JERUSALEM – You need a wife, a husband, or perhaps just a job. You want a baby, maybe. Your favorite uncle has cancer, and you are hoping you can do something, anything, to ease his pain.
Batya Burd is betting even the believers among you haven’t a prayer. Or rather, you haven’t the time – and the access – to deliver the sort of prayer she has in mind.
Burd, who gave up a future as a Toronto corporate lawyer for a pious existence just steps from the Western Wall, has a novel suggestion. …she and her team of 40 Torah-observant Jewish worshippers are ready to pray at God’s last known address, for that which ails you.
Not just any spiritual whim passes muster at www.westernwallprayers.org, the Internet-based prayer-by-proxy service [the 39 year old mother of five] established [years back]. Forget about requesting heavenly help in winning the lottery. She will politely say no. When prayer orders smack of such vanity, she seeks the counsel of a rabbi on whether to proceed.
But for those whose intentions are deemed genuine, be they Christian, Muslim or Jew, Burd will dispatch a “prayer agent” through the warren-like streets of Jerusalem’s Old City on a mission to God. For 40 consecutive days, she will do this.
“The idea is not for people to use it like a lucky rabbit’s foot. We’re serious about this,” says Burd, whose spiritual outings request a donation from $90 to [$1,800], depending on how many hours and days your shaliach, or proxy, prays on your behalf.
“There are no guarantees, obviously. But when we agree to do a full cycle of prayers for somebody, they need to be involved as well. We encourage them to do some kind of good deed, wherever they are. We’re only helping the process. But it is not a replacement for their religiosity.”
Burd says the idea came from her husband Gershon, a Chicago native, primarily because it was immediately after he undertook a similar segulah – a 40-day cycle of prayers at the Western Wall, asking God for a wife – that they first met.
Burd says she “knew something was happening” during the 40 days her future husband trekked to the wall to pray for a partner.
“I felt like I had extra help. My poor husband had been dating for five years and it was not happening for him,” she says. “One of my friends in Jerusalem knew him. She came up to me one day and said, `When you are ready, I know your soul mate.’ And finally it happened. We were introduced. And five dates later we were engaged.”
What pushed Burd from notion to action in developing www.westernwallprayers.org was the poverty she saw around her in the Old City, where the Jewish quarter is devotion-rich but cash-poor … “It is difficult to see so many people in Jerusalem really living hand to mouth, watching every dime. What they need most is material help,” she says.
“At the same time, there are all sorts of people in North America who have so much in material wealth, but are in spiritual need. We’re trying to match those needs to each other.”
Segulah is a word from the ancient Hebrew with multiple and sometimes mystical meanings, not all of them necessarily flattering. Burd allows that some rabbis dismiss such prayer as less than serious. But she points to a raft of success stories of prayers answered, the most moving of which are posted online. She also acknowledges that occasional visitors to her site leave scathing notes berating the enterprise as offensive.
“We are playing with such tender concepts and people can get so offended. I suppose we’re asking people to judge us favourably for a second. Please understand the context,” she says.
Rabbi Berel Wein, a prominent Jerusalem-based author and one of several Jewish scholars whose name appears as references on Burd’s site, said the motives are beyond reproach.
“I know the family and I know the money goes to legitimate causes,” Wein confirmed.
“What we’re really talking about is an old established custom. Throughout history, it was common that when people travelled to the Holy Land other people would ask them to pray at holy sites,” he said.
“It can’t do any harm. The money is incidental. When we pray, in general, we give money to a charity or a cause. This is pretty much the same thing.”
Burd describes her own circuitous journey to Jerusalem as a wayward road in search of herself. Raised in Toronto as Lisa Fefer – she later Hebraized her name – Burd studied at University of Western Ontario and Osgoode Law School before climbing to the 44th floor of First Canadian Place to what is today Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, Canada’s leading corporate tax firm.
“I had the right car, the right friends, the right job, the right income,” she remembers. “But I had a hole inside me this big.” Looking to fill the void, Burd abandoned Toronto for California, where she wrote the state bar exam and dabbled briefly in the entertainment business. But she gave that up for an extended journey to Nepal, where she describes the archetypal search for spiritual awakening. “I went from thinking that life was about making money to life was about having fun,” she says of the shift from Bay St. to Hollywood. “And then in Nepal and Southeast Asia I began looking very intensely for higher answers. I did a lot of meditation. That’s where my priorities began to change.”
It was a second journey from Toronto to India that brought Burd to Jerusalem twelve years ago. Her savings depleted, she chose to take advantage of the Birthright Israel program, an initiative … that entitles young Jews to an all-expenses-paid journey to experience the Holy land. “Birthright was a free ride for me. I just wanted a cheap way to get to India and this got me more than halfway. But in included 10 days in Israel. And 10 days was enough to reel me in.” she explains. Burd’s gradual transition to an Orthodox lifestyle is now complete.
The shoulder-length hair is not hers, but a wig, as is customary. “I had serious lifestyle changes to make – [what I ate, how I dressed, what I did]… but Burd eventually “came to a point where I was able to just let go and [accept my chosen path in life. I was born a Jew, and it is not a coincidence]. Even today she is reluctant to accept the labels applied to the varied streams of Judaism, other than to say “I understand the Torah as God gave it on Mount Sinai, to be the truth, in its full sense and without adaptations. [It took traveling to many continents and having even more experiences, but I have finally found my true purpose]….
[Burd says that the 40 days from Aug 6th (Rosh Chodesh Elul) through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are arguably the most [powerful 40 days of the year for prayer]. To sign up, visit: www.westernwallprayers.org.
(originally printed in the Toronto Star)
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