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Praying with Our Whole Selves at Our “All My Bones Shall Praise” Retreat

“This was an opportunity to explore our need and affinity for prayer with creativity and without rigid rules.”

“The whole weekend was a high—especially the dancing and loving connections with others.” 

“Sharing in the small groups was very special.”

“It was the essence of love and joy.”

“Dancing with the tallit was amazing.”

“I had moments of self-forgetfulness and ecstasy”

“I broke through personal resistance to prayer.”

“The integration of music, dance, theatre, prayer, and holiness was unique.”

“I had permission to be and do.  It was very safe.”

“The re-enactment of Jacob’s wrestling was transformative.”

“Holding the Torah was an ecstatic experience.”                                                                                                                    

The above comments from the evaluations of the “All My Bones Shall Praise” retreat capture some of the feelings and activities we experienced.  They indicate how meaningful this weekend was to the participants.

Carol Fox Prescott and Rabbi Jonathan, team extraordinaire, led this workshop with so much grace and skill that everyone, even the most hesitant, felt safe to open into movement and song.  Warmth, acceptance, and friendliness prevailed. This retreat was, as one person noted, “an opportunity to relax inhibitions and profoundly understand the electric, ecstatic essence of prayer.”

If you thought that prayer was a solemn or private activity, think again.  During the weekend, we experienced how, as Rabbi Jonathan put it, “the community becomes the prayer and the prayer the community.”

“This is fun-based Judaism,” Carol and Rabbi Jonathan told us.  And fun we did have.

Friday evening began with Carol leading us in the song “Shalom,” which some of us had learned at the Sukkot retreat in October.  Carol encouraged us to move our bodies in whatever way came naturally.  She taught us about inspiration (inhaling) and expiration (exhaling), the exhale being the breath with which we express ourselves.  Rabbi Jonathan emphasized that there is no right or wrong way to move, which gave everyone the freedom and permission to express themselves in whatever way felt good.  Before long, the room was an ocean of movement and a sea of smiles.  We got out of our chairs to improvise introductions-in-motion, blending movements and patter in rhythm with Rabbi Jonathan’s guitar riffs. We floated across the room playing the role of Sabbath brides to the tune of Lecha Dodi.  We lit candles.  We said blessings over wine and challah.  We made up our own blessings and offered them to one another.  After dinner, Carol led us in an exercise called “Ha-Hum,” where we enunciated those syllables in rhythm with our breathing. Before long, we burst into genuine uncontrollable laughter.

On Saturday we continued.  We sang and sang and sang.  We wrapped ourselves in Tallitot and danced, spreading the tallit like wings across our arms as we vocalized a Native American chant.  Rabbi Jonathan shared a learning that he received from a colleague – there are only a few prayers:  thank you; wow; please; sorry.  Our focus was on the “wow” and the “thank you.”  We practiced saying “thank you” in rhythm with our breath.  Joy and gratitude filled the air as we moved about thanking one another.  Before long our thank-you’s erupted into Halleluyah, another way of expressing “wow.”  We were alive and everything we did felt natural.

Everyone had an opportunity to hold the Torah.  As the Torah was passed from person to person, faces lit up.  Tears flowed.  Although everyone’s experience was deeply personal, there was also a shared intention, elevating the energy.  Indeed, we did lift each other up.

The morning ended with the reading of the week’s Torah portion.  This portion tells the story of Jacob wrestling with the unnamed man and receiving his new name, Israel, before meeting up with Esau after a 20-year separation.  Does Esau still want to kill him?  Jacob does not know.  But in the end, the brothers are reconciled, each telling the other that they have “enough.” We gathered around the Torah to receive one or more of three Aliyot on the themes of wrestling, reconciliation, and having enough. The energy of the morning was palpable and visible in our faces

After lunch, we got moving again. Carol invited us to breathe with the rhythm and dance free style to the music of Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Spontaneously we found partners, moving together, dancing together, hugging, leaning on one another, supporting each other.  She urged us to notice if we were taking an uncomfortable position in order to support the other person, and if so, to shift so that we were comfortable.  This was truly an amazing learning – how to be physically comfortable and supportive at the same time.  A living, moving, breathing metaphor for finding a comfortable emotional, psychological, and spiritual space as we support others in these ways.  Then we let loose and danced to “All that Jazz” from the musical Chicago by Kander and Ebb.  We did not need Bob Fosse to choreograph. What fun it was to lose our inhibitions and allow ourselves be taken to wherever the music led us.

A highlight for many was the next activity, called “Embodying the Torah.” Harking back to the week’s portion and Jacob’s struggle, we broke into small groups.  Each of us listened as, one by one, we spoke for five minutes about a current struggle in our lives.  Then each group prepared a choreographed presentation of one or more of the struggles.  Carol instructed us to use our bodies in whatever way we wanted.  We could make sounds but no words.  We had 15 minutes to create and rehearse our little playlets. Some were funny, some were sad.  We watched each playlet with rapt attention.  All were very touching.  This activity bonded us to an even greater extent.

After dinner and Havdalah, we remained around the dinner tables while Carol and Rabbi Jonathan led us in singing show tunes and standards, including “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady by Lerner and Loewe.  Most of us could have sang and sang all night.

Sunday morning opened with each of us having the opportunity to say a few words about what we had experienced so far.  Here are a few of the comments:

“An intensity I’ve never experienced in prayer.” 

“Emotional, exquisite, electrifying”

“I felt the cells of my gut singing.”

“Praying with the whole self is connected to the mystery of mind/body healing.”

“Putting on the Tallit was like putting on the wings of the Shekena.”

All agreed that together, we had created a holy space.  Rabbi Jonathan offered a teaching on what Kadosh (holy) means in Judaism.  He spoke about the Levites being singers of psalms (mirroring the heavenly choir) and the sayings of Isiah and Ezekiel.  Carol offered an activity that enhanced our ability to see one another as holy divine presence.  True recognition and appreciation of one another brought smiles and tears.  In our closing circle, we were invited to offer whatever prayer was in our hearts at that moment – verbally or through movement.  Each of us received a polished stone with the word “soul” engraved in Hebrew and English.

We left with a new idea and new experience of what prayer can be.  As one participant said, “Indescribable.  I’m speechless. You had to be there, and you would have been glad you were.”