A few weeks ago, Lesley and I visited her father who was recuperating in an Orthodox rehabilitation facility in Teaneck, NJ. As sunset approached, I went to Kabbalat Shabbat services, which were taking place in the small shul on the premises. As I entered, I immediately felt out of place. All of the men present were wearing black suits, white shirts and black hats. I was wearing jeans and a tee shirt. There was a mechitza (divider) in the back although no women were present. And even though many of the men present seemed to know each other, not a single person, not even the Rabbi, greeted me or wished me a good Shabbos. I immediately decided that on the “relational Judaism” welcoming scale, this shul would rank close to zero.
Mincha services began and I immediately felt the atmosphere in the room begin to change. Instead of the unintelligible mumbling I was expecting, every word of every prayer was easily understood and although no pages were announced and no instructions were given, everyone in the room was fully engaged and participating. An adolescent boy led Kabbalat services. Many of the tunes were familiar to me and I sang along with the 25 people in the room, including several in wheelchairs. When services ended, several people come up to me to wish me a good Shabbos, to inquire about who I was visiting and added their prayer for a refuah shlema, a complete healing for my father-in-law. Somehow, in 45 minutes, the spirit of Shabbat over took the room.
Over the last few years, both as Chair of TBE’s Ritual Committee and as President, I have engaged in numerous discussions on how to improve our Shabbat services. My experience at this Orthodox service a few weeks ago reminded me that there are two essential, interdependent elements that need to be present for any service to be successful. First of all, the people in attendance need to have some knowledge of the service. And secondly, people need to come to services WITH the desire to be engaged in them, what Jews refer to as kavanah.
TBE is committed to helping our congregants find meaning in our Services. For those congregants who may not have had the opportunity to learn the basics of a Conservative service, we would be happy to create an ongoing “Learners Service”. Let the Rabbi or me know that you are willing to make a commitment to learn and we will make it happen.