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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776
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Lay-Led and Non-Clergy Officiating

  1. I am a layperson, soloist, and president of our small (forty family) congregation. I recently "officiated" at a member's funeral. The feedback I received had so very much to do with being able to eulogize the person from a place of knowing her and her family. Had we hired a rabbi outside our community that feeling might not have been quite so intimate. I hope that more lay people (and you know which ones you are) will take the step and lead services and life cycle events when clergy are not available. I am planning to enroll in the HUC/URJ Synagogue Associate program which will help me with my skills.

    40 families

  2. Since we are a small congregation in an isolated area with a monthly visit from our student rabbi, we more often than not have lay leaders "officiating" at funerals as well as at b'nei mitzvah services. Ordination is required for weddings and conversions, but many life cycle events can be, and have historically been, led by regular members of the community. Perhaps it is not usually done in congregations with full-time rabbis, but there are many things that can be done without clergy.

    28 families

  3. I want to encourage everyone to consider attending or encourage someone else in your congregation to attend the SK/SA program that is jointly sponsored by the Union and HUC JIR. [ED. NOTE: The program is now the Had'rachah Seminar,]

    In addition to learning skills that can enhance your abilities as a lay leader--you get to study with some of the best teachers and professionals in Reform Judaism and develop incredible friendships with other participants in the program.


  4. I've led a number of funerals, both Jewish and not. Usually they didn't have a rabbi in the town, but in other cases--those of non-Jewish friends and patients--they had no connection to the faith communities of their childhoods.


  5. As chair of our Cemetery Committee/Chevra Kadisha, I routinely officiate at perhaps about six funerals a year. Although our policy is that the rabbi has "the first right of refusal," there are times when our sole rabbi is just not available, or when priorities for members leaves the unaffiliated without the rabbi available for officiating at the preferred time. When I am not available, I have about three other lay leaders who are excellent at officiating, too. Ordination is not required, and we work hard at performing this mitzvah.

    Our Cemeteries Fee Schedule has a fee for officiating at a funeral of a non-member. When it is the rabbi officiating for a non-member, the fee goes to the Rabbi's Discretionary Fund. When it is a lay leader officiating, the fee is split between the Cemetery Fund and the Rabbi's Discretionary Fund. Our last set of fees used to show the lay leader fee as half that of the Rabbi. However, our new rabbi remarked that the lay leaders were "selling ourselves short" this way, as we work every bit as hard as he does on these services, so we adjusted the fee to parity, and relish in the compliment from him.

    About 360 happy family units

  6. In a situation where you have twenty-eight families, and the services of a student rabbi monthly, or other clergy at intermittent times, then you have no choice but to rely on congregants. However, in areas where there are sizeable congregations, if "many things that can be done without clergy" were the norm, then Reform Judaism could have a quick one year course in officiating at weddings as an officer of the State and working with Jews by Choice, and our "rabbis" could ride the circuit, and in between jobs could work in other fields.

    Since I am fortunate to be in a congregation that can afford a rabbi, I think that congregants and para-rabbis should take a back seat. I would not be happy if I were a parent and a congregant para-rabbi were to replace the rabbi at the b'nei mitzvah service for a child of mine. I suspect that my family would be unhappy, to say the least, if the rabbi were on vacation, and the Temple did not see fit to secure the services of another rabbi to conduct my funeral. There has to be a reason why Reform Judaism has seen fit to have clergy schools, and why the process of being invested as a clergyperson is so precise and so lengthy. If ordained clergy and para-rabbis were interchangeable, there would be no need for ordained clergy. I consider myself fortunate to be in a congregation that can afford a rabbi.


  7. While it is great to have trained rabbis, one of the things I have always valued about Judaism is that it does not view rabbis as intermediaries in one's relationship to God, or as being somehow superior to "ordinary" congregants and human beings in general, the way Christianity does.

    And I think it is very much a problem with large congregations that so much gets done by professionals, and that the congregants, as a result, tend to be less knowledgeable and less engaged. Services and life cycle events become performances, and the congregants become the audience that sits back and applauds (or criticizes).

    The thought that anyone would consider a service conducted by someone who has not been to rabbinic school somehow "less valuable" than one conducted by a rabbi saddens me greatly. While many rabbis are extraordinary and very spiritual individuals (and I do not wish to take away from that), in the final analysis a rabbi is a professional who gets paid to do services much in the way that a lawyer or an accountant does.

    Your fellow non-ordained congregant may be volunteering her or his time and may have made many personal sacrifices to learn what is required. Often the ruach in these volunteers is something very special, and something everyone should feel privileged to feel.

