I grew up in deep South Texas, among Southern Baptists with a serene faith in the existence of God and the power of prayer. While I’m Jewish, many relatives in my intermarried family shared that outlook. The outlook of my Christian friends and family stayed with me as natural and essential. God is real; prayer works. Have faith, however imperfect. Few of my secular Jewish friends think of religion in these terms. But, truly, this is what I believe.
This September I put prayer into written words when I visited the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, in Queens, New York. Followers journey to his resting place, the “Ohel,” to leave prayers asking for blessing and guidance. I went for the first time before the Jewish New Year and left a prayer pleading for the health and well-being of people I deeply care about: my son, brother, girlfriend, ex-wife, the President, and friends, including a woman with the Hebrew name of Ilana.
I had met Ilana on a Jewish online dating service in 2005. While romance never blossomed, we became friends. Two months after remembering Ilana at the Ohel, she told me she had advanced breast cancer. Her news caused me great anguish; my mother had died in 1984 of bone cancer that spread from breast cancer. I lost my mother to cancer. I couldn’t bear losing Ilana.
I responded in the most natural way — I turned to both Christian and Jewish prayer traditions. After all, I thought, God listens with both ears. I wrote to what I call my “Texas Prayer Patrol” – childhood friends David, Dee Dee and Lois, my cousin Linda – and asked them to embrace Ilana in their prayers. They leaped into their spiritual work, and continue to petition the Lord for Ilana every day, to this day.
At the same time, I also called on my Jewish faith. I include Ilana every night when I say the Sh’ma, Judaism’s essential prayer: “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.” I also went online and dispatched another prayer for her to the Rebbe’s Ohel.
The intense spiritual effort is working. Ilana got through surgery with excellent prospects, and I have visited her twice since then, delivering food and music. I wrote her a note quoting a rabbi who had written, “The Talmud locates God’s presence lending comfort to patients by resting above their head.” I added my own thought: “I had an image of the ‘malachim tovim’ — the good angels — around you in the hospital and at home.”
I also pray for my own peace of mind. My profound despair eased, bit by bit. I have my bleak moments when I think of Ilana, but they pass. Faith in God, faith in the trueness of our friendship, points me in the right direction. I know then that Christian and Jewish prayers work in tandem to protect precious souls. God is always listening with His infinite ears.