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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
Worship That Works

Worship That Works
By Rabbi Janet Marder
Reform Judaism, Spring 1997

What we can learn from four congregations that enjoy powerful, Jewishly authentic and fulfilling worship services.

Mishna: R. Eliezer said: One who makes prayer a fixed routine-that prayer is no plea.

Gemara: What is meant by "a fixed routine"? R. Jacob ben Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone who regards prayer as a heavy burden. The Sages say: Whoever does not infuse prayer with supplication. Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is unable to bring something fresh to it. R. Zera said: I can insert something fresh in it, but I am afraid to do so lest I become confused.

Talmud Berachot 29b

What makes prayer meaningful? What is essential to a powerful, Jewishly authentic, fulfilling worship experience? In the talmudic text above, we find four attempts at an answer. For R. Jacob ben Idi, the attitude one brings to prayer is crucial; for the Sages, it is the manner in which prayer is uttered; for Rabbah and R. Joseph, creativity and innovation are essential; R. Zera, however, is worried that excessive innovation will make him lose his concentration—a quality he deems essential to worship.

What makes prayer satisfying, it seems, is a highly subjective matter. Worship that stirs one heart leaves another indifferent; what congregant A finds exciting and uplifting strikes congregant B as shallow and overly "touchy-feely." A service that thrills congregant C puts congregant D to sleep and causes congregant E to complain that the worship is "cold, irrelevant, and uninspiring."

Add to this each worshiper's unique preferences regarding the blend of Hebrew and English, formality and informality, tradition and novelty, intellect and emotion, meditative contemplation and active participation- and it's a wonder that any congregation manages to unite in communal prayer.

But many do. A number of Reform congregational worship services around the country are particularly joyous, dynamic, and spiritually alive. Successful worship occurs in synagogues of all sizes and many demographic profiles. These congregations do not share a clergy "style" or a common prayerbook, but each has attracted a substantial, committed praying community that regularly attends services not for sermons or special programs but for "serious worship." They speak with passion about how praying with the community has enriched their lives. And when they gather for Shabbat worship, their enthusiasm, energy, and delight are palpable.

The Shabbat Morning Minyan Congregation Beth Israel, San Diego, California
Now in its sixth year, the Shabbat morning Minyan at Beth Israel was created as an alternative to the bar/bat mitzvah services held nearly every Shabbat in this large, 1250-family congregation. "There wasn't a big group of congregants clamoring for this alternative service," says Howard Hian, an active participant since the beginning. "In the early days, sometimes we had to count the Torah in our Minyan because fewer than ten people showed up. Today, the Minyan draws a congregation of forty-five to sixty "regulars" of all ages each Shabbat, and has become popular with out-of-town visitors.

One of the Minyan's distinctive features is the high degree of lay involvement. Originally, services were led exclusively by clergy; for a time, they were led and coordinated only by congregants; and today the Minyan has arrived at a satisfying balance: Rabbis Jonathan Stein and Dana Magat each lead the service once a month. On the remaining weeks one congregant leads the service, another reads Torah, and a third delivers the d'var Torah. Members sign up for the task that interests them and receive their assignments for a specific Shabbat from the rabbinic office.

Minyan members demonstrate a clear sense of ownership and responsibility for the service; they see themselves engaged in a creative partnership with their rabbis in which clergy and laity support one another. "Our rabbis regularly attend the Minyan, whether or not they're leading the service," says member Sydney Wexler. "When they do lead, they set a wonderful tone that is stimulating and very respectful of congregants." The rabbis are able to attend because the 9:00-10:30 morning Minyan precedes the bar/bat mitzvah service.

The Minyan style is relaxed and informal. Members often dress casually, sit in a semi-circle, and take turns reading the prayers aloud. Basic prayers are always read or chanted in Hebrew; others may be voiced in Hebrew or English according to the preference of the reader. The worshipers know the joyful, serene melodies, singing them with fervor.

Each of these elements, according to members, is essential to its success. "It's very important that we're able to face one another," says Wexler. "It means that the Minyan is not a theater. You can see people's eyes rather than the backs of their heads. Dressing casually helps people feel at home. And most important is the sense of participation. We all pray and sing together. Everyone's here to daven; no one is performing."

The Beth Israel Minyan has inspired congregational literacy. The service, which uses the Reform siddur Gates of Prayer, includes a significant amount of Hebrew. Rather than discouraging those who are unfamiliar with the language, the Minyan has led many to study Hebrew (Beth Israel offers classes at all levels) and/or to pursue adult bar/bat mitzvah. More than a dozen members are able to read Torah, and courses are offered every few years to increase the pool of potential readers.

More important still has been the experience of learning and teaching Torah within the Minyan. Rabbis Stein and Magat practice a form of interactive Torah study by engaging the congregation in dialogue rather than delivering a formal sermon. Members who deliver divrei Torah go to the library to research the weekly portion; following their d'var Torah, they are taught to ask open-ended questions that generate lively, stimulating congregational discussion in which divergent views are encouraged.