    Yasher koach to all who (whether by choice or from necessity) show their commitment to Judaism and their love for their fellow congregants by assisting with or leading services.


  8. I truly understand the position of the small congregations who must depend upon educated lay leadership to conduct life cycle events where legal and possible as well as conducting services and trying to hold their congregations together. Thank goodness for those people. My congregation was in that situation for many years, and we did well and grew until we were able to hire a rabbi, first part time and now full time. Our rabbi is terrific. I love his classes. I admire his vast store of knowledge about all aspects of Judaism. I love the way he leads services and life cycle events. He is also a good counselor. I am, however, glad that he encourages the active lay members to learn as much as possible and to participate and lead services when he is away or, on certain occasions, when he is there. We are in no way able to replace him and would not want to, but many of us want to be as competent as possible as Jews, which includes reading Hebrew, chanting Torah, leading adult ed classes on a variety of topics, etc.

    169 families

  9. Some of the recent iWorship posts reminded me of a bar mitzvah (the congregation's first) that I attended a number of years ago in a relatively new, rural congregation in northern New England. Held in the family's living room, the simchah quickly became standing room only as congregants and family members crowded around to celebrate what was a wonderful, meaningful milestone for the young man and his family, as well as for the congregation, which, at the time, was without even an itinerant rabbi. For a variety of reasons, it is not always possible for congregations to employ clergy, and I concur wholeheartedly with Ilse and others about the valuable role that dedicated lay leaders play in such communities.


  10. Jan 2006 Digest 015

                At [our congregation] we have a long tradition of Shabbat morning and Shabbat Evening lay-led services. We have only one rabbi, no cantor or other clergy. It's become something that we do when our rabbi is away. Further more, for eight weeks during the summer, the rabbi doesn't conduct morning services at all. The Ritual Committee is responsible to ensure service leadership.

                Those of us who conduct services are comfortable and able. The congregation is receptive and gracious. Several years ago the rabbi and Ritual Committee held a "service learning series": Exploring liturgy and music, service structure, etc. It was a supportive learning experience not only for the committee but for possible service leaders. We use Gates of Prayer (blue or grey) for familiarity and continuity.

                On Shabbat morning, lay leaders are not always comfortable taking the Torah out. In that case, he/she or someone else, reads from the Plaut. It's really fine.

                Lay-led services have potential of being intimate, spiritual, different, participatory--whatever you make of them. Lay leaders develop their own style, have musical preferences, and great enthusiasm.

                I say, if you have a group that's interested and a place to worship in, go for it. Surely there are some folks who will be comfortable leading a service. If not, have a series of study sessions in preparation for this undertaking. Open them to everyone (Life Long Learning); you'll be amazed at the thirst out there.

                Being so used to this, I can't see any pitfalls. Remember though, change is never easy or simple. Yet, it makes the world wonderful.

    (450 families)

  11. Jan 2006 Digest 015

                …the Union has a program with HUC and CCAR to help train interested lay leaders. The program is called Sh'liach K'hilah/Synagogue Associate [Ed. Note: It is now the Had'rachah Seminar,]. Our congregation has three SK/SAs, and we have all been needed in our mid-sized congregation. This summer our rabbi went on Sabbatical and the three of us were left to provide all the services that our congregation needed. While the other two associates were up for their training, I led a baby naming and a funeral all in one week. Without the training and support from this program, I know I wouldn't have been able to get through the five funerals, two b'nei mitzvah and baby namings that I lead while our rabbi was gone. This program is a wonderful way to get the help and support for those who would like to take a leadership role in providing help to our synagogues.


  12. Jan 2006 Digest 015

                At our shul (1150 families), we have a weekly Shabbos morning minyan that is almost exclusively lay led (one of our two rabbis may lead the minyan every once in a while, but not on a regular basis). Torah reading is also done by the laity. …there have been two occasions on which one of the rabbis has been asked to read Torah in the absence of a lay Ba'al Koreh/Korah (Torah reader). Our liturgy is still developing, but it is essentially taken from Gates of Prayer/Gates of Gray.

                We have a growing cadre of about a half dozen people to service as Sha'tz, or service leader. Our group of Torah readers is a bit larger, with three or four regulars who are augmented by others who read on a less frequent, or one-time, basis (anniversary of bar/bat mitzvah, parent/spouse yahrtzeit, etc.). We are fortunate to have several Ba'al Korim who can step in a read with little (few day's) notice.

