Livin’ on a Prayer Service
by Yaffi Spodek
Have you ever attended a sunset Shabbat service on the beach, or connected more deeply to prayer through meditation? Would you rather listen to an upbeat a cappella group instead of the cantor? Do you want to enjoy services with your dog, who can receive a special blessing from the rabbi? Look no further than your local synagogues in South Palm Beach County for the chance to experience one of these unique prayer gatherings, held on Shabbatot throughout the year.
These creative worship services are a radical departure from more traditional Shabbat services, which in recent years have undergone a kind of transformation in an effort to appeal to a more diverse group of congregants. Whether it’s by enhancing the prayers with music and entertainment or by creating original, alternative worship services, synagogues across the spectrum are stepping up their game and looking for new ways to engage the uninspired synagogue-goer and attract those who wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to attend.
“Clearly there is a generational shift taking place in American Jewry,” said Rabbi David Steinhardt, Senior Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah in Boca Raton. “There are many people who are searching for spirituality and don’t feel compelled by traditional Jewish liturgy or styles of worship. I’m always interested in expanding our boundaries to be more inclusive, more creative and more exciting, and yet fit within the confines of our community.”
Though B’nai Torah’s traditional, egalitarian service in the main sanctuary can draw up to 1,500 people on a given Saturday, it doesn’t appeal to all. “Not everyone fits this mold and so I was very interested in creating alternative services. I wanted them to be both spiritual and learning experiences,” said Rabbi Steinhardt. “I believe that in our diversity we can respect each other and grow stronger as a community, and I want a chorus of expression to G-d that brings people closer.”
Three different services are offered at B’nai Torah on alternating Saturday mornings during the fall and winter months, as part of a new program that began in October, with each concluding in time for participants to attend the Rabbi’s sermon and mussaf services in the main sanctuary.
Amy Grossblatt Pessah leads a Jewish Renewal service there twice a month, “that allows people to go deeper and connect to themselves, G-d and one another,” she said. “While it follows the structure of the traditional service, it creates openness and a new space for them to think and feel, which facilitates a deeper appreciation of the meaning of the words.”
The service is intended to be a spiritual experience based on neo-Hasidism, characterized by wordless melodies called “niggunim,” chanting, movement and guided meditation. During the Torah reading, Pessah tries to engage participants and make them feel personally connected to the Biblical text by exploring its relevance to their modern life.
A service called “Mindfulness, Meditation and Mussar,” is led by Suzanne Stier, where congregants practice different mindfulness techniques, and use the weekly Torah portion as a vehicle for guided meditation. In addition, spiritual guide Sue Gurland offers an experiential service called “Moving Through the Shabbat Service,” which includes movements, chants and prayers based on the liturgy and weekly Torah reading. “Many people don’t grasp the connection to the words and they need another type of approach, like movement,” said Gurland, an acupuncturist and Tai Chi teacher. “We work on moving through the spirit of the service, touching on all aspects of the regular service in a nontraditional way.”
For some synagogues, the best time to hold an alternative prayer service is on Friday night, and uniquely “themed” services are held on specific weekends. From musical guests and inspiring speakers to holiday events and youth-led programs, or even services held at other venues, they aim to inspire multiple segments of the community with diverse interests.
For the last few years, Temple Beth El has held an “Under the Stars” Friday night service during Chanukah at Mizner Park that draws 4,000 people together. For Yom HaAtzmaut, they held a creative service where the liturgy included quotations from the founding voices of Zionism and the State of Israel. "Blue Jeans and White" Shabbat celebrated Israel with a more casual, family-friendly atmosphere.
“As a Reform synagogue, Temple Beth El is constantly trying to weave Jewish tradition with what will move people today,” said Rabbi Dan Levin, the synagogue’s Senior Rabbi. “Our typical worship service includes many elements that would seem alternative at other congregations.”
