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Thoughts from the Other Side

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Ever wonder what it is like for a rabbi to sit in the congregation? I was recently asked what it was like to be on the other side of the bimah during this past Shabbat while attending the Biennial.

It goes without saying that anyone with experience in a particular area is bound to have thoughts and criticisms about the manner in which the certain thing was done.

So here goes…

Shabbat Announcement!

Originally uploaded by Rabbioomlaut

Just as the Friday evening service was about to commence, the following appeared on the screen:

And on the seventh day the Children of Israel turned off their cell phones and pagers. And then they sat down to pray.

As you might imagine, this invoked a chuckle from the crowd. And it was a crowd. Several THOUSAND people came together to worship. Don’t know the exact number. I reckon that no one knows the exact number though I’ve heard several numbers bandied about. Whatever the number — it was a lot of Jews! If nothing else, I enjoyed being surrounded by my tribe as we welcomed the Sabbath Bride.

It was a little strange watching the rabbi and cantor on a screen. I was so far back that I was unable to make out the faces on the bimah. Rabbi Don Goor (Temple Judea) and Cantor John Kaplan (Temple Israel)were the service leaders and given the fact that I suspect they had little input regarding musical selections and such, it was a lovely service. Their bimah presence was welcoming and calm. My biggest complaint was that the songs were in a key that was either too high or too low for the majority of the people in the pews …er…folding chairs. The typical congregant has a vocal range spaning B below middle C up one octave to around C5. Maybe D5. But that would be a reach. The tesstura would need to be much lower than that if the intent is for congregational participation.

Given the insanely high keys in which much of the “participatory” songs were set over the course of Shabbat, the thought did cross my mind that perhaps the leaders didn’t actually want participation. One glowing exception to this was the Cantor on Shabbat morning, Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker (Mount Zion Temple). Although many of the keys were a bit high, her warm and embracing style invited even the shyest singer to lend voice to the prayers. Her bimah partner, Rabbi Judy Shanks (Temple Isaiah), brought warmth to the service as well.

It was clear that a great deal of thought and rehearsal went into the execution of the services. But in the end, I felt a little like I had gone to the theatre to watch “Shabbat!” Creating a sense of intimacy amongst several thousand worshippers is nearly impossible. I know that megachurches meet with great success in this area. We don’t. And one of the reasons we don’t is that our religion places great importance on community whereas other faith communities emphasize one’s personal relationship with God. When the focus is just you and God, it doesn’t much matter how many “you’s” are in the pews. On the other hand, connections between people suffer when the numbers are overwhelming.

Were the services enjoyable? Most definitely. It was energizing to pray with so many people. It was particularly inspiring to see the NFTY kids totally into prayer. When they got up to dance during Mi Chamocha, it felt as though the Children of Israel were truly dancing on the shores of the Sea.

So what’s it like from the other side of the bimah? Inspiring, frustrating, joyful, relaxing, and … time to get back to service-leading!

See ya in shul!!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, 20 December 2007 5:36 pm

    I don’t think I would enjoy that kind of service. Too big, too distant. I like the feeling of community in my shul… something I don’t think would translate well over huge screens and thousands of people.

  2. Frume Sarah permalink
    Thursday, 20 December 2007 7:44 pm

    Yeah, it definitely felt distant. As I said, there were elements that were enjoyable but as a whole, I would miss the intimacy that is created in a smaller space.

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