                We also have several people who serve as Gabbai on a rotating basis to help the Torah service along, to help the Ba'al Koreh/Korah feel more at ease, and to help those called to the Torah for aliyot feel more comfortable.

                As one of the coordinators of the minyan, I can tell you that while I dearly love reading Torah on a regular basis, the greatest joy I personally receive is when I witness congregants read from Torah, especially who have never done so, who haven't done so since their bar/bat mitzvah, or those who just have never thought that they could or should read the words of Torah from the Sefer Torah!

                Our Friday night services are led by the rabbinic staff, as is the later Shabbos morning service, which is the bar/bat mitzvah service.  But our little minyan draws thirty to fifty people on a regular basis, is growing, and fills a need for those of us in our congregation that want a Shabbos morning worship experience that isn't the bar/bat mitzvah extravaganza. One of our minyan mantras is "This isn't the Metropolitan Opera--it's not a performance, it's just us Jews coming together to celebrate Shabbos." It's relaxed and comfortable, although in our shul, the minyan tends to be a bit more “traditional” than the other services.

                One of the pleasures of the minyan is that with different people leading the minyan, we get to enjoy differences in the Nusach with each Sha'tz. With a common liturgy as our binding thread, it is very enjoyable to hear variations in melodies and options within the liturgy, and we all learn a bit each time. Also, our group very much enjoys the d'var Torah and haftarah d’rash offered by our lay readers each week. Sometimes, when a lay reader doesn't feel comfortable offering a d'var Torah, another member will offer up a short d’rash on the parashah.

                We meet in our chapel, and arrange the seating with semi-circular rows along each side with the Aron HaKodesh at one end. At the beginning of the Torah service (after the hakafah passes by), we move the Torah table into the middle of the opposing semi-circular rows of seating, so that the Torah, the Ba'al Koreh/Korah, and the Olim (Torah blessers) are surrounded by the minyan.  If the Ba'al Koreh/Korah is comfortable doing so, we invite the attendees to come to the Torah table so that they can see the words of the Sefer Torah, and to reduce the feeling of "performer and audience." We really strive to create a hamishce feeling for our daveners in the Shabbos morning minyan.

                So, with all that said, here are my simple suggestions for helping ensuring starting success:

    1.  Start with a simple liturgy that is well-suited to the group you anticipate will attend.

    2.  Have your rabbi, cantor, or a knowledgeable congregant go through the liturgy with your lay leaders, laying out "game plans" with options for your liturgy. (Every few months we hold a minyan workshop for leaders and those who just want to learn more about the liturgy.)

    3.  Recruit some gabbaim to help with the Torah service and its liturgy--separate from the Sha'tz, so the Sha'tz doesn't feel overwhelmed.

    4.  If you don't have a ready crew (or a few individuals) to read Torah, consider inviting young people on the first anniversary of their bar/bat mitzvah to read their parashah. If you get stuck for Torah readers, and really want to read from the Sefer Torah, some options (community and shul politics, protocols, and policies may vary) include inviting a member of your synagogue's rabbinic staff to read, inviting a community rabbi or cantor to read, inviting rabbinic interns, bat/bar mitzvah tutors, etc. (Our experience is that when offered the opportunity, people who we had no idea would or could read Torah came forth to do so!)

    5.  Make it relaxed and easy going, and remind your members that we are all empowered to represent our community--sh’liach tzibur--as leaders of prayer and to read the words of Torah from the Sefer Torah.

                Remember the mantra:  it's not the Met--it's just us Jews coming together to celebrate Shabbos. A few missteps along the way are more than offset by the environment we create when we come together to pray with kavanah!...

  13. Jan 2006 Digest 016

                We have been doing Ritual Committee Shabbat morning services on an occasional basis at [our congregation] for the past four years. In our current building, there is not enough space to run them currently with the bar/bat mitzvah services, so we only do them when there isn't one. Since we do a full Torah service with both Torah and haftarah chanting, and since most of us have to take a bit of time learning the respective chanting portions, we only hold services two or three times a year. We absolutely love doing them!

                We use the morning service in the “Gates of Gray," and we have many participants (sometimes there are more of us in the service than in the sanctuary…We always include a d'var Torah which one of our committee members volunteers to prepare. Upon occasion, another committee member serves as our chazan. I am also a bar/bat mitzvah tutor so I sometimes invite one of my current students to chant the V'ahavta and do some readings so that he/she gets some extra time in front of the congregation. The only drawback is that it takes us a lot of time to pull everything together since it is such a "structured" service.

