I live in the US southwest, where there are not a lot of Jews. I was raised in a place where it was the total opposite, and there were synagogues within walking distance.
What are some suggestions for developing a closer relationship with G-d in my circumstances? In my opinion, everyone needs to work on their relationship with G-d. It seems funny, but I do not remember ever in Hebrew/religious school learning about the subject of how to develop a relationship with G-d when you already believe in G-d. What does Judaism tell us about this?
It seems to me that you are asking two different questions. One question is about how to develop a relationship with God and the other is how to adjust to living in an area with no synagogue in walking distance. Let me start with the latter question.
Since you ask about synagogues within walking distance I am going to assume that you do not drive on Shabbat. What I do not know is why you live where you live (I assume that it has either to do with your job, school or spouse/partner). Assuming you must live there, at least for now, I suggest that the first thing you do is figure out which of the closest synagogues you would go to if you lived close enough. Having done this, I would suggest becoming a member, and attending on weekdays, or Sunday morning, or some such thing. Also, I would suggest finding whatever adult education opportunities they do and go to those in addition to whatever holiday events and other social events fit into your schedule. It is very important to feel part of some community, and this may be the best you can do. Also, depending on your family situation, you may want to spend a Shabbat in that community every once in a while.
Your ultimate aim, in my opinion, is to eventually find a Jewish community you are comfortable with and try to live there if at all possible. This goes doubly if you have children (whether now or in the future). Judaism is a religion of peoplehood and community, in my opinion, and to really feel this you (and your children) have to be part of one.
To answer the former question about getting close to God, this is a very personal matter. There is no one way to connect to God. Some people are very cerebral and do this by study; others enjoy a prayer service with singing and dancing, and others prefer meditation and mysticism (I am sure there are other ways as well). All of these ways of connection are legitimate, and probably some combination is ideal.
Insofar as studying (my personal preference) if there are no outlets for this in your area there are many online programs that you can involve yourself in, not to mention self-study, summer programs (if you have summers free), etc. For prayer experience, again I suggest finding a synagogue as close as possible. Maybe some of them do early Qabbalat Shabbat and you can join them for that and get back home before sunset? Insofar as meditation, this depends on whether you prefer personal or group experiences. Unfortunately, this is out of my depth and I hope others will be able to offer more guidance.
Finally, all Jews, I believe, are supposed to connect to God through the performance of mitzvot. This is true for ritual mitzvot, like eating kosher or wearing tefillin—it might be worthwhile to learn more about these and work on your performance of them. It applies equally for ethical mitzvot, like treating people kindly, business ethics, and other social justice issues. If this latter set of mitzvot interests you, you can contact Uri l’Tzedek (http://www.utzedek.org/), for example, and try to get involved with one of their projects. Luckily, with God being infinite, there are many ways of connecting to God.
It is unfortunate that contemporary Jews are all too often reluctant to speak about God. Many who attended Hebrew/religious school had a similar experience to you. Not only did our teachers fail to talk about God, but many of us grew up without ever hearing rabbis discuss the importance of developing a personal relationship with God. When I was growing up as the member of a Conservative Synagogue, sermons tended to be about Israel, social justice and “tradition” but matters of spirituality were often seen as “too personal” to be addressed from the pulpit. We are now dealing with the consequences of that silence: young Jews are more likely to speak of themselves as “spiritual” rather than observant (as if one can separate these two ways of expressing oneself religiously) and large numbers of contemporary Jews have sought out such a relationship elsewhere in the religious landscape of North America.
Our silence is not indicative of Jewish life but a product of the secular culture in which we live. Judaism is a four thousand year love affair with God. Abraham is called a “friend of God” and our covenant (brit) is often described as a marriage between God and the people of Israel. It is true that God-talk focuses heavily on peoplehood in the Jewish religion but developing a personal relationship with God is equally important for living a full Jewish life. I think about this each day as I wrap my Tefillin straps around my finger and recite the words of the prophet Hosea, “I betroth you unto me forever; I betroth you unto me with righteousness, justice, love and compassion; I betroth you unto me with faithfulness and you shall know the Lord.” There are countless passages in the prayer book and the Bible that shed light on our personal relationship with God. Rabbinic literature has been described as ushering the individual into “Normal Mysticism,” in which we experience God’s presence in the everyday encounters of life: in a piece of bread, seeing a rainbow, or even going to the bathroom! Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Hasidic thought all devote a great deal of space and thought to understand our relation with the Almighty.