Beth El’s regular Friday night Shabbat service includes several unusual elements, such as a festive, musical Hakafah (Torah procession), and a reading and translation of parts of the weekly Torah portion, normally only read on Saturday. The synagogue also uses technology in innovative ways: a "Torah cam” suspended above the Torah scroll allows everyone to see the scroll as it’s read in real time, and video technology is used to broadcast lyrics and transliteration of the Hebrew text on a screen that is visible to the congregation.
Congregation B’nai Israel also offers popular themed Friday night services that typically attract up to 300 people. Some examples include Shabark Shalom, to which pets are invited and receive a special blessing; post-summer Welcome Back Shabbat with a chocolate oneg, Family Shabbat Under the Stars with s’mores in the courtyard; Shabbat at the Beach on Passover; Friday Night Lights on Chanukah; and others featuring guest speakers, scholars and more.
B’nai Israel is perhaps most well-known for its emphasis on music and song to enhance the prayers. They have a talented cantor, an adult Big Beat Band, junior choir, youth band, and an adult unplugged musical quartet called the Acouschticks. They frequently host visiting musical ensembles such as the Shir Appeal a cappella group from Tufts University that performed earlier this month.
Music also plays a role at Boca Raton Synagogue (BRS), where Rabbi Josh Broide holds a weekly explanatory service called Friday Night Live (FNL). Now in its fifth year, the program draws nearly 100 men and women each week.
“We wanted to see if it would it be possible to attract people to BRS for what we like to call a ‘non-traditional, traditional’ service,” explained Rabbi Broide, named last year by The Forward as “one of America’s 33 most inspiring rabbis.”
“We want these people to feel like the shul is their home and a place where they feel comfortable. Our program has a uniquely meaningful, yet lighthearted atmosphere that draws people in from all backgrounds and makes them feel welcome,” he said.
FNL features lots of singing, sometimes accompanied by Rabbi Broide on guitar before Shabbat begins – interspersed with personal stories, a Dvar Torah and jokes told by the rabbi – and participants appreciate the practical Torah lessons that are shared as well. Prominent guest speakers, from actress Mayim Bialik to Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, often visit and share insights on Torah and Judaism.
“I feel much more connected to being a Jew and to caring about Israel than I ever did before,” said Paula Robbins of Boca Raton, who has been a loyal attendee, along with her husband, since FNL’s inception. She has also recruited 40 people to join the service. “I’m not very religious but coming to FNL makes me feel a love for my fellow man, not only Judaism, and just gives me a feeling of wellbeing. Rabbi Broide’s motto is ‘inspire yourself to inspire others’ and I really live by that. I’ve been inspired to learn more and give more.”
Another popular Friday night service is led by Rabbi Amy Rader of the Neshamah Institute. About once a month, a crowd of nearly 200 gathers in a space at Florida Atlantic University for a Shabbat Havurah service featuring prayers and modern Jewish music from the Soulmates band and a choir.
“The service is joyous and meaningful with a certain relaxed vibe and a good feeling of decorum,” said Rabbi Rader, who conducts the Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv services, mostly in Hebrew. “We also created a repertoire of liturgical music and a unique, transliterated Neshamah prayer book with artwork and explanations, and I give a Dvar Torah. It’s kind of magical, engaging and upbeat, with everyone singing along and participating.”
The service is also a fun social opportunity for attendees and their families, who can enjoy cocktails and hors d'oeuvres before the service and dinner afterwards. By only convening once a month, Rabbi Rader has adopted a strategic “less is more” approach. “It wouldn’t have the same effect if it was held every week, so this way people are excited and look forward to it,” she said.
Rabbi Rader founded the Neshamah Institute five years ago after consistently hearing from people who were looking for “an authentic, warm, personal place for Jewish families to feel at home,” she explained. “We have wonderful synagogues in the community, but Judaism is bigger than that. Our service has a certain flavor and warmth that some people couldn’t find at the bigger congregations. We do not aim to be the answer for everyone, but we try to show how Judaism is relevant for people looking to connect, and how it can help them lead healthy, balanced lives in the modern world.”
Learn more about the array of worship opportunities in South Palm Beach County by clicking here for direct links to our community’s diverse synagogues.