  14. Apr 2006 Digest 072

                A small group from our Torah Study group (20-35) taught themselves the morning service, and they create a beautiful service; certainly one that ranks with the standard Friday evening Shabbat service in our sanctuary. The lay-led service is performed immediately after the Torah study in the library when there is not a bar/bat mitzvah service in the sanctuary. The other day a woman came to the library for Kaddish, and we did not have a minyan. This concerns us a great deal. We believe we should provide a Kaddish/memorial prayer service for the community. So we are working on this issue.

                In my opinion, the problem of a poor turn out for the Shabbat morning service is symptomatic of a poor turn out for religious services in general.


    500+ families
  15. Apr 2006 Digest 073

                We have had every-week B’nei Mitzvah for several years.

                We had a lay-led service for several years. It began as a "teaching ourselves" opportunity, and the rabbi helped set it up. We divided it into four parts: leader, singer, Torah reader and d’rash-reader. Most of the time there were only three participants, and occasionally only two. We ranged through the Gates of Prayer and tried all sorts of creative uses of the various services, which made it both enjoyable and a bit unpredictable.

                The group began large, and dwindled over time. Part of it was because people learned the service (that was one of its purposes), but also because of other things in their lives. It was discontinued.

                More recently (the past three or four years) we have had a rabbi-led once-a-month "alternative" service, while the Bar/Bat Mitzvah runs in the chapel. It's pleasant, and we do get a regular crew in the seats, but it's usually about fifteen people. We don't use the Gates for it; we have used the interim Mishkan T’filah and also a book created by one of our rabbis. We've also had lots of musical variety, which makes it enjoyable for many people.

  16. Apr 2006 Digest 073

                Our temple has an active Torah Study group every Saturday am, with twenty to twenty-five people each week and growing. We have a short t’filah after the study session.

                …two points…:

                First, note the word "short" t’filah--the people that started this service agreed to keep it to thirty to thirty-five minutes, and in fact are not very open to creative things that might make the service last longer! I will say though that knowing that the length will be limited makes more people inclined to stay and daven.

                Second, I ask that all of you wanting to launch this kind of service be kind to yourselves. Note the various sizes of the congregations--the smaller congregation has more trouble getting this going, the largest congregations have a better chance, and the mid-size ones encounter the building of expectations of the service followed by not having a minyan when you need one. We had a visiting rabbi last year who introduced the concept of a Palestinian minyan, which is six adults rather than ten. This helps a lot when someone wants to say Kaddish.


    650 families
  17. Apr 2006 Digest 073

                …I attend because I feel the personal desire to be there, and because this is the only service that is done on Saturday morning. When we had t’filah as part of Torah Study I stayed for the main service because I felt it important that the congregation not permit this to become an "invitation only" service. I am becoming less sure of this. I come to daven for myself. I am aware that we need a critical core for the community to continue, and that brings me in when I would rather not. I would much rather not attend some other family's "spectacle" just to be sure there is a minyan of regulars present, that does me no good and merely aggravates me.

  18. May 2006 Digest 082

                We have an active, lay-led Torah study group that averages around thirty participants each week, and a well attended Junior Congregation that meets every other Shabbat morning. But our "regular" Shabbat morning services are poorly attended insofar as regular congregants are concerned, with no one reading, not even the responsive readings in English. As is the case at [some other congregations], very few of the participants in our Torah study group take the opportunity to wander down the hall to the Sanctuary.

                In recent years, this has led our congregation not even to offer a "regular" Shabbat morning service when there is no B'nei Mitzvah. We have recently decided, however, that this cannot be the answer, and so we are looking at ways to reinvigorate Shabbat mornings. I am drawing on the posts on here in the hope that we are not totally reinventing the wheel.

                We are starting with the non-B'nei Mitzvah Shabbatot, designing a "simple"

    service (including a Torah service and d'var but excluding a sermon) which will be often led by our rabbi, but occasionally lay-led. Participants will be offered readings and aliyot so that it becomes a truly shared worship experience, in a small group, with our rabbi. Indeed, that will be part of our "pitch" to the larger congregation. We will also offer a simple Kiddush after these services so that worshipers can spend more of their Shabbat with one another, and not worry about preparing lunch at home. Many of the members of the Torah study group (and a few other active members of the congregation) have expressed interest in such a service, but we are not going to rely on volunteers alone. I have asked my colleagues on our Ritual Committee to take turns serving as "Shammos-for-a-Week" (a bit like Queen for a Day perhaps) spreading the word and encouraging more attendance. Yes, everything old is new again.

