Returning to the Old City
First theomorphism class

A morning at the Leader Minyan

I left my apartment at 8am and started off down Keren ha-Yesod toward the part of Baka called Mekor Hayim. I was pretty footsore by the time I reached the Sudbury Democratic School, the current home of Amika de-Bira, a.k.a. the Leader Minyan. I knew I was in the right place because of the song pouring from the windows -- men's and women's voices together.

I first heard about the Leader Minyan a few years ago, when I read Brian Blum's post Yom Kippur Groupies. What he described -- long hours of spirited davenen -- sounded right up my alley, though I had to admit that even my beloved Y"K services at Elat Chayyim don't run as long as the services he wrote about! Anyway,  I arrived here just in time for their monthly meeting, so I decided to spend my first Shabbat morning in-country with them.

Services begin at 8am and run until 1:30 or two; when I emailed to find out when and where they would be, Avraham told me I was welcome to drop in and out as I wished. When I arrived around nine the kahal (community) was still working their way through p'sukei d'zimrah, the string of poems and psalms that serves as prelude to the formal service. I tried davening along with my little pocket Koren siddur, but realized pretty quickly that they were doing psalms that I couldn't find in my book, so I picked up a siddur from the pile at the front of the room. It too is printed by Koren; the volume contained all of Torah plus the Shabbat liturgy (and plenty more psalms than I had in my edition!) All in Hebrew, naturally.

The minyan meets in a school room. Rows of chairs were set up facing the ark, a wooden closet-type box with a beautiful batik curtain hiding the Torah scrolls. In front of them was a table, dressed in a beautiful white cloth, with piles of siddurim on it. Women sat on the left-hand side of the room, men on the right; between us, as our mechitzah, was a kind of makeshift countertop which was also draped with batik and shawls of many kinds. It was high enough to be clearly present, but low enough that we could easily see one another across it. Women and men had equal space; women and men both sang aloud with fervor; women and men led different parts of the service; and both women and men read from Torah.

The first moment that really got to me was toward the end of p'sukei d'zimrah, when we sang "Chei Olamim." The phrase means "life of all worlds," and is a name for God; the song is an alphabetic acrostic of praise. The melody we used was one that I know well: Hazzan Jack Kessler used it to teach us one of the forms of weekday nusach at the first week of DLTI almost two years ago. Hearing it again here -- singing it with such relish and joy -- gave me the shivers. I'm not sure I can explain it; the melody stitched together two moments in time, and left me kind of reeling.

Everything was chanted; everything was done together; and everything was "led" by people sitting in the kahal. One voice would ring out, stronger than the others -- clearly the person leading that part of the service -- and everyone else would just join in. That felt remarkable. Like we were a single organism, all singing together on our own collective initiative. (By the by -- the minyan is named for the family which founded it. Their last name is "Leader." The name isn't meant to imply that everyone present is a leader of the service... though, in a certain way, that's kind of how it felt to me.)

After the amidah, we broke for a fairly lengthy kiddush. Someone delivered a brief d'var Torah -- in Hebrew, of course, so it went right over my head -- and then we blessed wine. There was also vodka, which made me smile though I didn't have any of it myself. I had the profound pleasure of running into one of my beloved teachers -- Reb Elliot, with whom I studied middot last summer -- who has been here for a few weeks and is about to head back to the States for ALEPH smicha students' week. It made me so happy to see him, even briefly! And I nattered with a few other folks, friends both old and new.

Then the davenen reconvened. The Torah was brought into the women's section, where we kissed it and touched it reverently (though rather sedately); then it went into the men's section, where they hoisted it and danced with it with abandon. The whole Torah portion was read aloud (I can't remember the last time I attended a service where that was the custom), and meanwhile little kids ran around like crazy, babies cried, people talked -- it was a real balagan, a kind of comfortable chaos that didn't in any way detract from the intentionality or heart of the service. That's a thing I love about traditional davenen: the joyful lack of decorum.

Right after the Torah reading, my lunch companions and I ducked out quietly. (No musaf service for us.) And then my day proceeded to take another lovely turn: excellent food and terrific company in a third-floor apartment off of Bet Lechem road, with views back up the hill to the part of town where I live. (Thank you so much, Danielle and Matt!) Lunch was leisurely; conversation was leisurely; watermelon and aperitifs were leisurely; and at last I walked home in the golden late-afternoon Shabbat sun.

So: that was my first Shabbat morning in Jerusalem. Four hours of really fantastic davenen (with a nice schmoozing break midway through) at the Leader Minyan. I'm trying to think of what I can compare it to. There are things about it that remind me of Renewal: the participation, the singing, the ruach (energy/spirit.) There are things about it that remind of the Brookline Havurah Minyan where I used to go for Yom Kippur with my sister: that it's lay-led, that participation is so universal, that everyone there clearly takes davenen seriously and knows the service inside and out.

The liturgy was quite traditional, similar to a million other services in a million other shuls (at least five thousand of which are here in Jerusalem. Seriously -- I learned yesterday that there are 5,000 shuls here, plus an uncounted number of independent minyanim. Of those five thousand shuls, apparently 8 are Conservative and 5 are Reform.) But this particular kind of deep-rooted traditional davenen, done with joy and with a certain kind of egalitarian spirit, wasn't quite like anything else I've ever experienced.

Thanks, Leader Minyan, for a really sweet first Jerusalem Shabbat morning.

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