Monday, May 30, 2005

Explorations in Communal Prayer

Nearly every Shabbat morning that we’ve been in Jerusalem, we’ve spent our morning with a terrific community, Kehilat Kedem. Kedem is the only fully egalitarian minyan (prayer group) in the section of Jerusalem in which we live; it was founded four years ago, when I first arrived in Jerusalem, to fill that need. Fully-egalitarian prayer is not exactly all the rage in Jerusalem (as opposed to semi-egalitarian prayer, which is the rage, since it’s very much on the cutting edge of Orthodoxy) and so the minyan remains small, but it has certainly attracted a solid core of Israelis in addition to a large number of students like us who are here for one or two years and are studying at Schechter, the Conservative Yeshiva, the Pardes Institute, or the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. It’s been a wonderful home for us this year.

On Friday nights, we often don’t make it to shul (synagogue), although this semester we’ve been regulars at the Idan Ha-Zahav nursing home, where we go and do some singing for/with the residents there. Katy went a number of times last semester, and this semester we made this our fixed volunteer project – bringing in Shabbat with songs and visiting with the nursing home residents.

When we do make it to shul, we’ve made some effort to experience some of the diversity of synagogues here. Some of these have been less successful.

1) We went to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue one Friday night, to get a taste of what a giant synagogue with a full choir and a world-famous cantor would be like. We were not so impressed with the prayer experience; it felt a little more like a barbershop-quartet concert (although it was more of a septet, I believe).

2) In Tsefat, we went to the Ashkenazi Ari synagogue – a synagogue founded on the hillside spot where Isaac Luria (the Ari) and his disciples allegedly began the custom of welcoming in Shabbat with the series of psalms that Jewish communities all over the world use today. Our experience there was also not particularly impressive; it even featured a full-blown argument about who should lead the service. (Our Saturday morning experience, at the Conservative synagogue in Tsefat, was a much more satisfying experience, even though they didn’t get the quorum of people required for public prayer).

3) At a Reform synagogue not far from our house, we were treated to a recorder concert as part of the evening – like the Great Synagogue experience, it was aesthetically nice, I suppose, but not exactly our favorite mode of prayer.
We’ve also balanced these out, though, with a number of more positive Friday night experiences:

1) As we wrote about earlier in the year, the Italian Synagogue is an incredibly interesting place with really spirited and powerful prayer.

2) We’ve been to Shira Hadasha, a liberal Orthodox minyan right next door to Kedem, on a few occasions. It’s one of the few Orthodox congregations in the world that has taken a number of steps to allow women a high level of ritual leadership. Being there gives me a lot of hope for the rise of feminism in the Orthodox world. It’s also a place that does a particular good job of using song as a means of devotion rather than simply for the sake of aesthetics. And it's very crowded. As I mentioned above, places that are on the cutting-edge of Orthodoxy tend to generate a lot of excitement in the wider community, and attract a fair number of people who ideologically fit in well in the Conservative movement and whom I would love to see at a place like Kedem.

3) This past Friday night, we went to one of the Sephardic synagogues in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Yochanan Ben Zakkai synagogue, which was built by Jews exiled from Spain in 1492. It was a prayer experience with a lot of spirit, beautiful Sephardic melodies, and a really nice interplay between the prayer leader and congregation. The Song of Songs was chanted outloud in call-and-response format to a really nice melody, giving an extremely beautiful form to one of the most important texts for welcoming in Shabbat.