  19. May 2006 Digest 083

                Our Shabbat Morning Minyan started over eleven years ago with a handful of people and has slowly increased until now we average 20+ adults every week. That doesn't seem like a lot in a very large congregation, but as the recent postings have pointed out, it's hard to get people to come or stay for services.

                Minyan has gone through some very difficult stretches, especially with negotiations over where and when it should be, but we now have a setup that really works for us [and includes]:


    • Torah study is 9:15-10:30 with a popular and interesting teacher who loves to stay for minyan and always leads the Torah service during minyan.
    • Both Torah study and minyan are held in our light, beautiful library, but in different areas; people feel free to leave after study, or to arrive a little early for minyan and join the end of Torah study. And both happen every single week, no matter what.
    • Minyan is almost always led by the same two knowledgeable lay people, so the style and quality are consistent.
    • We use "Gates of Gray" which is small and easy to handle, even for older people. The service is predictable--we always read certain prayers in English and sing or read others in Hebrew, although we try to introduce new melodies occasionally and to vary them a bit.
    • The intent is to be very participatory. There are fourteen laminated pages with (mostly English) highlighted paragraphs. At the start of the service, one of our regulars hands out these parts to anyone who is willing, including non-Jewish visitors. Each person reads from his/her seat in the semi-circle, including the leaders.
    • Whoever reads Torah on a particular week also gives a short d'var Torah first about those verses. At first there were only three readers, who carried a pretty heavy burden of reading every third week, but we have slowly encouraged several others to develop their Torah reading skills and get into the rotation.
    • People can volunteer for an aliyah (Torah blessings) or someone is invited to take that honor after everyone has arrived.
    • Those who can't, or don't want to, read Torah can sign up in advance to read haftarah in English, and can also give a short d’rash about that week's reading. The whole minyan sings the haftarah blessings together.
    • Community is very important to everyone in the group. When a regular is missing, we call. At the end of the service, the wine-and-challah Kiddush provides a forum for announcing family simchas and travel plans, for introducing newcomers and welcoming back old friends. We say a Mi Shebeirach for the sick during the Torah service, and at Kiddush we share news of our members who have been ill.
    • We love the children of our few young regulars, who are welcome to read or play in the adjacent children's library and to wander in to sit with a parent at any time during the service. They are invited to dress the Torah, and are heartily congratulated for their participation.
    • During the first few years, we had a dairy potluck lunch once a month at different people's homes, which was very popular and gave everyone a chance to get to know each other. However, after a while it felt like a burden and the group decided to stop. Now we have an anniversary lunch at the temple once a year, and lunches at people's homes for Sukkot and occasional other events.
    • Individual contributions are welcomed and admired. One member has a fabulous challah recipe and bakes for us every week, to great applause. A member-artist made sketches for three different designs for a Torah cover, the group voted overwhelmingly for one design, and we now have our own Torah cover made with velvet contributed by another member and embroidery by yet another. Appalled that we kept our Torah in a cabinet in the library office, one member commissioned a small ark. A visitor offered to adorn the cloth we use to cover the Torah-reading table. After we had too few prayer books for a happy occasion with lots of visitors (siddurim tend to "walk") a member donated dozens more.


    1800 family units
  20. Sept 2006 Digest 144

                [re use of the title “rabbi”]…Rabbi is a title that comes with ordination at a credible seminary. Although no one can stop the congregation from conferring the title (I don't think), you do your honoree no favor if you set him up for non-acceptance and non-recognition by those who will not consider him a peer.

                …I have been trying to find a translation for Sh’liach Tzibur that would convey a real sense, including to those who know no Hebrew, of what its carrier does for the congregation and community--and I haven't come up with anything yet any better than Worship Leader.

                Two more observations--One, the American Conference of Cantors has been working assiduously to have congregations reserve the title Cantor for those who have been invested--and not let Cantorial Soloists pretend to a title they have not earned. Second, as much respect as I have for our clergy, be reminded that nine rabbis do not constitute a minyan, but ten cobblers do.

                It's wonderful that your congregation has a dedicated and competent individual to do the things [your sh’liach tzibur] does, and it's even more wonderful that you want to show your appreciation. But I urge you to find another way to do so.

  21. Sept 2006 Digest 144

                …some congregations refer to someone in that role with the title of Spiritual Leader.

  22. Sept 2006 Digest 145

                What about calling [a congregation’s] wonderful lay leader "Melamed" or "M'lamed?" Like the title "rabbi," M'lamed also means "teacher"--but doesn't suggest the ordination and five years of post-graduate study that precede rabbinic ordination.


    501 Families

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