Shabbat Kehillah- Blending Ritual and Creativity

On Saturday, November 5th Oheb Shalom will introduce a new type of Shabbat morning service that reflects an effort to grow our Shabbat community by introducing innovations in Jewish worship, including the use of musical instruments, a deeper level of congregational participation, and an interactive Torah reading with expanded discussion of the weekly portion. “Shabbat Kehillah” (meaning Shabbat of Community) will happen seven times this year and will be the only service offered at Oheb Shalom on those mornings.

The success of Shabbat Kehillah will rely on a spirit of compromise prevailing at Oheb Shalom.  Most of the year, we offer a traditional service.  In recent years, our typical congregation of daveners has been smaller and somewhat older, and consisting of people who seem to prefer a traditional service.  Those who prefer our Shabbat morning service the way it is are being asked to consider that more Oheb Shalom members would likely attend a different type of service, and therefore to compromise on the nature of our service approximately once a month.  Our hope is that on Shabbat Kehillah mornings we will have a larger congregation, a result that would be a delight to everyone present.

Here are some FAQs on Shabbat Kehillah:

  • How long will the Shabbat Kehillah service be? Shabbat Kehillah will start at 9:45 AM and run until 12:00 PM, about 2 ¼ hours.  This is approximately the same length of our traditional service.  While arriving on time would enable you to experience the fullness of the service, coming at any point in the morning will be worthwhile.  Don’t forget to leave time for the congregational Kiddush after the service!
  • How is Shabbat Kehillah different from last year’s “Kehillah Minyan?” While the two are similar in style (use of guitar, singing, an interactive Torah discussion, a specially designed prayer book), unlike last year Shabbat Kehillah will be the only service that meets at Oheb Shalom on those mornings.
  • Can children attend Shabbat Kehillah? Yes!  In fact, Shabbat Kehillah is a wonderful opportunity for kids to come to shul with their parents and enjoy the morning together.
  • How will Shabbat Kehillah be “non-traditional?” We will recite a liturgy that is further edited from what is presented in our regular prayer book.  Also, while we read the Torah per the Triennial Cycle (reading a third of each weekly Torah portion each Shabbat and completing the reading of the entire Torah in three years), on Shabbat Kehillah mornings we may not read the assigned Triennial portion, instead reading verses that are more conducive to discussion.  And depending on content, we may not read the full Haftarah (selection from the prophets).
  • Shabbat Kehillah is a “non-traditonal” service. Are we still a Conservative synagogue if that’s how we worship?  Conservative Judaism, being a centrist movement, is a big tent under which many Jewish experiences can comfortably nest.  We are guided by Halakha (Jewish law), which is interpreted for each congregation by its rabbi.  We are free to experiment with Jewish worship practices and still consider ourselves Conservative.  In fact, the Jewish Theological Seminary has recently inaugurated the Block-Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts, headed by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach (who has taught at Oheb Shalom numerous times) and devoted to developing innovative ways to worship.  Reflecting on the work of the center, Chancellor Arnold Eisen said “Finding the spiritual place within ourselves blends ritual and creativity.” That is precisely what we will be doing here at Oheb Shalom—blending ritual with creativity.

Shabbat Kehillah will be an uplifting, invigorating and meaningful experience of Shabbat worship.  Join us on November 5th and add your voice and your spirit to that of other members who will blend together to discover the best of Jewish worship.

A Time to Learn with Project Zug

Among the most central and important experiences of in all of Jewish life is learning.  Study lies at the core of Judaism, for it leads to a deeper engagement with our tradition, an honest and open minded encounter with Jewish ideas about the world we live in, and even to deeper faith.  Studying Jewish texts creates and nurtures an intimate relationship with the great teachers and sages of the past, as if they were sitting next to us in the moment.  For Jews, education is the silver bullet not because it leads to material empowerment but because it leads to spiritual empowerment.  Study enables us to understand more deeply why Judaism is such an important context in which to live our lives.

That’s why I’m so excited about bringing Project Zug to Oheb Shalom.  Project Zug connects Jews with each other – and with Jewish tradition – through paired learning.  This innovative program, sponsored by Mechon Hadar in New York, enables people to study a topic of their own choosing from a long and interesting catalog of offerings, with a person of their choosing and at a time, place and pace that responds to their schedule and needs.  No study opportunity could be more convenient to people who are already busy with work and family commitments.

