[URJBiennial] How Can Reform Jews Encounter God?
[URJBiennial] Innocence Project and Rabbi Eugene Borowitz

[URJBiennial] Worship

During the first 36 hours of the Biennial, I experienced three very different styles of worship/davvening. Two out of the three prayer experiences made me pretty happy; all three were interesting and instructive.

In this post I'll speak briefly about each experience -- one led by two people, and one by twenty; one all in Hebrew, one in Hebrew and English, and one in Hebrew, Spanish, and Ladino -- and will close with some musings on performance and participation, language, and the range of Reform worship.


Our ma'ariv service on Wednesday evening was led by about twenty cantors, members of the executive board of the American Conference of Cantors, led by Cantor Roz Barak. The service was partially in Hebrew, partially English; it was my first time using the proofs of Mishkan Tefilah, the forthcoming new Reform prayerbook. (About which I have mixed feelings, but that's another post for another day.) Anyway, it was fairly performative -- it felt like a concert to me.

I fully acknowledge that I have a bias here. When it comes to worship I prefer participating in congregational singing to listening to someone else's voice, even if that voice is spectacular. So this service wasn't the style that I like best. Still, there were parts that I liked -- Cantor Barak's chanting of the kaddish (using the traditional weekday nusach/melody system) was glorious, and I got chills during the new English rendition of the "Ma'ariv Aravim" prayer, which had some of the same ringing poetic qualities that I find in the Hebrew.

Of the three shacharit (morning service) options on Thursday morning, I chose the all-Hebrew one. The service featured two guitars (one twelve-string!), a ton of singing (led by two voices, but all participatory), and some wordless niggunim. It was led by Rabbi Fred Guttman and Cantor Shira Nafshi, both of whom were fantastic -- their joy was palpable, and contagious in the best way.

To me, the morning service had some Renewal flavor to it. Rabbi Guttman talked us through the Four Worlds as we moved through the service: beginning in the world of assiyah, physicality, with the early blessings; moving into the world of yetzirah, emotions and heart, with the shema and its blessings; ascending into the world of b'riyah, thought, with the amidah; and then the world of atzilut, divine essence, during the Torah reading...

It may also be that the morning service felt more congenial to me because it was smaller. Both evenings we were several hundred; this morning we were maybe sixty people, which is a much more intimate assembly. I was curious to see what kind of morning davvening gear would be in evidence; most of us wore tallitot, and about a dozen of us wore tefillin, women and men both. (I had theorized that there would be more women than men wearing tefillin; guess I'm wrong about that!)

And our ma'ariv service on Thursday evening was led by three visitors from Argentina: Rabbi Sergio Bergman and Cantors Sheila Niesis and Diego Rubenstein, all from Templo de Libertad in Buenos Aires. The service was in Hebrew and Spanish; they sang together, delightful three-part harmony, accompanied by keyboard and, eventually, conga drum.

I'm not sure I can define why tonight's trio of cantorial and rabbinic leaders felt like something I could, and should, sing along with, while last night's slate of cantorial leaders felt like a performance I was meant to be watching. But for whatever reason -- spirit, intention, what-have-you -- tonight's service felt entirely participatory, and I sang along the whole way, happily.

I came away thinking again about the importance of preserving Hebrew liturgy. I deeply value prayer in the vernacular, and I imagine the Reform movement will always agree with me there -- but there's also something tremendously valuable about prayer in Hebrew. Because if I were to go to Templo de Libertad, I wouldn't be able to follow the liturgy in Spanish very well, but the parts that are prayed in Hebrew would be entirely comfortable for me.  Anyway -- these three sh'lichei tzibbur (prayer leaders) spoke a beautiful Spanish-inflected Hebrew, and it was a pleasure to sing and pray with them. At the end of the service we sang a version of "Ein Keloheinu" ("There is None Like Our God") in Hebrew and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), which was awesome.

Anyway: it's fascinating to experience this kind of range of davvening style and practice in one denominational context. (And I haven't even encountered any Classical Reform prayer yet -- that's a whole 'nother paradigm...)

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