Dov Singer, Knocking on Heaven’s Door


Some days, Rabbi Dov Singer says, he’s talking to God all day long. When he’s giving a class, he might look like he’s talking to students, but he’s talking to God. “At least someone is listening,” he smiles.

In Israel, Rabbi Singer, an innovative educator and a leader of the modern Israeli revival of Chassidut, the body of chasidic philosophy, is well known for his teachings about tefilla, or prayer. His best-selling book, “Prepare My Prayer: Recipes to Awaken the Soul” (Maggid), is newly translated into English from the original Hebrew.

It’s not a book to be read in one or two sittings, but rather to be carried around, dipped into at quiet moments, perhaps early on in synagogue, or practiced and studied with a partner. It will appeal to those who pray and want to know more about how to go deeper and higher, and to those who are curious about what that last phrase might mean.

Beautifully designed, with the motif of a stylized cursive Hebrew alphabet running through it, the book is divided into 11 sections, each with opening inspirational texts drawn from traditional sources, poetic lines by Rabbi Singer and practical suggestions, exercises and experiments a reader might try to experience.

Last week, as part of his book tour, Rabbi Singer spoke and taught at several Orthodox synagogues, including Lincoln Square in Manhattan and Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck. In public and in an interview, he speaks thoughtfully, through a translator. Rabbi Singer is a man of quiet charisma and strong presence, with a sense of humor and passion for his subject. With his long white beard, the 63-year-old rabbi known affectionately by his students and colleagues as Rav Dov is easily recognized in an Upper West Side café.

“Prayer’s great message is the very belief in the power of the desires and yearnings that beat within us to influence our lives. The power of words, which are the tools with which we express our desire, can change reality,” he writes.

For Rabbi Singer, prayer is an instinct, a longing inside people, an opening of the heart. His vision of mindful prayer is a way of life. Prayer is not only about the self, but all of Creation.

He came to his involvement in prayer through his work counseling couples with marital difficulties. Much of their work together was about improving the lines of communication and helping each partner to listen deeply and to feel truly heard. He came to realize that the same tools were key to opening the gates of prayer.

Rabbi Singer and his wife have 10 children and live in the community of Tekoa in the West Bank. For more than 30 years, he has headed the Makor Chaim Yeshiva High School in Gush Etzion, a chasidic-Zionist experimental high school with a student-centered educational philosophy. He established the Beit Midrash LeHithadshut, The Study Center for Revival, a center of Torah study for working people, with a teacher training program emphasizing the teacher’s creativity, sensitivity, ongoing learning and renewal. In addition, he initiated prayer groups where people connect in intimate conversation about their spiritual lives. This book grew out of those groups.

Rabbi Singer and his school were prominent in the news in the summer of 2014, when three boys, two of them students at the yeshiva, were kidnapped and murdered. At the joint funeral, he began by saying, “I hereby accept upon myself the commandment: Love thy Neighbor as Thyself” and had the tens of thousands present repeat his words. Pointing to unity in the nation, he said, “Two Jews, three opinions, but one heart.”

He grew up in Givatayim, adjacent to Tel Aviv, the son of Holocaust survivors. His mother was the only one of her 12 siblings to survive. He attended state religious schools and Netiv Meir, a yeshiva high school in Jerusalem. His father was vice-president of finance at El Al, and he traveled frequently while growing up; he attended the Zionist Camp Moshava in Pennsylvania as a teen and also spent time at Yeshiva University, in Rav Soloveitchik’s class. In the IDF, he served in a tank unit as a gunner where, he says, he learned to aim.

About his own prayer life in his younger days, he says it is hard to describe. He remembers going to synagogue with his father and always having a deep connection with a grandfather he never met, whose name he carries, who, he feels, leads him through life.

He is largely self-taught. “I learned a lot from people I wanted to learn from rather than institutions,” he says. He was given semicha, or rabbinic ordination, from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, with whom he co-founded Makor Chaim.

Rabbi Singer is the student of three rabbis who brought a chassidic revival to Israel’s Religious Zionist community: the late Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (HaRav Shagar), the late Rabbi Menachem Froman and Rabbi Steinsaltz. As Israeli educator and poet Elhanan Nir explains in the book’s fine introduction, these three teachers “sought to suggest a religious language that is  gentler, more personal, a language that leaves room for dialogue” and goes on to say that they legitimized existential questions which could be “the opening to a meeting place with the Beyond, with the Infinite.”

Rabbi Mark Gottlieb, senior director of the Tikvah Fund, says, “Rav Dov is a spiritual force of nature, wise and dynamic and loving all at once.”

When asked about how his teachings might be particularly relevant for an American audience, Rabbi Gottlieb says, “In our hyper-individualistic, ‘Bowling Alone’ culture, Rav Dov reminds Americans that interiority and inwardness are necessary elements in our fulfillment and destiny. Mindful, focused prayer can form the building blocks of a richer, more fulfilling life of individuality within healthy community. Rav Dov is helping to build reflective, intentional communities in Israel. Why can’t he do this work Stateside?”

Rabbi Singer says he expands prayer beyond the synagogue, shifting the focus from the prayer to the person who is praying. He doesn’t suggest changing the words of the text, but rather bringing the letters and words to life.

He explains that feeling a prayer is heard is not connected to a prayer being answered. “It’s not just a request, it’s praise and thanks, a network of communications,” he says. “To open the heart.”

About the connection between music and prayer, he says, “Music is the most basic prayer-like movement of the soul whether it is the cry of a baby, the laugh of a child or the sigh of an older person.”

We met in Manhattan’s kosher restaurant My Most Favorite Food and were sitting in the glass-enclosed front section. I asked about the meaning of the Kaddish prayer, and he asked if it would be OK to make some noise. Sure. He then banged on the table until others sitting around us were quiet and he said something like, “Good morning, everyone.
I just think that we all should thank Doris [the owner] for the wonderful, warm atmosphere that she created here, for making a space for all of us, for the delicious food. Let’s applaud her.” We all did. That’s Kaddish, he explained — you disrupt the service; you acknowledge and thank God.

Open to speaking to people of all backgrounds, Rabbi Singer says, “I am a friend to anyone,” looking upward, “who wants to see the Divine.”

Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, who heads Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, has brought groups from BJ to learn with Rabbi Singer in Israel, and has hosted his longtime friend at BJ’s prayer retreat. For many congregants, he says, the experience was transformative.

“He’s very learned, very curious, creative and imaginative. He really knows Rabbi Nachman’s teachings and is open to post-modernist questions. Rav Dov cares deeply and is open to experimenting, within halacha, for the sake of getting to a deeper place.”

Rabbi Matalon continues, “I treasure his friendship. We meet as Jewish brothers who may disagree about certain things, but share ahavat Yisrael, a love for Israel, and love for tefilla.”

Rabbi Singer’s email sign-off is ,“Have you looked at the heavens today?” In Israel, he enjoys driving with his sky roof open.