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Learning How To Pray

I joined the BJ Hebrew school program as a shy fourth grader. Since my parents took a couple of years to find the right synagogue, I was the new kid in a cohort that had been together for years. In the beginning, it felt like the other kids were light years ahead of me, both in their established friendships and level of comfort at BJ.

At the start of each Hebrew school class, we would all gather in the Sanctuary and have a mini-service. At first, for most of the service, I was essentially lost. I didn’t know how to read or sound out Hebrew, didn’t know the tunes, and didn’t know when to stand or sit. I closed my eyes for the Shema but didn’t realize we were supposed to quickly reopen them, so for a solid couple of minutes I just stood with my eyes closed. I was deeply aware that I was probably making a fool of myself, which simply made me shrink back farther in my seat.

However, there was one part that I could do from day one: the Amidah, a silent prayer. Nobody was listening to me stumble along or judging me. I could be alone in my thoughts and do what everyone else had been doing since the start; pray. For the first half hour, I may have gone through the motions of prayer, but this was where it really began. With my eyes closed and my anxiety softened, I could engage in a ritual that felt comfortable. On an ordinary Thursday in fourth grade, I learned how to pray.

In my silent prayer, I would begin with gratitude, and then transition into the things I hoped for. I asked God to get me into my first choice of high school (I did not, but I ended up at a different fantastic high school instead), to solve world hunger, and to stop climate change (still waiting on these ones.) I learned how to pray by imagining the world I wanted to see and asking for it.

I have continued this form of prayer beyond the synagogue. I began my climate activism by going to City Hall to strike for climate justice with an organization called Fridays for Future. This ritual grew, and I became one of a few core youth organizers for the March to End Fossil Fuels, which had 75,000 attendees this past September. I have written for Teen Vogue and spoken at the United Nations. Last Hanukkah, I hosted a climate justice event at BJ. Every protest has been an act of prayer: the same kind I learned to do back when I couldn’t sound out Hebrew or sing along. I pray with my feet, marching alongside a movement.

I have a memory of one of the BJ rabbis standing at the bimah and telling a story of a man who didn’t know how to pray the right way. He sat underneath a tree and began to recite the alphabet. God listened. I hold this story close to me, as a reminder that the way I exist as a Jewish activist is not right or wrong. Prayer does not have one look, language, or feeling.

I have grown a lot since the fourth grade, and I imagine 9-year-old Noa would be pretty proud of 18-year-old Noa. I have changed a lot since then, but some things remain the same. I continue to pray with my own alphabet, demanding the world I hope to see.


Teen Shabbat Shalom,

Noa Greene-Houvras