Worship Workout: A New Year’s Resolution

There is a seemingly endless number of ways technology has encouraged good health, physical fitness, and well-being – each attempting to be our New Year’s Resolution. Gyms with apps that show how often we attend, track our workouts, set goals, and guide us to meet them. Food apps from simple calorie counters, to specific diet apps, to overall healthy eating and nutrition apps. And then, of course, there is Fitbit. The most famous device of its type, Fitbit makes a collection of wearable health devices that can track a multitude of information about one’s physical activities. In its most basic form, it is a step counter. You put on the fitbit bracelet in the morning when you wake up, and before you go to bed you check it and see how many steps you have taken. You can set a goal of reaching a certain number of steps per day (or not). You can meet the goal (or not). You can share your daily steps with others to encourage you and your friends to make and meet goals (or not).

No matter how Pavlovian a fitness app or gadget is in encouraging us to engage in behavior that will keep us healthy, at the end of the day it is on us whether we make and actually follow through on any health related New Year’s Resolution (or not).

Now maybe you had no need of a New Year’s Resolution and have already fallen down the rabbit hole of one of the many paths to physical health between SoulCycle, fancy gyms, apps and Fitbits, Class Pass, and so forth. Maybe you are deep down one of those rabbit holes, and love it. Maybe you aren’t and don’t want anything to do with any of it. Regardless of which applies to us personally, it is true that physical health is important – not just on January 1, but all year. But there is another fitness resolution that we usually aren’t bombarded with, much less our congregants. That is, our spiritual fitness. One of the reasons keeping healthy is so important is so that if something does go wrong physically, we are in the best shape to be able to handle it. So too with spiritual health – when life presents us with a crisis, having a grounded sense of Jewish identity, community, and worldview, aka “good spiritual fitness,” gives us a foundation on which to handle the chaos even tragedy that life can present us with. As rabbis we understand this intuitively, but many of our congregants don’t understand how important this bedrock is until after going through a crisis without it. Just like keeping a healthy body takes attentiveness and action, so too does keeping a healthy soul. Both require the steps of getting started and staying committed, followed by constant reward.

An easy path to a spiritual fitness through any of our synagogues is worship. Just like a Fitbit, gym, or diet, the first step is to simply start, which if our guests or members are starting from nothing can be daunting. Like getting a Fitbit for the first time and having no idea how to link it to a phone, or – and this is a personal experience – going into the gym for the first time and literally not knowing how to use any of the equipment except the pool.

I was so new to gym culture that if I hadn’t had a welcoming, pleasant experience I doubt I would still be going (even if it does have the only close lap pool with rabbi-friendly opening hours). Beginning or renewing Jewish worship engagement has the same barriers to many. We have families and individuals  whose first synagogue entrance in many years or potentially entrance ever will be through our doors, at any time, which is why a warm, inclusive, inviting experience is so important the first time and every time, else there would never be the second step: staying committed.

Any worship experience should be meaningful and effective, be it Yom Kippur, Torah Study, or an intimate Friday night chapel service. Each experience should be able to stand alone, just like any one workout will have a measured impact. But we know with physical wellness the real benefit comes from frequency, consistency, and familiarity – long term. Work outs are smoother, easier. To get there, maybe you have a workout buddy or a trainer. It is the same with pursuing a healthy Jewish spirituality. Seriously, we can ask any of our Bar/Bat Mitzvah students about how they feel at any Shabbat service after their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, versus the daunting experience of going to someone else’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service a year earlier when they were still in the process of learning the Hebrew prayers (with, hopefully, both personal trainers and practice buddies).

Of course, there is something that spiritual fitness offers that goes beyond what physical fitness can offer, because it is beyond the tangible. Hopefully we have felt it – that special moment where everything is just right. Maybe it’s from the music, or the Hebrew, or the community being together, or simply being relaxed…then it happens. The Zen moment. The I-Thou moment. A moment where we connect – with ourselves, with other human beings, with our understanding and/or experience of God.

A quick story. There was once a man who went to services every single Shabbat evening and Shabbat morning. Noticing this, his friend at the congregation mentioned that he must really like connecting with prayer every week. “Oh no,” the man responded, “I don’t actually connect with prayer every week. I always enjoy services, but I don’t always connect with the prayers. I can never tell if this service or that one will be one where I really feel the connection. That’s why I go every week – so when there is a moment to connect, I will be there…ready.”

For our congregants (or, gasp, for ourselves) it doesn’t have to be January 1, or even Rosh Hashanah, to be a good time for a Worship Workout Resolution to engage in and reap the benefits of a meaningful and dynamic experience of Jewish worship at a Reform temple.

Rabbi Jim Stoloff serves Temple Israel of the City of New York.  

This article has also been shared with the members of Temple Israel of the City of New York.