Rolf Gompertz

My Journey to Prayer

While this is a story in a Jewish context, it is one that I believe Christian readers can relate to also, for several reasons.  I mention two Psalms that come out of our common religious tradition: Psalm 23 and Psalm 21.  Central to this story is what Jews refer to as the Sh’ma and what Jesus quoted when he was asked what is the most important commandment.  He said that there are two: “The most important is ‘Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” (Mark 12:30-31). He was quoting lines 4 and 5 from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the Fifth Book of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) where the Sh’ma appears.  It also appears in various places of all Jewish prayer books. Jesus also quotes from Leviticus 19:18, the Third Book of the Hebrew Bible: “The other [commandment] is: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these [two]” (Mark l2:30-31).
These two commandments are central to both Judaism and Christianity: The love and service of God and the love and service of our fellow human beings. “My Journey to Prayer” deals with a personal crisis that became the springboard to prayer.  Readers may find a personal connection from their own life, journey, and experiences.  – Rolf

Presented at One Shabbat Morning (OSM) Service, Adat Ari El, North Hollywood, CA – February 11, 2006
It was 1964. My father-in-law, Philip Brown, lay dying in the hospital, with congestive heart failure.  I was 36 years old. My mother-in-law, Lillian Brown, was desperate as we walked the hall.  “Do you know any prayers?” she pleaded. “Do you know ‘The Lord is my shepherd [Psalm 23]?'”  I began:

    “The Lord is my shepherd,

    I shall not want.
    He makes me to lie down in green pastures,
    He leads me beside the still waters.
    He restores my soul.
Distraught, my mother-in-law pleaded, “What about ‘I will lift up my eyes unto the mountains [Psalm 121]?'”  I began again:

    “I will lift up my eyes unto the mountains;
    From whence shall my help come?
    My helps comes from the Lord,
    Who made heaven and earth…”
That’s as far as I got. “How about the sh’ma, I offered. We prayed: “Hear O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One.”  I continued alone: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.  And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart and …and…and…” I did not even remember the sh’ma any more — the central statement of Judaism! Worst of all, I was not able to help someone who was in crisis!
Two years later, in 1966, we joined Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in North Hollywood, California. We joined for our children, but we also joined for me.  I had come to a life-changing decision: I wanted to attend services regularly from now on, including Shabbat mornings.
My Hebrew was rusty, but it was still there. Carol, my wife, gave me a big tallit, a prayer shawl that covers the whole body, the following year, when I was invited to be a darshan, a lay congregant who interprets that day’s reading from the Torah (the first five books of our common Bible) from time to time. I felt self-conscious and lost in the big tallit. I figured I would have to grow into it.  And then I did something unusual: I began to pray in secret, every morning. I locked myself in the bedroom, pulled out the prayer book, read three prayers quickly, and came out of the bedroom, before anyone noticed or could see what I had been doing!
How does a man approaching 40 begin to pray? With great difficulty — and in secret! I felt awkward, foolish, embarrassed, before myself! A grown man, approaching 40, trying to pray! In time, I began to realize that three prayers are not enough to get to the heart of the treasure. Three prayers just get you started. Soon there were more prayers, but not enough time. So I made time. I got up half an hour earlier. I did not miss the extra sleep.  While the others slept, I sat in the kitchen and prayed.
I didn’t care now that Carol or the kids saw me, when they got up. And I kept reading the words of the sh’ma. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.  And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart…And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes…”  Gradually, over five years, the words penetrated; they came alive. They spoke.  And they disturbed me. Frontlets. T’fillin.  Phylacteries. The leather prayer boxes and straps worn around the head and arm. I talked it over with myself: “It says to put on t’fillin.”  “It’s not necessary.”  “But it says to put on t’fillin!”  “I pray, I wear a yarmulke, I wear a tallit.  I don’t have to do everything!” “But how can you say this prayer and ignore its meaning. It says you should put on t’fillin!” “But I have never put on t’fillin!” “You have never prayed before, either!” “But I don’t know how to put on t’fillin!” “Then learn!”
I remembered my father’s t’fillin bag. It was old already when I was a child.   I never saw my father put on t’fillin. But I remembered and knew that the t’fillin were there, in the velvet bag, near the prayer books…waiting.
“Do you know where the t’fillin are?”
“The t’fillin?”
“Yes, the t’fillin. May I have them?”
My father looked at me in surprise.  He jumped up and rushed to get the small, velvet bag. “Here!” he said, handing me the t’fillin.  I thanked him. I didn’t tell him that I didn’t know how to put them on. I didn’t ask either. I didn’t know if he knew how. I didn’t wish to embarrass him.
“Are you going to start putting on t’fillin?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I have started to pray every morning.”
I said it almost defiantly and a bit smugly.
“I pray every morning, too,” he said.
It was now my turn to be surprised. I had never seen my father pray in the morning. My father praying? A grown man approaching 80? How long had he been doing this?
“You sure you don’t want the t’fillin?” I asked.
“No, no!” he assured me. “You keep them, you keep them!”
I thanked him again and took them home with me. I was eager to take them out and really look at them. The leather straps, which once were pliable, were stiff from years of disuse. How many years had it been? 50, 60, 100?  I picked up the hand t’fillin. I knew it went around the arm and around the hand in some special way, but I could not figure out how. Whom should I ask? Whom could I ask? Who puts on t’fillin nowadays?
No doubt the Rabbi would show me. But I could not ask him. It’s hard to be humble. I would ask a fellow congregant, Meyer Sedowsky, of blessed memory. “Look!” he said, as he took the head t’fillin and showed me a Hebrew letter, on the right side of the leather box:  “SHIN.” Then he showed me the knot that sits on the back of the head, shaped as the letter:  “DALLET.”  Then he took the hand t’fillin and showed me the knot near the leather box. “The letter YUD!”
“Shin, Dallet,Yud! Shaddai! Almighty! One of the names of God!” He explained the four verses from the Torah in each box. “They remind us of the unity of God, the miracles and wonders God performed when He brought us out of Egypt, God’s kingship, and the command to put on the t’fillin.  Then he showed me how to put on the t’fillin and declare the appropriate blessing. To what purpose? As a daily reminder so that the work of our hands and the thoughts of our mind and the longings and strivings of our heart be placed in God’s service. I rushed home that night, anxious to fall asleep, so I could wake up early and put on the t’fillin. I have put on t’fillin every day ever since – except for on Shabbat, because on Shabbat you do not put on t’fillin, because Shabbat is its own sign and symbol of God’s presence and our relationship to Him.
My mother died in 1983; my father died in 1987. With their deaths, I came to say kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, which does not speak of death but only affirms God’s glory, at the daily prayer service, the minyan. As I did so, I had to make one more change in my Journey to Prayer. I had prayed at home daily for 20 years.  Yet, when the need arose, I found that there was a daily prayer service available to me at the synagogue for saying kaddish. It was time now for me to move from private prayer to public prayer, so that I could be there for others, as they had been there for me. I joined the daily morning minyan, and I have been there ever since.
One final matter. My mother-in-law, whom I had failed when once she needed a prayer, died in 1976. As she lay dying, she asked me to pray with her.
This time I did not fail her.


Rolf Gompertz and his parents were refugees from Nazi Germany coming to America in 1939, after Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), the Night of Broken Glass.  He has written about their story, which was also dramatized by the BBC (2003).  He is the author of five current books, including a spiritual self-help book, Sparks of Spirit: How to Find Love and Meaning in Your Life. His books may be found, browsed and ordered at