A Shabbat evening with the Nava Tehila community
March 30, 2014
At my first Jewish Renewal Shabbat services, back at the old Elat Chayyim in 2002, I felt as though my soul had come home. Every time I have davened with Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem, I have felt the same way.
When I saw that Nava Tehila didn't have a scheduled service during my time in Israel, I shrugged and figured that was just the luck of the draw. They only meet once a month; I was only here for ten days; it was okay. I made plans to spend Friday evening with Bill and Trudianne, two Jewish Renewal friends from Edmonton, whom I met at the Reb Zalman retreat at Elat Chayyim in 2004. I figured we'd come up with someplace to daven one way or another.
But then on Thursday night at my poetry reading (sponsored by Nava Tehila, and hosted in the home of a Nava Tehila member) I learned that the community would be having a service after all. It wasn't an official open-to-the-public service led by Reb Ruth and her band of amazing musicians; rather, a community service, led by community members, hosted in a community member's home. They were gracious enough to welcome us into their midst for the night, and it was exactly what my heart needed.
As the musicians began to play, people lit candles, and I went to kindle two tealights myself. As I lit them, I was overwhelmed by a wave of emotion -- thinking of my usual weekly tradition of lighting Shabbat candles with our son while Skyping with my parents 2000 miles away. I have had an amazing time in Israel, and will be enriched by this trip for a long time to come -- but I also really miss our little boy, and lighting candles without him made me a little bit weepy.
We sat in a circle in a gracious apartment with a big and beautiful mirpesset (balcony) from which one can see the Mount of Olives, the panorama of the Jerusalem foothills, and apparently on clear nights one can see the lights of Amman in the distance across the Dead Sea. There were several guitarists, one person playing a small harp, and one drummer. We moved through the psalms of kabbalat Shabbat, the service of welcoming the Shabbat bride, without any commentary or page numbers (or for that matter, siddurim) -- people just knew the words.
Many of the melodies were melodies I know from previous encounters with Nava Tehila, or from their two beautiful cds. (You can hear their music at Bandcamp.) Spontaneous harmonies unfolded. We sang with gusto. The musicians were terrific: all in synch with each other, changing tempo and mood effortlessly. At the best moments it felt as though we were all part of one organism, one heart with many bodies and voices giving voice to our shared Shabbat prayer.
When we went out on the mirpesset to welcome the Shabbat bride, I found myself overcome by emotion again. Grateful to be here -- grateful to be ringing in Shabbat with a room full of people who know what these words mean and who love them as much as I do -- amazed to be singing these ancient psalms, and these medieval Shabbat hymns, here, in this place, Jerusalem -- awestruck to be davening outdoors, looking over these hills which are at once so parallel to, and so wildly different from, the hills on which our deck looks out at home -- filled with yearning: for home, for here, for the healed and whole Jerusalem of my dreams, for my family (and especially our son), for connection with Shabbat...
And then someone I didn't know placed a kind hand on my arm, and I thanked her silently, and I pulled myself together and let the tears recede, and joined the singing again.
At one point, when we had paused for a moment, we heard the adhān ringing out from minaret after minaret. "God is great," someone murmured. "They're singing harmony with us," someone else said. A moment later came the riotous ringing of Friday evening church bells.
After an hour of luxurious kabbalat Shabbat singing, we heard a d'var Torah from a community member (usually given in Hebrew; tonight, in deference to the many visitors, he spoke mostly in English) and then another community member led us in a short-and-sweet ma'ariv (evening) service. We blessed juice and challah, enjoyed a glorious potluck (my contribution was the fresh strawberries I'd bought in the Old City that afternoon), and then spent some time in triads talking about how we're feeling spiritually as Pesach approaches. My trio sat on the mirpesset, and as we talked, we stopped to marvel at the fireworks down in the valley -- an Arab wedding, my hosts explained.
When we regrouped we sang some spontaneous niggunim -- more close harmonies, more deep feeling -- and then Bill and Trudianne and I regretfully bid the group farewell and caught a cab back to the Old City.
Before I left, I was honored with the request to share a poem. (I read this week's Torah poem from 70 faces, "Like God.") Before I read the poem, I thanked them for welcoming me. I said that every American rabbi comes to Jerusalem hoping for spiritual sustenance, for that feeling of one's soul being revitalized and rejuvenated -- and that I'm not sure everyone actually has that experience, even though it's what we come here for -- and that davening with Nava Tehila gives me exactly that: it fills me up and renews me to return home and bring these living waters back to the community I'm blessed to serve.