I recently had the privilege of attending a four-day training in Mexico City for leaders in the Limmud movement. In brief, Limmud is an international community of volunteers who create events—by Limmudniks, for Limmudniks—around Jewish learning and culture. The training was a wonderful eye-opener for me, helping me to understand more deeply the Limmud values held by every Limmud around the world, and how those values can and should inform every Limmud activity. Having recently assumed the role of chair of LimmudBoston, I was excited and honored to participate.
The training brought together leaders from Limmuds throughout North, Central and South America—from the fledgling team just starting up in Sao Paolo to the huge and well-established Limmud Atlanta + SouthEast. We were a multinational, multi-lingual, multi-denominational, intergenerational cohort, engaged in a shared project of deepening our skills and perspectives in order to support one another and strengthen our individual organizations.
Little did I know that my time at the training would intertwine my vocational direction with my LimmudBoston work! As the training took place from Thursday to Sunday, our deliciously diverse group spent Shabbat together as a community. Several months before we gathered in Mexico City, participants had been offered the opportunity to volunteer to lead services, and to indicate which type of services we would be most comfortable leading. Five volunteers had checked the box for leadership, myself included, encompassing several different denominations and styles of worship. Of course, when there are variegated religious practices, this can make Shabbat complicated. As a people, we Jews have an astonishing range of prayer possibilities—from arranging seating by gender (or not), to determining whether to pray in Hebrew or in the vernacular to deciding how much singing to incorporate and which tunes.
In true Limmud fashion, there was no decree from on high as to how we would organize our services. Naturally we decided to approach it in a Limmud-y way, that is, with guidance from the Limmud values we had been studying in the training. Thursday afternoon it was announced that these five people would be leading Reform, Conservative and Orthodox services for Shabbat—and we were left to our own devices to figure out what that meant.
At first I panicked! I was tired and scared and felt unprepared to step into leadership in this way. I like having a few weeks’ notice before I lead services. I like to have time to plan, to write kavannot (interstitial readings designed to deepen the experience), to choose the parts I’ll do aloud and practice the parts whose words I stumble over. My first instinct was simply to step aside and let others take care of it.
[Un]fortunately, once my name was announced as one of the leaders of the Reform service, people started coming up to me and saying how much they were looking forward to services. So I couldn’t back out; people were counting on me. At the same time, all together we were a group of only about 50 people, and having three or four separate services would end up making for several small groups. Likely some groups might not be able to make a minyan. Plus, it just didn’t feel right. Surely we didn’t invest ourselves into the Limmud way of life only to opt for dividing ourselves along lines of religious practice when gathered in the service of building community.
Reaching into the learning we’d already begun to do together, the discussions about Limmud values began. The Limmud movement embraces religious diversity as a core value. What if we pooled our leadership resources and did one service together so that we could bring in Shabbat as a cohort? This would mean navigating many issues, but we decided to do it together as an exercise in another Limmud value: argument for the sake of heaven (machloket l’shem shamayim). Embracing an ethos of respect (another Limmud value) and care for one another (i.e. the Limmud value of community and mutual responsibility), we sat down together and began to figure it out.
Some of the questions that came up were: what liturgy to include, who should lead, how we would arrange the seating and who counted for a minyan. Each of these considerations can be fraught with resentment and disdain if not navigated gently. Orthodox tradition requires that certain prayers are led only by men, and typically holds that only men count for a minyan. Meanwhile, four of the five volunteer worship leaders were female. The discussion could easily have devolved into sniping, but informed by our learning, the opposite was true. The Orthodox participants looked for every possible way to be inclusive that did not violate the halacha (Jewish law) that informs their practice. Meanwhile the non-Orthodox participants sought to be fully involved without undermining the religious experience of our new friends. It made for a wonderfully collegial process, which opened all our minds and hearts more than I think any of us anticipated.
“My community usually uses a mechitzah. [A physical separation between men and women, often a makeshift wall].”
“Many women in my community are offended by the presence of a mechitzah and won’t come if there is one.”
“Where would we get a wall anyway, on three hours’ notice, in a hotel in the middle of Mexico City?”
“Have you ever heard of a tri-chitzah? It’s three sections: one for women, one for men and one for people to sit together as they choose. How would it feel to you to have it that way: women, mixed, men?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m a little uncomfortable with that. Is there anything else we can try?”
