of Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute and became an instructor at the International Center for Photography in Manhattan. But she says that ultimately, the art world was too cutthroat for her.
 
When her teaching position ended, she landed a job at her alma mater, Stony Brook University, working for a group that engaged Jewish students.
 
"Then, one day, I went to a most unusual Kabbalat Shabbat that changed my life," she wrote in the 2005 book Jewish Renewal in America: 22 Stories of Transformation, Spirit and Community.
 
That service in a gymnasium was led by Lynne Gottlieb, the first woman rabbi ordained by the Renewal movement. The encounter led to her interest in alternative prayer models and becoming a rabbi herself.
 
In the early 1980s, she moved to Philadelphia and enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she was ordained in 1989.
 
Prager closely identified with the Reconstructionist approach to Jewish history and sociology but says she found the rationalist theology of the movement's thinkers a little lackluster. She was drawn to the Renewal approach, articulated by Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, which infused liberal Judaism with Chasidic thought and mysticism.
 
A year later, she received a private ordination from Schachter-Shalomi and began to apply the rabbi's concept of "davenology," a method of delving deeply into prayer.
 
In a phone interview, Schachter-Shalomi, who says he considers Prager one of his star pupils, explains that "what we have done with davenology is not to deconstruct the words but to turn them into experience."
 
Prager, who is also a licensed family therapist, has shared this approach with scores of other lay leaders and rabbis from different movements through the Davening Leaders Institute, a program she founded a dozen years ago with Rabbi Shawn Zevit. Participants sign up for four weeklong retreats in Connecticut over a two-year period.
 
She is also the dean of the rabbinic ordination program for ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, an international network of spiritual communities that grew out of P'nai Or. The program is conducted largely through retreats and video conferencing and currently has about 80 students worldwide.
 
She's outlined her thinking in her 2003 book The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine. In 2010, she was named to the Forward's list of the 50 most influential women rabbis. She was also named a fellow in the Rabbis Without Borders Program, run by the New York-based CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
 
She says the most rewarding part of her work is introducing Jews who may be alienated from tradition to the rich, mystical language contained in the liturgy and Kabbalistic literature.
 
For many Jews, "when they encounter this language -- the astonishment and joy of discovering a Jewish language for their yearnings, a Jewish learning, a Jewish language for their spiritual hopes and dreams -- the joy and delight is so moving. It moves me to tears." 

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