Thinking of joining Congregation Mishkan Tefila for the High Holidays? Rabbi Leonard Gordon shares his absolute favorite part of Yom Kippur services, and young adult member Becca Heyman reveals why she joined the synagogue when she first moved to town.
Want to know more? Rabbi Gordon tells all.
What makes your services unique?
One of the things about Mishkan Tefila is that it was founded in the Civil War era, and about a hundred years ago, the rabbi was sent to Europe to see what the synagogues were doing that was cutting-edge, and what the best practices were. He came back and said the best practice was high-style music—having an organ and choir. It was incorporating the best of what then was popular culture and bringing it into the synagogue, and that’s what the young people wanted. It began a tradition at Mishkan Tefila of special music, particularly for the High Holidays, which is unique to us. It’s something you will not hear elsewhere.
Some of these pieces, especially pieces written by our former music director Samuel Braslavsky, who was one of Leonard Bernstein’s first teachers, are commentaries to the text. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur afternoon, you sing “Unetanneh Tokef,” which is this grand moment when classically people would be in tears. Normally it’s done with the entire congregation standing. At Mishkan Tefila we designed a way to do it so that we stand for a few moments, then everybody sits down, and then we do the song. There is a section where you imagine the whole world of nature being judged, and Braslavsky uses the organ in such a way that you can feel and hear the different animal presences, and you can feel the march of humanity as it is going through that process of judgment. That experience of letting the music explain the words is something you can rarely experience and that you get to experience here. My job as rabbi is to try to set that up for people for whom choral music or organ music might not be a vocabulary they know; that’s part of the teaching task here.
Describe the personality of the synagogue.
The personality of Mishkan Tefila is a work in progress. Right now we’re welcoming new staff, new programming and new partnerships; it’s a real change in culture. For a long time the synagogue was a very Newton-based community synagogue, but we have been breaking open the bounds of the synagogue by welcoming other community organizations into our building. We’re trying to expand our reach, offer more programming outside the building in surrounding areas and offer more adult education. We’re trying to just get out there so that the sense of this place as a closed community will be broken down and people will begin to see us as a place with multiple gateways for people of different ages, life experiences and even approaches to religious ritual.
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