“But remember, many Jews who approach worship less traditionally will be uncomfortable if they can’t sit with whoever they want.”
“And if there is someone in our group who doesn’t identify with the gender binary, we want them to feel included.”
“Can I gently point out: I’m uncomfortable not being counted for a minyan. [A group of 10 adult Jews praying together; in some communities only adult Jewish males count toward a minyan]. It might just be that we’ll all have to be a little uncomfortable.”
“That’s a good point; I never thought of it that way. That makes a lot of sense. I can live with the three sections.”
“Does it feel better to you to have the mixed section in the middle or one side?”
“I’m OK either way, thanks for asking.”
We decided on some basics: the women would lead Kabbalat Shabbat up to and including L’cha Dodi. As this part of the service is mainly a group of psalms chanted in preparation for Shabbat, it did not require male leadership in a traditionally observant context. We would arrange the seats in three sections so that those who prefer to separate by gender could do so, and those who prefer to mix—or who don’t identify with a gender binary—could sit in a mixed group. After Kabbalat Shabbat, we would take a short break for lighting Shabbat candles, then return to the prayer space for Maariv, led by the one man who volunteered to lead worship.
“We plan to make Kabbalat Shabbat more creative and experimental.”
“Great! But to me, it doesn’t feel like Shabbat if I don’t pray Yedid Nefesh and L’cha Dodi in their entirety.”
“Funny, in my shul we only do the first verse of Yedid Nefesh.”
“Really? I have been to some places where they only do the last verse, but they do it several times.”
“I’ve never heard of that, how does it go?”
[A couple of lines of the Shir Yaakov tune.]
“Ohhhhhhhhh, wow, that’s beautiful!”
“We can do the whole thing, though, no problem. Do you have a favorite tune?”
“Whatever you do is good. Thank you.”
With the basic shape defined, the three other women and I sat down late Friday afternoon to plan our portion of the service. We hoped to create a spiritual atmosphere with joyous singing and soulful readings. In deference to the many languages spoken in our group, we decided to include a Brazilian pop song adapted for Shabbat, a reading in Spanish and a reading in English. I asked for the privilege of beginning the service with a welcome and a kavannah.
“If we choose a good tune, people will join in.”
“Should we do the feminine version or the masculine one? [Yedid Nefesh is, in oversimplification, a love poem to God. In some siddurim (prayer books), the God language is feminine and in some siddurim the God language is masculine.]”
“Let’s let people choose as they wish. People are going to sing it the way they know it. It’s a perfect metaphor for what we’re doing!”
“OK. Here’s the Brazilian song we want to teach.”
[The room rocks out.]
“OK, what about the tune for L’cha Dodi?”
“I love Joey Weisenberg’s tune!”
[We sing a few verses.]
“That is gorgeous, but we really want people to sing along, and I think Joey is mostly a North American phenomenon.”
“On a broader level, do we want to be teaching tunes, or just praying? How many tunes do we think we can teach before it becomes more like a learning session?”
“Sigh, but I love Joey.” [Guess who!]
[We try a bunch of tunes. Nothing clicks until one does, the fast one in freygish mode.]
“Ooooh, maybe people will dance!” [Again, guess who!]
“No way, not in this mixed group. Let’s not push our luck!”
“OK. I love Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s translation of Ana b’Koach; I’d like to read it for the English selection.”
[I read it.]
“That’s amazing, but isn’t it later in the liturgy?”
“Good point. Maybe I could adapt it a little and leave out the last line. The poem is so great, and it makes a good ending for our service.”
“I really like the reading from the Reform siddur, the one that begins: ‘I begin with a prayer of gratitude for all that is holy in my life.’ Can we include it?”
“Ooh, beautiful! Let’s translate it into Spanish and have it for our Spanish reading!”
We finished our planning 10 minutes before we were to begin services, and quickly went to our separate rooms to change clothes and get ready. We came back down and took our places in the conference room, now transformed into a tri-chitzah prayer space, chairs facing east. We started a niggun (a wordless tune) and invited people to enter the space, gently identifying the sections for those who weren’t sure where to sit.
The niggun rose and quickened, then settled in. I stood up to begin.
Read part 2 here.
Previously published at Jewish Themes.
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