Can we pray?
Do we need to believe in God in order to pray?
What is prayer?
Do we have to go to services to be a good Jew?
Oh, the confusion! Where to begin?
In the earliest times of Jewish history, prayer was a spontaneous cry of the heart in anguish. Our ancestors and ancestresses got extra points for asking a real question, something which was truly "in the moment" for them. We are told that, at one point, God heard the prayer of Ishmael because he cried out "right from where he was." Often, when God or angels (let's translate angels as energetic messages) respond to a seeking human, the response is usually a question: What do you see? What are you looking for? What part of this is about you? Why are you trying to put this into words? So, one aspect of free-form prayer is to help us clarify where we are stuck or hurting, and what may lie at the root of the presenting issue.
A prayer can be a time of quieting - tuning in to oneself, wondering what we really need and opening to whatever that is that we really do need.
In biblical times, another form of prayer was gifting back the bounty of God. Our very first fruits and best livestock were offered, shared back, as it were, made into a sacrifice of "pleasing odor-" the odor of gratitude.
A prayer can be a moment of appreciation that leads to an impulse of generosity.
Our national forms of prayer - even in biblical times - served the purpose of binding a disparate nation and keeping "holiness," at the center. The biblical temple (and so now, the synagogue) was intended to be a miniature, portable Mt Sinai, that could come with the people. Indeed a diverse group of people in any time and place is held together and is more constructive and less divisive, if a sense of higher purpose is at the center of their efforts. The liturgy and rituals of the biblical temple have evolved over the ages. Many aspects of Jewish life at our temple, Temple Israel, serve this goal of "holiness at the center," including education, our many social justice efforts - and even our efforts to treat each other kindly and fairly.
Now, what most of us think of as "praying" is reciting together (or alone) the words in the siddur/prayer book. The words in the prayer book are awesome. The ideas and the values are truly elevating; and some of the ideas and values are problematic. (Asking God to crush the skulls of our enemies' infants or praying for animal sacrifices to be restored, as examples.) There is nothing wrong with you if you find it hard to relate to the language (i.e. Hebrew) or some of the ideas in the siddur.
However - and here is my main point - the discipline of daily turning the eyes inward and upward is an important and helpful practice for an evolving person, a seeker, an Israelite, all of us. Think of prayer (the Hebrew word is something like self-noticing or self-evaluating) as a regular practice of turning the attention inward and upward. Then, perhaps, we will have something to say, if God ever asks us the question He asked the first human being: Where are you? I hope that for some of you the answer will be -more and more often - "At temple, looking inward and upwards with my fellow seekers."