2016-06-30
This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Weekday mornings, Judah Labovitz leaves home at 7:05 and heads down Broad Street into town. While stopped in traffic, he can see a priest saying Mass in an upstairs bay window at Roman Catholic High School. To the Jewish lawyer, it is a reassuring sight.

"I'm on my way to doing my version of it," he said, "and at the same time he's doing his...."

Labovitz's "version" takes place at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. There he joins in the morning prayers that observant Jews recite daily. The morning, or shacharit, service consists of psalms, hymns, and blessings. Torah readings are included on Mondays and Thursdays-- in ancient times, these were the market days, which brought people into town and the synagogue.

When at least 10 people are present, the weekday service includes Kaddish prayers for the dead. Beth Zion-Beth Israel is a Conservative synagogue that, unlike its Orthodox counterparts, counts women in the quorum, or minyan, required for praying Kaddish.

The synagogue's Rabbi Ira Stone said observant Jews are obliged to pray shacharit every day. Though they need not pray in the synagogue, the tradition holds that communal prayer is "the most effective" form, he said.

Labovitz, 61, has always been serious about his Judaism. The son of a rabbi and the father of one, he raised his three children in the faith, attends Shabbat services, keeps a kosher home, and tries to be home on Friday nights. He is active in Jewish affairs and is past president of Germantown, Penn., Jewish Centre. He even joined his current law firm largely because of shared values. But it took the convergence of convenience and mourning to bring him, in 1997, to the cocoon-like weekday chapel at the Center City synagogue.

On the 40th anniversary of his father's death, he found it the perfect place to say the prayers for the dead. "It was the first time I had gone in a long time," he said. "I saw how convenient it was, and I enjoyed it. It was a nice way to start the day. So after that, once or twice a week I started showing up."


When Labovitz's mother-in-law died shortly thereafter, he began to say the Kaddish daily for her. The genial atmosphere continues to draw him three or four mornings a week. It's not that the group socializes, or even talks much, but their communal prayer unites them, Labovitz said.

"If I'm sitting there and I'm hearing other people's voices, sometimes somebody else's singing will just carry me along."

He came to discover, he said, that "no matter what was going on in my office, I could just slow down and get my day off to the right start.... You leave with a sense of calmness that whatever the day is going to be like, it started off well." The feeling sets in on bad mornings or good, as soon as he arrives: "When I'm not in the best of moods I'm far more likely to go."

"What's the first thing I do when I get in? I take the prayer shawl, I put it over my head and I close myself in it. I shut out the world. Even without the religious piece of it, you can just isolate yourself in it." Then, he laces on the leather straps of the tefillin.

The tefillin is a set of leather boxes with straps attached to them. One is for the head, the other for the arm. The former is worn so that the box is held in the center of the forehead by the straps, which are tied behind the head. With the latter, the box is placed on the upper arm and the straps are wound down the arm to the fingers. The boxes contain Torah passages thus binding the words close to the heart and between the eyes. At first he was uncomfortable about wearing the tefillin as the "regulars" did, so he went without. "After I started going for six months or so, I felt uncomfortable not wearing them. I felt that if I was going to do [the prayer], I should do it. Now I appreciate the symbolism."

As a wedding ring brings to mind the beloved, the leather straps, when he winds them around his fingers, illustrate what he feels is the nature of his relationship with God. For the ritual, Jews recite in Hebrew the words of Hosea 2:21-22: "I will betroth you to myself forever. I will betroth you to myself in righteousness and in justice, in kindness and in mercy. I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord."

The weekday worshipers pray privately at first, the "warm-up" giving them a transition from city life to the inner life. One day recently, about a dozen of them, mostly men, gathered, clad in prayer shawls and bound in tefillin. Led by Rabbi Stone, they prayed for 45 minutes, alternately standing and sitting, sometimes humming or chanting, sometimes swaying or bowing.

A Torah passage is read. Labovitz admits that while some readings resonate with him, others do not.

At 8:30, he walks quickly to his office at Mann, Unger, Spector, and Labovitz, a nine-lawyer commercial litigation firm in an elegant Spruce Street townhouse.

A typical week may take him from office to airport to courtroom, from home in Wyncote, Penn., to an apartment in New York. The morning minyan reminds him to be aware of "what's important and what's not important," he said.

The lawyer doesn't look for "answers" in the prayers. Often, though, he said he finds a heightened sense of the passing of time, especially during prayers leading up to the high holidays, or seasonal prayers for rain in Israel, or even the psalm of the day.

Some days the words don't ring true. "The world is not a neat and lovely place," he said. "I've seen people who died unpleasant deaths...and for a year you're going to get up and say this prayer that's all about praising God and saying how wonderful God is? There are times when what you're going through and your prayer are totally at odds with each other."

Judaism, he said, focuses at such times on "doing rather than thinking. These are the things you're supposed to do." Eventually, life changes or understanding of it does, Labovitz said, and even if the prayers don't resonate on a particular day, in time they will.

"You do it whether you understand it or not," he said. "That's the Jewish tradition. And you know at some point it's going to click."

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