Service as an Act Of Prayer

This story originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week on July 9, 2019

By Jeremy Nicholson (he/him), 2018-20 Repair the World Harlem Fellow

Every Wednesday, at 3:30 p.m., the quaint and quiet basement of All Souls’ Episcopal Church on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem comes alive. Knives are put to use, pots boil, ovens warm in the background as friends and acquaintances, old and new, chatter. In the next five hours, a meal for up to 100 people will be prepared, served, put away, and by the end of the night, the basement returns to its sleepy state.

For the past year, I have taken part in this ritual, known as the Seva meal, almost every Wednesday, as part of my year of service as a Repair the World fellow in Harlem. What fascinates me about this ritual, along with many others, is how so many different people participate in the experience for so many different reasons — yet the outcome is the same for all of them.

Some volunteers come for religious reasons, as the meal is run by a Hindu community and a Buddhist priest, inspired by their faiths’ values. Others come for a sense of altruism, giving back to the Harlem community they care about or perceive as in need. And some come for social reasons: their friends come, therefore they come. At the end of the day, though, the result for all of these people is that they have helped people who otherwise would not have had dinner have a healthy and nutritious meal.

It may seem odd to label something that is not explicitly religious as a ritual act, but I think there is something about service that can become sacred, become a ritual. Almost every major religion has a tradition of social justice, of giving back to those in need in their community and in others. In modern Jewish life, this service often is framed as tikkun olam, or repairing the world. Throughout our tradition, acts of service are referenced and taught — from the ways in which we approach and value education and childcare, to feeding the hungry, to the basic kindness with which we are told to treat strangers. Still, beyond a teaching or value, I think there is something even more inherent to service that makes it feel like a ritual act.

When I think of good ritual, I think about the best prayer spaces I have been in. In these spaces, I am transported to a different place, to a world I want to believe is real while my reality remains the same. In a sense: holiness stops time. I think that good service can mimic this same feeling of good prayer. After spending the majority of her career studying the American Jewish community, anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff wrote: “Ritual is the enactment of a wish. It is the display of a state of mind. And above all, it is a performative enterprise. It is made up of symbols, almost always that deal with ambiguities or paradoxes.”

When I go to serve a meal every Wednesday, it is the enactment of a wish that someday people may not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, and a desire to change the system that creates hunger. While serving these meals, I grapple with the paradoxes and inequities of a city that is one of the wealthiest in the world, yet in which one-in-five people are food insecure, where African Americans are twice as likely to face food insecurity and where, somehow, one of the most stable food options is in the basement of a church. Every Wednesday, I go to the basement of All Souls’ Episcopal Church not just to hope for a better world, but to try and make one possible.

During my time as a Repair the World fellow, these are the lessons that I have not only learned, but also have tried to pass on to others. Through service, we can begin the change what we wish to see by mobilizing the Jewish community to see the inequities in our world and to see their ability to help to change them, not just in the immediate but permanently. I hope one day that our communities value service as a ritual on par with prayer, Shabbat, and other Jewish holidays. I want to be a part of making this happen, of mobilizing my community and of making service meaningful for everyone. That’s why I’m so excited to join Repair the World again next year, this time as a senior fellow. My first year of service opened my eyes to the meaning and Jewish spirituality of service. I’m hoping in my second year I can engage more people as we work to have an impact in New York.

Along the way, I might just help a few more people gain ritual meaning, down a flight of stairs in a church basement.

Jeremy Nicholson will be a senior fellow with Repair the World New York beginning in fall 2019.