Here are some FAQs about Project Zug:

  • Who will I learn with? You can learn together with someone you know, perhaps a family member.  Or your study partner can be someone that from Oheb Shalom.  Whomever you choose, it’s important that the two of you choose your topic together and that you’re both excited about it.
  • How does Project Zug work? Courses are either 4 or 10 sessions in length.  Each course offers study sheets with questions, designed to be learned in 30-45 min– and 4 short (less than 10 min!), high quality online videos of the teacher framing your learning.  You can study in person, online through video chat or even by phone.  Learn anytime, from anywhere, at your own pace!
  • What kinds of courses are offered? All of the courses offered by Project Zug are exciting and are taught by incredibly talented and passionate people.  Here are some examples:
    • The Balancing Act: Being a Jewish Parent
    • Visiting the Sick: A Talmudic Exploration
    • How Do We Increase Peace in the World?
    • Judaism: Identity, Pluralism and Peoplehood
    • Weep, Pray, Love: Rachel in the Bible and Beyond
    • On the Connection Between Women, Men and Water in Jewish Tradition
    • Mindfulness in Judaism
  • Do I need a computer?   If two people want to study together and neither one has a computer, Oheb Shalom will print the study sheets for you.  The teacher’s presentations can only be viewed online.  If you have a computer but are not proficient in using it, you can ask for a tutorial to get up to speed!
  • How do I sign up? The fall cycle of learning starts November 13, 2016.  Oheb Shalom is covering the costs– so registration is FREE to you (enter coupon code ohebshalom5777)! Registration is open now at

Project Zug will be formally launched at Oheb Shalom at the annual Rabbi Alexander M. Shapiro Memorial Breakfast and Lecture on Sunday, November 6 at 10:00 AM.  Our guest speaker for this year’s lecture will be Rabbi Avi Killip, the Director of Project Zug for Mechon Hadar.

In the new Jewish year that has begun, I hope you will make Jewish learning one of your priorities.  With Project Zug, it’s easier than ever!

How To Recite Yizkor

On Yom Kippur, Jews everywhere will gather to pray.  Among the most familiar and popular prayers is the Yizkor service, memorial prayers for the dead recited by those who have lost loved ones.  In the midst of praying about our own vulnerability and matters of life and death, we pause to remember family members and friends who have died.

While Yizkor is also recited on the last day of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), the Yom Kippur Yizkor was the first to be instituted as a part of Jewish liturgy.  The Rabbinic sages reasoned that praying about those who have died would cause people to focus intensely on their own mortality, which is one of the themes of Yom Kippur.  Originally the Yizkor prayers were focused on martyrs who had been killed—their names were read aloud in the synagogue.  As the service evolved, people began to pray about their own loved ones.  That is the focus of Yizkor today—memorial prayers for family members and friends.

A common custom is for people who have never been mourners to leave the sanctuary during the recitation of Yizkor.  Many reasons have been offered for this practice.  Some say it developed to avoid causing mourners to feel envious that others around them had not suffered the pain of loss and still had their loved ones around them.  Others say the practice of leaving was intended to prevent people who were not mourners from saying Yizkor by mistake, thus tempting fate.  I know that my own parents never wanted me to stay in the sanctuary when Yizkor prayers were recited, a practice that continues in my own family.

The Sephardic custom is for everyone to stay in the sanctuary during the Yizkor prayers.  That custom seems to me to be the most meaningful.  People who don’t have a personal reason to recite Yizkor should nonetheless stay in the room in order to be supportive to those who are saying memorial prayers.  It’s good and healthy to help a fellow congregant to face their pain and to help soften their sorrow.  And it’s good for everyone, those who have been mourners and those who have been spared the pain of loss, to think about mortality.  Our culture encourages us to avoid thinking about death and dying.  But Jewish tradition encourages us to face the reality of death with our eyes open.  Doing so should not diminish our zest for life or our life span.

How are the Yizkor prayers recited?  Here are some suggestions for a meaningful Yizkor experience.

  • Connect to others. Yizkor is a blend of an intensely private experience and a public one.  Before delving into the private prayers, look around the room.  See who else is saying Yizkor.  Imagine yourself as part of a community of people that strengthen one another.
  • Listen to the music. The Yizkor service is more than a formulaic recitation of prayers.  The service begins and ends with music.  Close your eyes and listen to the music, participating when you can and want to.
  • Bring a photo of your loved ones. Having an image of your loved ones to gaze at during the Yizkor prayers will deepen and enhance your memory of them as you speak their names.
  • Take your time. During the portion of the Yizkor service, take your time reciting the passage for each of the people you are remembering.  Speak their names quietly.  Conjure up a fulfilling and uplifting memory.

The Yizkor service can be a very meaningful time.  By being mindful and attentive to its purpose, we can be reminded of the beauty and blessing of the lives of our loved ones and feel that we have been strengthened by the experience of sharing life with them.

Let me take this opportunity to wish you a Gemar Chatima Tova.  May you be “sealed in the Book of Life” for the year that lies ahead and beyond.

Note:  Kol Nidrei will begin on Tuesday of the coming week at 6:00 PM.  I hope to seeyou on this most stirring and meaningful nights of the Jewish year.  Our day long observance of Yom Kippur will begin at 10:00 AM on Wednesday.