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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

FAQs: Congregational Worship

Q: We don't have a clue how to begin. How do we get started?

A: The first thing you need to do is familiarize yourself with the wealth of worship transformation materials that have been created by and are available from the Union for Reform Judaism. Much of this information can be viewed on this website. Some of the resources can be downloaded. Others are available from the URJ Press or can be obtained from the Department of Worship, Music and Religious Living.

Q: Our congregation likes tradition and doesn't take to change easily. How do we handle that?

A: Most living things—people and institutions—react to change warily. This is especially true for synagogue life, wherein people connect emotionally to their past—their parents, grandparents, childhood memories—through associations with particular prayers and melodies. Worship change needs to be organic, and that entails a slow, deliberate evolution with a great deal of attention paid to each congregation's particular history, culture, norms, demographics, and expectations.

Q: What's the proper role of the Board of Trustees in worship change?

A: As is written in Iv'du B'simchah: Worship with Joy, "Providing for and sustaining communal prayer or worship is at the core of every congregation's responsibilities to its members. Therefore, each congregational Board of Trustees must recognize its leadership role in this sacred task." Boards need to take an active, ongoing interest in insuring the quality of congregational worship. The firm support of the Board of Trustees is critical to the success of any worship-transformation efforts.

Q: OK, I understand why the Board of Trustees' involvement is important. But how do we get it?

A: Iv'du B'simchah: Worship with Joy, a compilation of many Worship Initiative programs, has a segment titled " Engaging Worship: Two Study Sessions for Congregational Boards ." The sessions of this segment should be step one, your starting point. The first session is devoted to "Why Worship Matters," and the second focuses on "Getting Unstuck." You should allot a major portion of two Board of Trustees meetings to defining your synagogue's worship agenda, using the material in these two study sessions.

Q: Isn't worship really just up to the rabbi and cantor?

A: Certainly the rabbi and cantor have a particular expertise in the area of Jewish liturgy. However, a collaborative model is best suited to the innovation, creativity, and experimentation many congregations are experiencing in their worship. In 1999, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, called for "a worship revolution built upon the premise of partnership: Rabbis will be its architects, cantors its artists, and laypeople its builders." We are a Movement built on a democratic model and rooted in partnership, with significant roles for all concerned parties.

Q: I am leading our congregational choir and looking to expand our musical repertoire and the participation of our members. How can I breathe new life into what we do?

A: Start by reading "Synagogue Choirs as Instruments of Prayer: Their Importance, Organization and Techniques," a comprehensive article by master composer Ben Steinberg. New music can be obtained from Transcontinental Music Publications (TMP), the world's leading publisher of Jewish music. Explore TMP's Web site at, or e-mail or call TMP at, 800.455.5223, or 212.650.4101.

Q: I'm a soloist in a small, rural congregation that has limited resources. Does the Union have any materials that could help us?

A: Check out Bo'u L'fanav Bir'nanah: Come Into God's Presence with Singing—Worship Music Guidelines for Small Congregations , or phone the department at 212.650.4193 and request a copy. Also consider attending one of the Workshops for Synagogue Musicians.

Q: I'm a rabbi with a Ritual Committee that needs a major overhaul. We're looking for new blood and a fresh perspective and vision. How do we get started?

A: In Iv'du B'simchah: Worship with Joy, look at the segment "Guidelines for Worship/Ritual Committees" to learn how to create a well-functioning venue for a clergy-congregants partnership.

Q: As the president of my congregation, I want to find out how our members feel about our worship services and what they'd like to see changed. Should we send out a survey?

A: No! Focus groups, in which congregants discuss worship matters, are likely to yield deeper and more comprehensive information regarding members' thoughts and feelings about worship than a survey will. For help in planning and running a focus group on worship matters, see the publication Panim el Panim: Face to Face—A Guide for Congregational Conversations about Worship .

Q: Because few of our members ever get to a national or regional biennial convention, our congregants rarely see other ways of "doing" worship. Just reading about new models isn't so helpful. Do you have any ideas?

A: Consider the sixteen-minute video Worship with Joy: Visions of Prayer, which presents a variety of musical, liturgical and leadership styles used during the regular Erev Shabbat services at three of our Movement's well-established congregations. The video comes with a study guide, making it an excellent resource for actually seeing and then discussing different models of worship.This video is available by request from the Department of Worship, Music, and Religious Living.

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