How does one go about developing such a relationship? I would suggest following the advice offered in Pirke Avot: “Yehoshua ben Perachya said: Provide yourself with a teacher and find a study partner for yourself.” While there are a great many resources available today both online and in the library, Judaism should be studied in partnership with others. Having a teacher who has a broader and deeper understanding of Jewish life and thought can be helpful. But it may be important for you to find someone who is open to speaking about such spiritual matters – and equally important for him or her to be not only a good teacher but a good listener. Finally, finding a community is also very important. We encounter God both in solitude and in community. It is no accident that most of our prayers are written in the first person plural – WE.
Living in an area where there are few Jews and even fewer synagogues, means that you will have to wrestle with the question of driving on Shabbat and holidays. Traditionally Jews do not drive on the Sabbath. In the 1950’s the Conservative Movement issued a responsa in which they discussed the changing geography of contemporary Jewish life. Many Jews no longer lived within walking distance of a synagogue. Some rabbis suggested that driving directly to and from synagogue on the Sabbath might be permissible if that was one’s only way of creating a Sabbath experience for oneself. But even if you choose to preserve the sanctity of the Sabbath finding other opportunities for learning and praying with other Jews should be part of developing such a relationship.
It is a story that goes back to the origins of our people, and certainly deep into the history of Jews in America, and frequently into our personal lives. At one point or another, many Jews have been the 'first' or 'only' Jew in a community in the South, the Midwest, or even in an area that supposedly has a high Jewish population. As someone who grew up in a small community and has served small communities, and who has congregants that drive sometimes an hour or more to come to synagogue, I sympathize.
How does one, then, connect with God, without the usual 'mechanics'; that is to say, no synagogue, no minyan, no chavurah, no study group, etc.?
Pirkei Avot teaches that the World Stand Upon Three things: on Torah, on Avodah (worship/service, more on that in a minute) and on Gimilut Chasadim, acts of loving kindness. I think this is as good a place to start as any.
Torah: We engage God through the study of Torah. If Torah are God's words (or if you prefer, words inspired by God) then our study is how we engage God in dialogue. It is through that study of Jewish text that we better understand ourselves, our tradition, and what it means to leave a meaningful, sacred life. Thankfully, it is easier and easier to engage in studying Torah writ large. More bookstores are ordering Jewish study texts, and certainly there's a whole library available via places like Amazon. MyJewishLearning.com is a wonderful resource to help you get started, answer some questions, and find a study partner. The Reform movement has online study opportunities like "Ten Minutes of Torah" and there are similar offerings from other movements, as well as study partner 'matchmakers' that would allow you to study in chevruta over the phone, Skype, or the like. With the beginning of a new daf yomi (page a day) cycle for studying Talmud, there are apps and online reasources readily available to allow you to study in community, albeit virtual.
As important as study is, teaching can also be valuable. Often we are embarrassed to be the 'only Jew at Christmas', as the song goes; to be put on the spot when colleagues or friends have questions. We're worried about antisemitism (unintentional or not) or just don't want to get involved. Instead, see this as an opportunity to educate people (most of whom are truly just curious, as they would be about anyone's culture) and share your love of Judaism with them.
Avodah: worship and prayer are an essential reminder of our relationship with God and God's world. Certainly we can say blessings before and after meals, make Shabbat and Havdallah at home, and the like. But without a synagogue, other prayer opportunities are missed. In this situation, it's time to get creative. Consider adding meditation to your daily rituals (Rami Shapiro has many books on the subject of Jewish meditating) or add Jewish elements to a yoga or Pilates practice. Find a synagogue that webcasts their services and participate (though find a way to support their efforts). Invite non-Jewish friends to help you bless the Chanukah candles, to come to the local river for tashlich, to your home for the Passover Seder.
Avodah can also mean service or labor. We as Jews have always been socially and politically engaged, especially in this country. Find and engage in local causes that are meaningful for you, especially those that allieviate poverty or hunger. Tzedakah is an important value and one that leads us to connection with God, which leads to
Gimilut Chasadim: Yes, that usually means Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam, and as stated above, you should find ways to do so (and in so doing, build your own personal community). But loving-kindness also means seeing God reflected in the Other. If Torah tells us that we are all created in God's image, that means that, regardless of whether the person is Jew or Gentile, they carry a spark of the divine within them, and in our daily practice and behavior we should be aware and attuned to that spark. How much the more so when we are one of few like ourselves in the community!
May this be a helpful start and may your neshamah find the nourishment it desires.
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