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Prayer for an Open Heart

Prayer for an Open Heart

Many of us have had those moments – of sitting with others in synagogue or during a private moment – when prayer seems flat. The words don’t seem to reach us where we are at that time or place; they can’t lift us beyond our everyday worries and concerns.

When I’m sitting in synagogue with my son, Akiva, I’m usually focused on his concerns. Is he sitting quietly? Does have a book or need something to read? Has he been to the bathroom, or is it time to take him to the bathroom? The list goes on.

Akiva, who is 18, is a person with Down syndrome and PDD (on the Autism spectrum). He loves synagogue. He loves the prayer experience and those rituals that bring him pleasure, from kissing the Torah scrolls as they’re walked around the synagogue to repeating certain prayers out loud – just not always at the same time as the rest of the congregation.  

Me? I’m uptight, too worried he’ll turn around and begin wishing the row behind him “Shabbat Shalom” over and over or start repeatedly introducing himself to others nearby.

Akiva is a welcome member in both of our synagogue prayer spaces (we are members of two minyanim, or prayer groups, in South Jerusalem). At one, Akiva has relationships with more than a few of the regulars, and he feels accepted and comfortable. He’s not regularly approached for synagogue honors, but then again, we also tend to arrive late in the service.

My own prayerful moments, if they happen at all, occur on the fly with a quick, rote recitation of the silent Amidah or during a few moments with the Torah portion. Or they don’t happen at all, and I walk home relieved that synagogue is over for another week.

In everyday life, prayer is meant to be a regular event - a source of words and inspiration that can give direction to everyday moments be they challenging or ordinary. Themes of help and forgiveness are meant to instill reverence in a Higher Power, that image of a God who loves, cares and looks after us, while also offering solace and inspiration.

But does that Higher Power want to take Akiva to synagogue next week?

I discussed some of my struggle with Jerusalem-based liturgist Alden Solovy. I wondered whether he could help me think through a prayerful response that addresses the experience of parents of children with disabilities – as well as what a person with disabilities might feel about prayer and its relationship to him or her. I work in the field of inclusive, informal education, as co-founder of Shutaf Inclusion Programs, and visit communities, schools, and places of business, to teach about inclusion. I thought such a prayer could be part of our workshops in Israel and abroad.

Alden drafted an initial idea that addressed the family members and loving caregivers of people with disabilities. When I showed it to Shutaf’s professional staff and co-founder, Miriam Avraham, some of it resonated; some didn’t. Miriam noted that language is a thorny subject in the world of disability issues because words go in and out of fashion. “Disability” or “special needs”? People-first language or self-advocacy language? Cognitive delays or intellectual disabilities?

We even run the risk of offending those with disabilities, like Pamela Rae Schuller, who speaks openly about her experiences in Jewish life as a person with Tourette syndrome. She writes, “I’m not your mitzvah project.” Standard prayerful language that gives thanks for difference could irritate those who fight to prove that they though they seem/look/act/respond differently, we’re really all just human beings made b’tselem elokim, in the image of G-d.

In my opinion, that language is oversimplified and deeply misunderstood when it comes to disability and difference. If we really believed that each and every individual was truly made in the spirit and image of that reverent figure of the Almighty, why would we look at anyone the wrong way? Why would we think we need to change them or rehabilitate them, or exclude them from our daily lives? Let’s not make excuses for our fears.

Prayer is not our only problem. We need to open our hearts. We need to open our minds. We need to listen and learn.

For An Open Heart

God, give me an open heart,
A generous heart,
A humble heart.
Give me a heart so free,
So fearless,
That I offer love without requirement,
To love as You love,
Holding my beloved precious,
Loving her/him in this moment exactly as she/he is,
Praying that she/he follows his/her true path
Regardless of where it takes her/him.

Give me a heart gentle and willing to love her/him
As she/he would be loved, with honor and respect,
Kindness and humor,
Joy and friendship.
Give me a love so pure and vast,
So simple and strong,
That it cherishes the love and the loving
Asking nothing in return.

© 2015 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.

Beth Steinberg is the executive director of Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem.

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