In July 2015 I was blessed to be appointed the new rabbi at Congregation Shirat Hayam of the North Shore (outside Boston). The decisive factor in accepting this position was the testimonies I heard during Shabbat kiddush luncheon.
- “I came to Shirat Hayam for a bat mitzvah seven years ago. I hadn’t belonged to a synagogue in years, but after the service I turned to my wife and said, ‘We have to come back next week.’ I’ve been coming ever since. Now when I’m away from Shirat for Shabbat, I miss it.”
- “When my children were young, we belonged to a synagogue because we wanted them to receive a Jewish education. It [being in shul] wasn’t [meaningful] for us [the parents]. A few months ago, my son brought me to Shabbat at Shirat. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I liked the services here. Now, after being away on vacation for a month, I told my wife: First Saturday back, I’m going to Shirat.”
- “I’m in my 40s. When I tell my friends that I go to temple every Shabbat, they’re flabbergasted.”
What’s drawing these previously unaffiliated or unconnected Jews into Shabbat?
The philosophical underpinning of Shirat Hayam is radical hospitality. This spirit of welcoming begins with greeting guests and regulars inviting strangers to join them for the kiddush lunch. But it goes much deeper. Radical hospitality is our belief that if you enter Shirat Hayam with the fullness of your soul, rather than compromising yourself to fit into our Jewish box, then we will be enriched by our encounter with the full you. It’s a non-judgmental Judaism that celebrates presence, participation and intention.
To actualize our commitment to radical hospitality, we offer choices on Shabbat, each designed to enable an entrant, whether seeker or experienced practitioner, Jewish or not, to experience the blessing of a communal Shabbat experience. Our services begin with a choice of Renewal or traditional shacharit services. Next, parallel to the Torah service, we offer yoga and Torah study (Nosh & Drash). Then, the community comes together for a healing service and sermon. Finally, the Hebrew school students fill the sanctuary for our closing Ruach Rally, an upbeat medley of Jewish songs to conclude the service. Afterward, individuals and families break bread at the kiddush luncheon featuring a yogurt bar, salad bar and typical bagel fare.
Throughout the morning we host a Shabbat cafe, transforming our lobby into a casual meet-up area with coffee, tea, donuts and fruit. And, if you’re homebound or out of area, you can connect and attend our services via webcasting or Facebook Live.
Over the course of the morning, people come and go. They stand up and move from one venue to another. They pause to schmooze or grab a nosh. Looking at people’s participation, the traditional elements—traditional shacharit and Torah service—are the least compelling Shabbat experiences. In light of this and the belief that Shabbat is central to Jewish community, it behooves us to offer a breadth of choices that invite people into the communal Shabbat experience.
Beyond philosophical and structural considerations, one cannot underestimate the power of voice, music and melody to touch the spirit. From the opening renewal service to the closing Ruach Rally, our cantor, Alty Weinreb, ensures that the prayer components are joyful, transcendent, soul-stirring experiences.
This model of Shabbat choice, or Synaplex™, was implemented by my predecessor, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi. Each component must be good and some moments must be excellent. To do this requires resources. We recruit great talent to lead yoga, play drum or piano during the Renewal service and to teach Nosh & Drash. A technical engineer ensures sound and video quality. The greatest expense is the kiddush luncheon.
As Shirat Hayam enters its second decade, Synaplex™ is here to stay. Our near-term goals include engaging new participants, infusing the Hebrew school with radical hospitality, maximizing the spiritual capacity of our traditional shacharit and Torah service and fully funding Synaplex™ through donations. This model of high-quality choices creates a powerful communal Shabbat practice in service of Shirat Hayam’s newly articulated vision: CSH offers multiple pathways to Jewish life, learning and prayer. We will deliver the most fulfilling spiritual experience and the best childhood and teen education on the North Shore. Every encounter with our congregation leaves you feeling welcomed, connected and enriched. We embrace our responsibility to invest in strengthening our Jewish community for generations to come.
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