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[URJBiennial] Creating Meaningful Worship in Small Congregations

This panel was led by Rabbi Burt Schuman of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, PA (100 families), and Dale Wallerstein, lay leader of Kol Shalom in El Dorado Hills, CA (44 families). Before it started, I had a neat conversation with Rachel, a second-year rabbinic student at HUC in Cincinnati, who spends one weekend a month (and holidays) serving a shul in West Virginia which has fifteen active families. (Now that's a small congregation!) That was neat -- hearing about her program and what she's up to, and seeing the pleased recognition in her face when I mentioned the Aleph program that I'm in. (YAY! I love being able to say I'm a student there.)

We began the panel by going around the room and saying our names, the size of our congregations, and the type of leadership we enjoy (rabbinic, student, or lay-led). There were about 25 of us in the room, so it felt pleasantly intimate. Congregation size ranged from 22 members to 350 families. A lot of what people said rang a bell for me: "Sometimes on Shabbat evening we get four people..." or "We have 100 families, but we get 20 people on Shabbat morning most of the time..." We represented small shuls in Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, California, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and a dozen other places besides. One fellow, a newly-ordained rabbi serving a congregation in Nebraska, said, "We get 5 people for worship, and as soon as services are over, we get 15 more who show up for Torah study!" (Fascinating.)

Once we'd introduced ourselves, Dale asked the first big question: "What is meaningful worship?"

Qualities thrown out by the crowd in response to that one included: spiritual; participatory; "authentic to each individual," "transformative." (How do we create something that leaves people feeling different after having worshipped?) Someone mentioned that food often gets people there. Flow and continuity. Learning. (Sometimes via sermon, sometimes via learning about the liturgy. Though Rabbi Schuman noted that this can raises a challenge: if we break during a service to talk about prayers, we might lose kavvanah, lose focus, by trying to generate a learning experience.) One woman reported that when they added a learning/study component to their services, their adult attendance skyrocketed. Okay, more meaningful qualities: balancing communal time and individual time. Worship that makes us "feel Jewish." (Whatever that means.)

What are the challenges? Creating something that works for senior citizens and little kids alike; intergenerational. Creating a service that bridges the gap between Classical and "New" Reform. ("From Miss Daisy to Shlomo Carlebach," quippes Rabbi Schuman.) The challenge of interfaith families and multidenominational communities all trying to worship together. The challenge of "I already came on Friday night" -- getting over the hump of convincing people that they can come more than once a week. Creating worship that appeals to those who grew up with a lot of (traditional) liturgy, and those who didn't. Lay leaders who use melodies the community doesn't know. Balancing Hebrew with English. For congregations too small to have their own building, location can be a challenge -- moving from place to place, or meeting in a church, or in a gymnasium. Or, if you're in an old sanctuary, it might be beautiful but might feel very "fixed" to Classical Reform, and the space might be legally protected as a historic space (and therefore not open to change).

There is no "magic bullet" to solve these challenges. Every congregation has its own culture, its own attitudes, its own comfort level with Hebrew, and so on. (Dale recommended The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only, by Lawrence Hoffman, as a good resource for learning about this stuff.) But regardless of worship style -- Classical or "new," facing front or in the round, whatever -- there are certain dynamics that transcend style. Rabbi Schuman offered a handout titled Important considerations when seeking to strengthen worship within your congregation, which asks questions like, "What is your congregation's 'worship culture'?" and "Who are your potential 'change agents,' and how respected are they in the congregation?" and "How can you turn concerns over worship into learning opportunities for the entire congregation?"

He also told a great anecdote about arriving at his congregation with his rainbow tallit and his Hebrew-intensive davvening style, and his community responding to him the way the townspeople responded to Sheriff Cleavon Little in Mel Brooks' classic film Blazing Saddles. (Hee! He also passed out an essay he wrote about this very subject, "Driving Miss Daisy Crazy," from the Winter 2001 issue of Reform Judaism magazine.) That led into a conversation about different congregations' worship culture, and about how to create dialogue between proponents of different ways of praying. "What can we be open to, in the way of alternatives from that with which we grew up? How do we respect the [conflicting] archetypes which are clearly raging within many of our congregations?"

