I recently attended a silent disco at a bar mitzva party. I had never seen this activity in action, although I believe that this is a popular activity for teenagers. In fact, this was a student activity at the high school where I teach during a school-wide Shabbaton. Silent discos originated in the early 2000s. The exact date and location of the first silent disco are a subject of debate. One popular account attributes the invention of silent discos to two Dutch event producers, Lennart Schilder and Marcel Mingers. They reportedly organized the first silent disco in 2002 during a music festival in the Netherlands. Their idea was to address noise restrictions imposed by local authorities while still allowing festivalgoers to enjoy music and dance.
What is the popularity of the silent disco as opposed to having a regular DJ with live, broadcasted music? First, each person can listen to the music he or she enjoys and connect with it on a personal level. The individualized experience allows for self-expression and enables participants to engage with the music in a way that resonates with his or her unique tastes and preferences. Each individual can also decide the volume of the particular song so that it can be a completely immersive experience when he or she blocks out external noise or he or she can lower the volume and even engage in conversations with others in the room without having to shout over loud music.
I was fascinated by how the participants thoroughly enjoyed this activity and I think that the silent disco metaphor holds important lessons for shul life. After all, all different types of people attend shul with unique perspectives, spiritual journeys and connections with God. In a shul, it is essential to create an environment where individuals can focus on their spiritual connection without distractions. We do so by cultivating a space of reverence, respect and inclusivity, where all congregants feel comfortable expressing their authentic spiritual selves. We invite everyone to our space and find their own music and, most importantly, we don’t judge them.
Deep down, we all need spiritual connection and we all crave that connection. In Sefer Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi describes prayer as oxygen for the soul. Just as the body cannot survive without food, so too the soul cannot survive without prayer. Maybe it is difficult for some of us to connect to the formulaic prayer that has been transmitted from generation to generation, but I think we can all connect to the concept of prayer, to taking some time to think about our goals, visions and aspirations, to reflect and to cry out. Each one of us can change our spiritual channel to whatever makes sense to us and each one of us can have our own unique experience.
What was fascinating is that as I watched this silent disco unfold, I noticed that a number of people were listening to and singing the same song and there was a power and excitement to the group that decided to sing together. There is power in numbers. But I also noticed some people who were doing their own thing, listening and dancing to their own song and they were having the time of their life, as well.
Do I think that most people should listen to the same song when they come to shul, that they should daven together, and say the same words? Of course. There’s a certain power that we feel when we are singing the same tefilla. We all feel a sense of belonging, of togetherness, not just with those around us, but with generations of Jews before us who recited the exact words that we recite today. But someone else wants to do something else. He or she connects in a different way and is not ready to sit and pray and say all those words that he or she doesn’t understand. Maybe for now, he or she sits and simply meditates and reflects. Maybe for now, he or she has a private conversation with God. Maybe for now, he or she doesn’t sit through the entire davening, but only for a short period of time. And that’s wonderful, too. Because when the music of tefilla becomes a silent disco, everyone enjoys his or her own subjective experience.