Pluralism In Prayer

In advance of last week’s Biennial Convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Baltimore, I attended a pre-convention Shabbaton– a kind of optional add-on for those who were inclined. (My wife had intended to come, but sadly, Amtrakhad other plans). As President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I thought it was an important opportunity to “reach across the aisle,” if you will, and spend Shabbat with my friends and colleagues in the synagogue arm of the Conservative movement.

As it happened, my son was on fall break from the University of Michigan, and since the convention was hosting a reunion of participants from the NATIV program, the USCJ’s gap year program in Israel that he attended before college, he joined me in Baltimore. Had my wife been able to get to Baltimore, it would have been a wonderful way for us to spend Shabbat together. But we all know about the “best laid plans,” and what happens to them. It was not to be. In a positive vein, however, the unintentional result of Amtrak’s ruining our grand plan was that I got to spend some precious alone time with my son- something I rarely get to do with any of my children these days. And given that my son is the youngest of our four children, it was an even more unusual and special opportunity to be together. Any parent of a large family will tell you that their youngest child tends to get the least parental attention, mostly because the parents are either too busy, or too tired. This was truly the rarest of events, and it was precious.

Needless to say, when he lived at home, there wasn’t all that much question of where my son would daven on Shabbat. I guess that’s not as much of a given as one might think, particularly these days, with so many choices out there geared to younger people, but that’s exactly the point of this story. When I’m at home, there’s not all that much question about where I would be davening either. As the rabbi of my synagogue, I have no decisions to make about where I want to be on a given Shabbat morning.

What was interesting about the Shabbaton was that there were five different parallel services for Shabbat, both Friday evening and Saturday morning, and none of them were what I would call “conventional” (no pun intended!). The closest to a traditional service was a Carlebach davening, but even that is a question of personal taste for many people -– your really have to want to sing everything, and it can make a relatively short service go on for a very long time.

So there we were, my son and me, staring at the program booklet, faced with a most unusual choice…. where to daven!

Ultimately, we opted to go the service being run by Rabbi David Ingber, architect and leader of the very successful renewal synagogue and service on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called Romemu. I am probably the least likely person I know to opt for a renewal service, grounded as it tends to be in the deep spirituality of repeated musical melodies, and elements of eastern religion meditation practices. I was raised in a little Orthodox shtiebel where the ultimate goal of davening was to do it as traditionally prescribed, and be done with it as quickly as possible. No frills, no muss, no fuss. My shtiebel had no rabbi and no cantor, and the davening– for better or for worse, depending on your inclination -– was the very opposite of renewal. It was as old school as it gets. My service in Forest Hills, other than the fact that it is egalitarian, retains the fundamental traditionalism of what I grew up with, albeit with a great deal more effort devoted to making it user-friendly and pleasurable (I hope!).

My thinking was that if I was already going to a service not my own, I wanted to go to something that would be substantively different from what I do, and see what this kind of service was about, since it’s such a hot commodity these days. My son had evidently decided to follow my lead wherever it led, so the two of us wound up going to Romemu’s service both Friday night and Shabbat morning.

I’m glad we went.

It is certainly true that what Rabbi Ingber does at the Romemu service is far from the Misnagdic (anti-Hassidic) traditions of my youth. In addition to its use of musical instruments during the service, he blended intensely repetitive singing with words of Torah grounded in Hassidism, mysticism, yoga … and all of this was made special by the sheer force of his personality, which drives the service. I found it fascinating, and in its own way quite powerful.

Being in that service both Friday night and Shabbat morning led me to the following important realizations. There’s more than one way to “do davening,” and no one way will “sing” to everyone. There is certainly a way prescribed by Jewish law that focuses on what one must do in the fixed prayer services, and what one may not do on Shabbat. But clearly, not everyone will toe that line. And if you’re willing to go outside of that line, and those prescriptions, there is all the room in the world to be creative, and fashion a service rooted in tradition that will look and feel vaguely familiar, but be very, very different.

I have always felt, and still believe, that synagogues would be well served to send their clergy to other synagogues at least once every two months to see what other creative people are doing, and develop a repertoire of best practices. I might not be willing or able to run a service like Rabbi Ingber’s, but I can certainly appreciate the power of what he has created, and his capacity to reach those who might otherwise remain alienated from the synagogue world. I would hope that he would be able to say the same of my own synagogue. What do they say? Different ports of entry, for different Jews. No one is right, and no one is wrong. I always feel spiritually enriched when I am exposed to what other rabbis are doing, even when it’s far outside of my personal comfort zone.

A post-script… I don’t think my son would have gone back with me on Shabbat morning if he, too, hadn’t found the Friday night service engaging. It was a great experience for us to share and talk about afterwards, something we NEVER would have had the chance to do otherwise. He’s back at school, and I’m back in Forest Hills. I’m glad to have had the chance to spend that Shabbat together with him. Just sorry my wife couldn’t make it!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.