People of All Faiths Find Solace in Prayer

The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center seemed to have had the perfect combination of factors needed to dismantle people’s religious beliefs: an atrocity committed in the name of religion and God, coupled with so many dead and wounded that even for those of strong faith, the idea of a benevolent or caring God was seriously challenged.

And yet, rather than turning away from God and religion, people of all faiths have flocked to centers of worship and have engaged in private prayer.

It marks, perhaps, the coming together of psychology and religion, as people turn both inward and outward toward their larger communities and the community of humankind to find solace and meaning in dreadful times.

Whether it was President Bush’s call for a National Day of Prayer or an overwhelming impulse to go to shul, the Friday night after Sept. 11 saw synagogues packed.

At Sinai Temple that week, about 2,500 young people attended Friday Night Live service, which usually sees about 1,500, said Rabbi David Wolpe. "I think there is something about praying, feeling solidarity in community that’s very powerful," Wolpe told The Journal.

At University Synagogue in Brentwood, 700 people showed up, in contrast to the 150 who might usually come on a Friday night.

"In the 30 years which I have served University Synagogue, I do not remember as many people coming as we had on Rosh Hashana morning. It was amazing to witness and experience," said Rabbi Allen Freehling.

Freehling wasn’t surprised by the turnout.

"Any time in which there is a life crisis, people either have a tendency to move toward or away from prayer and worship and reliance upon their synagogue as a safe haven," Freehling said. "In this particular crisis, I am finding a dramatic number of people who are involving themselves in personal prayer and worship services, as well as coming to synagogue and meeting with clergy to clarify their own feelings and to focus on ways in which they can get through these ordeals."

Freehling likens the response to the religious or spiritual yearnings that are awakened in reaction to a serious illness or a death.

"In this particular instance, it’s as if at least the whole nation, if not the world community, has suffered a profound death in the family," Freehling said.

Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple told Time magazine that since the terror, "the intensity of the [religious] experience has heightened." The article, "Faith After the Fall," examined whether the return signified a revival or was just a "quick hit of community."

Wolpe told The Journal that he doesn’t know how long the "return" to prayer will last. "There’s a lot of speculation about all sorts of things … and the fact that we don’t know adds to our uncertainty — how people will react depends on what happens," he said.

Dr. Leonard Felder, a psychologist and author of seven books, has spent much of the past month speaking at synagogues where Jews have sought guidance.

"I think the idea of being trapped in a burning building — which was on fire because of a suicide bomber — is so off-the-charts horrible, and we realized there are so many things in life that we cannot control, that we couldn’t just go back to business as usual or normal rationalizations. We had to go deeper," said Felder, whose most recent book, "Seven Prayers That Can Change Your Life" (Andrews McMeel, 2001), is about using prayer in a therapeutic way.

People began searching for more meaning in their own activities.

"One of the things people feel is that their lives and daily chores are insignificant compared to what they were seeing on CNN. But when they would pray and ask to have the energy to rise up and be of service, they got clues as to how to be useful," he said. "They realize that wiping their children’s runny nose or helping an aging parent living alone is just as important as what they are seeing on TV."

Felder said that Jewish prayer is uniquely equipped to move people to action. In Judaism, supplicants do not ask God for miracles, or to take action on their behalf.

"Jews pray to get guidance on how to be a good person and to be useful and helpful in the world. Prayer is like a wake-up call to bring out the best in yourself," he said. "We don’t ask for God to take care of all this stuff for us, we tend to ask God or some source of strength to inspire us to do good in the world."

Felder also notes that even if people hadn’t thought through why they were turning to prayer, it may have just given them a "quiet, centering moment" as the chaos around them unfurled.

But even more than the need for quiet introspection, Freehling of University Synagogue has seen people tap into the support of community.

"There is this sense of kinship, which is even stronger than comradeship," Freehling said. "When people are coming now, they seem to be gaining an extra measure of strength and comfort because they know they are in the company of others who are feeling similar kinds of emotions."

People wanted to share those emotions, using actions and language that are comfortable and familiar.

"What they are displaying is an almost palatable hunger for the lifting up of their spirit through the words of the rabbi and the songs of the cantor," Freehling said.

That impulse was probably magnified by the fact that the attacks coincided with the High Holy Days, when even sometime worshippers spend hours in synagogue.

"The words we read in the prayer book or sang during the services seemed to have an ability to resonate within the congregants perhaps as never before," Freehling said.

For Felder, the same holds true for his daily prayers, such as "Sim Shalom," asking God for peace, or "Modeh Ani," thanking God for restoring the soul to the body.

One prayer in the daily "Amidah" has brought Felder to tears. The prayer praises God as a sustainer of life who "supports the fallen, heals the ill, frees the captives and renews faith among those who sleep in the dust."

Felder said that finding such moments in the day could change a life. In his book, he points to small prayers that can make a tremendous difference. Reciting "Modeh Ani" in the morning, thanking God for life, can compensate for the human tendency to look for incompleteness.

"The human brain doesn’t notice what is complete and good. For that you have to manually override your problem-solving brain," with a prayer of gratitude such as "Modeh Ani," he said.

Freehling hopes this crisis-driven experience with prayer will open up more Jews to the power of prayer.

"Any of us who have been involved not only in the leading of public worship, but also in the encouragement of private prayers, try to impress upon people that under all circumstances, whether good or bad, prayer and worship validate life and raise people to a whole new level of appreciation and activity," Freehling said.

Felder said he hopes more psychologists refer clients to those who can help in spiritual healing, and that more rabbis teach their congregants more about prayer.

The effects of this one event, Felder said, could be long lasting, if people take the time to hold on to their initial reaction and go deeper.

"I’m hoping that if people were brought to tears this year by prayer, that maybe we won’t wait till the next crisis before we study ‘what are these prayers and why do they affect me so strongly?’"