Warm social bonds have developed between Minyan participants, who meet four times a year for outdoor potluck lunches following the service. Its members have shared joyous life-cycle events; they have also come together to support one another in times of distress. Mindful of the danger of becoming a closed havurah, Minyan members consciously cultivate a welcoming atmosphere that draws in new people.

The Minyan's greatest success, perhaps, is its members' ongoing devotion to the unique worship community they have created. "I like the fact that the Minyan has always met every week," says Sydney Wexler. "It has a sense of constancy and stability. It doesn't adjourn for the summer or take breaks over Christmas and New Year. And people show up faithfully, no matter what."

Erev Shabbat Service Temple Isaiah, Lexington, Massachusetts
On a typical Friday night at Temple Isaiah, a remarkable praying community of some 200 people gathers for worship and song. Rabbi Cary Yales, who has served this 785-member congregation for twenty-five years, is part of the reason so many attend. Members acknowledge that he is a fine speaker and a gifted leader of services.

But those who attend are drawn by more than rabbinic charisma. Temple Isaiah is known for its sense of community—an amorphous concept, but one that Rabbi Yales has carefully cultivated over the years.

What are the elements that create community during worship? First, says Rabbi Yales, "we enjoy the privilege of flexible seating." Most Erev Shabbat services are conducted with chairs set in a horseshoe shape. There is no elevated congregants to offer personal prayers as well. Private reflections are aided by a full three minutes of silence, without musical distraction.

The closing segment of Temple Isaiah's Friday night service captures the sense of community spirit combined with personal involvement in prayer. Worshipers stand and join hands as they sing a melody that usually is meditative rather than rousing. "Sometimes our soloist sings Debbie Friedman's beautiful melody for the 'Birkat Kohanim' (Priestly Blessing)," says Rabbi Yales. "First she sings it to us, and then the congregation sings it, so we are blessing one another. It's a lovely and effective moment."

The Shabbat Morning Lift Jewish Community Center of White Plains, New York
Members of the Jewish Community Center of White Plains, a congregation of 850 households, are justifiably proud of their Shabbat Morning Lift—a unique workship experience that blends creative and traditional prayer, music, study, and fellowship. Created by Rabbi Shira Milgrom a decade ago, the Lift (so called because "it gives us a lift") has built slowly from the five or six worshipers who showed up at the first service to the 120 regulars who now attend.

"We began by using one particular service in Gates of Prayer," recalls Rabbi Milgrom. "There were some complaints about the lack of variety in the early weeks because people were used to rotating among different services, as we did on Friday nights. But my first goal was for people to know and own the service, to master the liturgy.

"Eventually, we began to introduce changes. We started with more English than Hebrew, but gradually the balance has shifted in the other direction. Over time, it became clear that Gates of Prayer wasn't meeting our needs. It was difficult to use for those who didn't know Hebrew. People often brought in creative readings they wanted to incorporate into the service. I knew it was time to create a new prayerbook.

"We brought thirty people together for the first prayerbook planning meeting, and spent the entire evening discussing how we'd translate 'asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav.' I realized at that point that this was not going to be a six-week cut and paste job."

A year and a half later, Rabbi Milgrom's group developed a siddur that its members cherish for its aesthetic qualities as well as its content. Borrowing the format of a traditional Haggadah, each page contains a body of liturgy in the center, with vertical commentaries on the sides.

The technique of combining liturgy, readings, and commentary on a single page allows each worshiper the freedom to be engaged in communal worship or to pursue private study and meditation. "It doesn't bother me if all the congregants aren't doing the same thing at the same time," Rabbi Milgrom comments. "If you're not into that particular prayer, there are many other options on the page."

The Lift's worship style is highly participatory and has an intimate feel. Congregants feel free to request a particular prayer or to jump in with a comment or question between prayers. Rabbi Milgrom plays guitar are usually leads the service, but, she says, "very little is really 'led.' We do everything together. I love the fact that I can sing my heart out and not even hear my own voice." Any worshiper may come up for a group aliyah when the Torah is read, and the entire congregation chants the Haftarah blessings together.

The format of the Lift places special emphasis on study and personal connections. The morning begins at 9:00 am with a half-hour Oneg Shabbat. "This is not a trivial thing," Rabbi Milgrom comments. "The food is delicious, and people enjoy being together. By the time we're ready to start, we're already a community."

There follows a one-hour Torah study session which does not focus on the weekly portion, but on a line-by-line reading and discussion of the entire Torah. "It took us nine years to read through the five books," comments Mark Hershey, the temple president and an active Lift participant. "And then we all decided we wanted to begin again with Genesis."

