Transforming Tefillah

BONNIE RIVA RAS describes how congregations offer new ways to experience Shabbat

by Bonnie Riva Ras

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One size doesn’t always fit all, particularly when you are talking about people’s spiritual needs. The traditional Conservative prayer service doesn’t always work for everyone.

Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, California, is a kehilla that is looking for creative ways to experience tefillah in a new way. “We are experimenting with multiple minyanim,” Rabbi David Booth, one of the three rabbis at Kol Emeth, said. Choices for its Saturday morning program, which is called Kol Shabbat, include a study group using the Mitzvah Initiative curriculum from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a coffee and schmoozing room for parents of children in a Shabbat school program, and a new Hebrew class that is a gateway into the service. The programs are of varying lengths; when they are over participants often go into the sanctuary and join the service there. A community Shabbat lunch follows services every week.

When Kol Shabbat is in session, it generally draws about 200 adults and 100 children from its 613 family members. “Shabbat attendance has gone up,” Booth said. “We are appealing to parents who want to be in the synagogue but may not want to come into the main sanctuary. We want families to be here together for a whole Shabbat experience.”

Around 2005, Shabbat synagogue attendance was declining at Temple Emunah, a 535-member kehilla in Lexington, Massachusetts, so a committee was formed to grapple with ways to turn it around. The next year, the committee decided to adopt the Synaplex model for Shabbat because “people experience Shabbat and tefillah in different ways,” Rabbi David Lerner said. Lerner is the head rabbi of Temple Emunah.

Synaplex, which ran from 2003 to 2010, was part of STAR (Synagogues, Transformation and Renewal). “The model allowed congregations to rethink the way they did Shabbat and to find multiple entry ways into the synagogue,” its founder, Rabbi Hayim Herring, said. “The model gave congregations a way to invite people into the synagogue to be part of a Shabbat community.”

Participating kehillot made their own choices and found the things that worked best for them. About 90 Conservative kehillot took part in Synaplex officially but many more have adopted a similar style of multiple minyanim. The program is over but the number of kehillot using its framework is growing.

Temple Emunah began a more-or-less monthly program called Choose Your Own Shabbat Adventure, which begins with breakfast and then offers several options, including meditation, yoga, or a traditional Pesukei D’Zimra. It began in 2006 and still is going strong today. The Torah service selections include a traditional Torah reading, text study, and bibliodrama. There are up to 20 different options but the congregation always ends up together as one community. Shabbat morning attendance went up from 100 people to around 450 on those special Shabbatot.

Friday evenings are just as innovative. “We wanted to bring in people who celebrate Shabbat in different ways and combine it with something social,” Lerner said. This includes three summer Friday evenings, when the proceedings begin with a barbeque, outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat with musical instruments, candle lighting, Maariv (held outdoors whenever possible), and a community Shabbat dinner, ending with traditional singing. Scattered throughout the year there are also creative Minchah, Maariv, and Havdalah services that end with social events.

Some kehillot hold multiple minyanim every week. Shirat HaYam of the North Shore in Swampscott, Massachusetts, is one of them. It offers roughly 10 different options for adults on Shabbat morning, beginning with breakfast and including alternative tefillot with Rabbi Baruch HaLevi in the chapel and a traditional Shacharit led by the cantors in the sanctuary. There is also Limmud School (sort of a hybrid Synaplex/Hebrew school) for children on Shabbat mornings. And there is a Shabbat café where people can nosh and schmooze. The minyanim join in the sanctuary for a healing service and a d’var Torah, text study, or bibliodrama, and the children come into the sanctuary for a spirited and musical ruach rally. Then there is Shabbat kiddush lunch for the community. “My philosophy is that there is no one way to speak to God,” HaLevi said. He estimates that around 250 to 300 people attend. This is up from around 40 on a pre-Synaplex Shabbat.

Smaller kehillot can create innovative worship experiences too. “We have different themes during the year to provide different types of tefillah experiences in the main service on either Friday or Saturday,” Rabbi Daniel Schweber said. He is rabbi of Shaare Tikvah, a 175-family kehillah in Scarsdale, New York. “The congregation offers early morning yoga or a slower, more musical Pesukei D’Zimra, aptly called Stop and Smell the Psalms,” he said. On some Shabbat mornings the service will focus on Torah, and bibliodrama is added after the main service. Creative Shabbat services are held once a month.

A few times a year, Shaare Tikvah holds a themed Friday evening service that includes a dinner. During daylight savings time, when Shabbat starts late, the kehilla holds a musical service with instruments. Service attendance goes up on the Fridays when there is a special service and dinner.

Themed services do not have to be limited to Shabbat. The leaders of daily minyanim also use innovative planning to attract more participants. “Temple Emunah is the only shul in the area that still holds a daily minyan, and we are always looking for new ideas to strengthen them,” Lerner said. Last year, two minyan leaders, past president Fred Ezekiel and Cathy McDonald, came up with a friends and peers model.

In that model, groups of people who work together, are alumni of the same university, or share interests or background in some other way, are invited to the Minchah/Maariv minyan, which also includes a food and schmooze element. Themed minyanim are held on evenings when it can be difficult to gather a quorum. Themes have included MIT alumni, CUNY alumni, the men’s club softball team, cycling enthusiasts, and Israel advocates. The list keeps growing.

Each month, the synagogue bulletin carries an article about the minyan. People who are 10 for 10 – who attend ten minyanim – are recognized in the bulletin. “The minyan isn’t full but the themed minyans have helped,” Lerner said. “This model can be used by other communities to build and strengthen minyanim.”