We talked about the idea of having different kinds of services different weeks of the month -- on the one hand that's great, and on the other hand it can lead to lack of continuity. Changing the music from week to week can feel great to the liturgical leaders, but done too often it can confuse the congregants. (Some suggest that one or two changes every few months is about the right balance for a lot of shuls.) Melody is a place where this becomes important in visceral ways -- a lot of people get deeply attached to one tune or another, and get offended or upset when things are done in different ways.

Dale talked about the URJ's Sh'liach K'hilah program, a program the URJ offers for lay leaders, and how doing that gave her all kinds of new abilities -- and legitimacy in the eyes of her shul. (This can be useful for small shuls which are lay-led and can't afford a rabbi.)

"Stepping back and empowering people is a very important piece of my task," said Rabbi Schuman. So, Dale asked, what's the process for that, for creating more creative worship back home? Each congregation has situations where the potential for more flexibility exists -- maybe Purim, maybe a Chanukah dinner, maybe a holiday service when people don't expect the familiar/comfortable stuff they expect at Shabbat. Make use of the ritual committee: build that committee to include someone who loves to sing, someone who loves to study. Get your "change agents," the people who can create opportunities for liturgical growth, on to that committee.

One person asked, what can we do for the people who are new, who are uncomfortable with the Hebrew, who are intimidated by the learning curve? Changing our worship style could alienate them further; how do we accomodate them? Suggestions on that included a Learner's Minyan (which slows the service down and teaches it), and attentiveness to pace both of worship and of change. More and better transliterations. Figuring out how to work with the parents who drop their kids off for Hebrew school -- maybe making those education programs bigenerational, so the parents learn along with the kids. (Tot Shabbat programs can do this too.) Develop the adult b'nei mitzvah program -- that's a great opportunity to get adults excited and engaged and learning what they need to know in order to feel empowered and excited.

One guy talked about how his shul created a songbook, effectively a hymnal, with both Hebrew and transliterations in it. That's a way of getting everybody singing. And that segued into Dale talking about the importance of kavvanah, focus/intention: bringing worship back to us, back to our hearts and our spirits, helping people understand that kavvanah is what matters and it's okay if we make mistakes, it's okay if we don't know the words. We need to give people permission to be a part of things.

One woman observed that we came in here to talk about what makes worship meaningful in small congregations, and instead we've fallen into talking about institutional problems like attendance. She suggested that this is at the heart of our problen in general, and her comment shifted us back to the question of meaning in worship.

Dale said that people come up to her after services and say, "I could feel your joy." (Much nodding and noises of approval on that one.) Our real challenge is creating services such that people can feel our joy, can feel the love we have for what we're doing. Rachel, the rabbinic student near me, added that our challenge is also to be careful with timing and to create a space that feels different, temporally. Maybe we do that with singing; maybe with meditation; maybe in other ways. But flow is important, as we work to create something that's attuned in a different way from weekday consciousness. Maybe as we discuss with our congregations whether or not to adopt Mishkan Tefilah, the upcoming new Reform prayerbook, those conversations can also include these issues.

And we closed the panel by talking about how our different services work -- the structure of a lay-led service, of a rabbinic-led service, so on. How singing "Mi Sheberach" is often more powerful than reciting the prayer. How singing niggunim, wordless melodies, can help bridge and transition from one thing to another. We talked about regional melodies, and where our familiar melodies come from -- Praetorius to German drinking songs and everything in between. About spatial issues like lighting, getting people to sit near one another, use of space...

In the end, it was clear to me we could have continued brainstorming together for another few hours! This panel was a real treat.

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