The Torah session brings together congregants of all levels of Jewish background and education for vigorous and provocative study. "Everyone offers a different perspective, and all questions are encouraged—even irreverent and challenging ones," comments Rabbi Milgrom. "Each participant is both giver and receiver, including me."

Following the study session there is another break for coffee and conversation, and the service, from 11:00-12:30, concludes the morning. The service features brief comments on the weekly portion by the Torah reader, rather than a sermon or extended discussion of the portion.

Two years ago a parallel program known as Torah Rap started for young people. The youngsters join the adults for the Oneg, then separate for a ninety-minute discussion (led by a rabbinic student) of how the Torah portion relates to their personal lives; they rejoin the adults for the worship service. A voluntary program, Torah Rap draws approximately fifteen young people each week, most of them in the 12-14 age group with some as young as 7 or 8.

Rabbi Milgrom notes with pleasure that the Lift has given rise to a community of people who genuinely care for one another. "If you don't attend for a couple of weeks, people call," she says. Members of the Lift provided the nucleus for the synagogue's People to People program, in which congregants reach out to those in need, especially mourners, providing shiva meals and leading shiva services.

She also points out that the discipline of a regular weekly service has helped participants "learn a sense of obligation" that has spilled over into other areas. "Our food collection basket is overflowing after every Shabbat morning service," she says. "And many participants in the Lift have moved into congregational leadership out of that same sense of obligation.

Rabbi Milgrom offers encouragement to those interested in starting such a service in their own congregation. "The Lift took a long time to build substantial attendance," she says. "For years we had 25 to 30 people. But the numbers have never mattered to me. Every person counts. And when it's really good, it will have a powerful impact on those who are there."

Congregation Shir Tikvah Troy, Michigan
When Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg came to Shir Tikvah nine years ago, he was the congregation's first ordained rabbi. "They were a friendly group. Services were lay-led and highly participatory," he says. "I didn't want to do anything to lessen lay involvement in worship." Shir Tikvah has grown to 240 households, but services continue to convey the message that "worship is not a spectator sport."

Services have a traditional feel in this congregation, with much of the liturgical chanting in Hebrew. To maximize participation, the ritual committee, together with the rabbi, created a siddur that includes transliteration of all prayers. The prayerbook also features readings from "at least 100" sources, including original writings of congregants.

Rabbi Sleutelberg has developed especially creative ways of ensuring strong congregational singing. All music is a capella, as the rabbi believes that instrumental accompaniment often "takes away the incentive to sing." There is a temple choir, but its role is oriented toward teaching rather than performance. Choir members learn the music first, then sit dispersed throughout the congregation during services, thus helping others to sing. In addition, all new members of Shir Tikvah receive a cassette tape containing the congregational prayers and melodies.

Rabbi Sleutelberg, who says that he frequently closes his eyes and "gets lost in prayer" during a service, seems to inspire others to enter into worship as well. "Just watching the rabbi has helped me learn how to open up to the prayer experience," says member Richard Sweet. Says another congregant: "For me, a lot depends on how the prayer leader chants or reads the words of the siddur. If he does it in a perfunctory manner, it's a turnoff. If he does it with warmth, with intensity, with kavannah (concentration), it motivates me to participate."

No matter how meaningful the service, adds Sweet, it will fail if there's no friendly outreach to those who attend. Thus, he treasures the welcoming atmosphere at Shir Tikvah. "At my former congregation, there were times when my wife and I would go to services and no one would say anything to us. So now, even though I tend to be a little shy, I've taught myself to go up to anyone I don't recognize, say hello and introduce myself."

At Shir Tikvah "we do a lot of hugging and kissing," says Sweet. "People come to services dressed casually. We provide babysitting, and kids come in and out of the room freely. When it's time for the Torah reading, the rabbi invites the children to come up first. They hold the breastplate, binder, and mantle. Then the adults come up and stand in a circle around the children. There's a wonderful feeling of family here."

When congregants see their clergy and fellow Jews bringing a loving intensity, creativity, and a reverence for tradition to prayer, it becomes an exhilarating experience. Says Howard Hian of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego: "The Minyan makes me feel connected to generations going back before my grandparents—all the way back to biblical times. I find it tremendously uplifting. Obviously, it doesn't happen every Shabbat. But you've got to play the course for the lightning to strike. You've got to be there every week. Every once in a while you just hit the groove, and you know it."

What Works

All of these successful
worship services have several important
elements in common:

They use space creatively
and pay attention to the physical
setting of worship


They devote significant time
to interactive study and discussion


They foster a sense
of warmth and community


They meet regularly
and do not break for the summer
or for holidays


Worshipers are active participants
rather than passive spectators


Congregational singing
is cultivated and cherished


The service leaders see themselves
as facilitators and teachers
rather than performers

Rabbi Janet R. Marder is regional director of the UAHC Pacific Southwest Council in Los Angeles, CA.

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