In embracing the changing landscape brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Rabbi Elyssa Joy Austerklein is seeking to create a multifaceted approach to prayer taken from her own practices of yoga, meditation and music.
Austerklein, who for the last four years was the spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation in Akron, founded Ivrim Jews Without Borders in August, where she offers in-person experiences in Northeast Ohio, Southwest Florida and Colorado, and virtual experiences on Zoom and High Holy Day services via YouTube.
Austerklein’s virtual services study visual imagery as well as Hebrew prayers and translations. She has musicians accompany her at services.
“In the course of the pandemic and in organizing the High Holy Days services for last year, I became very aware of the fact that it can be hard for people to just sit in front of a screen when it’s just a face or even a community of faces,” she told the Cleveland Jewish News Aug. 26. “And so being able to weave in imagery, words that get put up on the screen … music videos, different ways of connecting with people as we’re using familiar prayer, gets to the heart of the meaning of prayer in a different way.”
Austerklein said she is always trying to connect people to the meaning of each prayer.
“When we go to have prayer together, the point is for me to leave the prayer service in a different place, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, than where I was when I started,” she said. “To take me on a journey, to take you on a journey. And I feel that way of weaving in imagery and videos allows that journey to take place in a different way than we had access to before we were doing it on screen.”
Austerklein said she uses open-source videos and images that speak to the meaning of each prayer and to her interpretation of it.
She used the example of the reading of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which she said she will read in the background with visual images to tell the story along with the English translation on screen.
“So it’s not just that people are hearing the Hebrew, which can be very emotive for people, but to be thinking about what’s really happening in the story, and to be able to have the images there for you,” she said.
Austerklein will play the steel tongue drum during the Grand Aleinu to aid in the meditative experience of that moment. She has musicians Joe Leaman playing piano and Steve Popernack on drums for High Holy Day services.
In addition, Ivrim Jews Without Borders holds a 30-minute meditation and reflection on the weekly reading on the parsha on Zoom two Fridays a month at 5 p.m.
Its first event was a Monday night Mishnah study session leading up to the High Holy Days. In October, she will start a Sunday morning series on birds of the Bible. Austerklein said she will be available to officiate life-cycle events and for individual conversations.
Her email list consists of about 500 names, people with whom she has connected over the years in her rabbinic roles in Northeast Ohio and beyond, she said.
Austerklein, 39, was introduced to meditation at a retreat run by Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood when she was growing up in Shaker Heights.
An influence in incorporating mindfulness meditation into her Jewish practice is Rav James Jacobson-Maisels, founder and CEO of Or HaLev, whom she met in Israel when she was a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston.
Ivrim Jews Without Borders has no dues, per se, and exists solely on donations from its attendees, Austerklein said. She said she sometimes suggests an amount, but that the attendees may choose their level to donate, or not at all. Austerklein has applied for nonprofit status, but donations are currently tax deductible even without that designation.
Austerklein and her husband, Hazan Matthew Austerklein, both resigned from Beth El July 31. He is a doctoral candidate at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany in Jewish studies and an Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Scholarship fellow. He serves on the board of Ivrim.
While the rabbi lives in Akron with her husband and two children, the she will hold in-person experiences in South Florida and Colorado because they are places she enjoys spending time.
She said in starting Ivrim Jews Without Borders, she came upon the concept through prayer.
“In institutions, there are a lot of other things that can take focus, rather than Torah and God,” Austerklein said. “And so I felt that I wanted my focus to be as much on Torah and God as possible. And that means that I had to start something new and different and not be part of a regular institution.”