Services Lived (And Lively)

Kids dancingIt’s been sitting on my desk for weeks – months, actually. The headline reads: “My Little Darling Goes to Church.”

The article is a first-person account . Most of the piece consisted of motherly anxiety: Would the child be able to sit still? Could he be quiet for an hour? What would she do if her child failed the church test?

I read parts of it out loud to my husband, Ralf, over breakfast. There were helpful tips in the sidebar for keeping small children quiet.

Bring snacks and water to keep “little mouths occupied.” Have books at the ready to distract the child. Make sure you sit in the aisle so you can make a getaway if a tantrum starts.

“I guess that’s what you learn at church,” Ralf said. “To be silent.”

Let’s confess, now. That’s what children are taught at a good many synagogues, too.

Not at mine.

Last Friday was an all-night extravaganza at Temple Or Olam. We began with dinner, announcements, and awarding certificates to two of my teens, who had spent six months studying cantillation with me. (Their long-term goal: Becoming conversant enough to function as gabbais. Why not prove that a bar/bat mitzvah is not a terminal degree?)

Our Annual Meeting followed dinner. New board members were voted in, policies, amendments, and the budget were approved. Our new twenty-something group, Derech Yisrael, was introduced to the congregation.

Then, it was almost Shabbat. Time for leading services.

Who did the leading? The rabbi (me) accompanied by her electric guitar, TOO’s amazing percussionist (Ralf), and the congregation’s kids. Ranging from four to fifteen, they sing everything with me. Everything.

Kids younger than four mostly dance.

We chanted the Shema to a sweet, slow melody. After a few minutes, I asked five-year-old Colin to sing alone.

“Shema Yisrael,” he sang, soft and high, his Ashkenazi accent full-on, “Adonoi Eloheynu, Adonoi-oi E-echad.”

Everyone breathed in the revelation of our time – of all time: Unity. All and everything one.

“Moses and Miriam,” sings John, a thirteen-year-old who has Asperger’s Syndrome. “They stood by the sea…”

But John is singing a different melody than I’ve planned on, so I break in.

“John,” I sing back, “they were singing a different me-lo-dy.”

“Stealing the show is not my special-ty!” he sings.

I turn to the congregation, and sing happily, “Well, you could have fooled me!”

Then I turn to Harrison, a red-headed ball of energy.

“Harr-i-son,” I sing, and point to the page number for Mi Chamocha.

He doesn’t miss a beat: “Page one-sixty-two,” he warbles beautifully.

Several of the kids begin dancing during the first verse. When our prayer of exaltation and revelation is done, I ask: “Now who really felt like dancing, but was afraid to do it? Raise your hands.”

About fifteen adult hands inch toward the ceiling.

“Now’s your chance,” I grin, and we start singing again. In the end, more than half the congregation is on their feet, wending their way all around the sanctuary.

None of this was planned. Neither was the moment when Colin said, after a rousing Adon Olam, “Let’s do it again!”

We did. Of course.

I long for these children to know Shabbat services in their fullness. Their Kabbalat Shabbat needs to be the spontaneous expression of gratitude, thankfulness, joy. Yes, they talk and ask questions I cannot prepare for. Sometimes a toddler will cry or make unexpected noises. One of them will hit a note that will squeak its way through the doors as it leaves the room. Then it will hang out in the lobby for another five minutes.

Anything can happen, really.

But this is lived prayer, for toddlers and twenty-somethings, for those entering middle age to those who have long since left it behind.

“Mission accomplished,” wrote the mother who so worried about her child interrupting services. He had behaved in church. He had stayed still.

Too bad.


All We Need Is Love…

Have I told You lately that I love You?  Have I told You? There’s no one else above You.

This past summer, I asked my congregants: Send me the love song you would sing to God.  
My plan was to create a service from their suggestions.

One congregant surprised me with an Elvis Presley tune. For several weeks, I had fun making my voice deep and round. I went about the house singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” while making beds and doing laundry.

I fell in love with tunes I had not known. “You Are Not Alone” by the Eagles became a personal favorite. I sang it as if God were singing to me, as the congregant had suggested. I rediscovered melodies and recast them from my knowledge of the particular person who had suggested the tune. 

We sang a version of “Light My Fire” by the Doors for candle-lighting. We rewrote the lyrics just a bit:

The time to hesitate is through.
There’s no need to wallow in the mire.
Bring some matches with you, too.
The lighting situation’s dire.
Come on baby, light my fire…

I played electric guitar publicly for the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Something’s Always Wrong.” (Our relationships with God aren’t always easy and sweet, after all.)

Folks showed up to the service in tie-dyed clothing and beaded headbands. The room was filled with color and light.

We went through the service. I took a little time to walk us through the placement of each song. “Feelin’ Groovy” seemed like the perfect Kabbalat Shabbat tune. We might read Mourner’s Kaddish as a sweet opportunity to remember what a “Time It Was.”

A roomful of people were reading and understanding our Shabbat services in a whole new way.

Prayer is about love. It is about doubt. It is about anguish and passion and joy.

What we sing in Hebrew is about all those things. Mi Chamocha
, understood on its own terms, fairly invites us to stand and celebrate the freedom we have been granted, the security of solid ground underneath our feet. Aleynu can be read as “Imagine” – who among us has not dreamed of the world being as one, without greed or hunger plaguing anyone?

The room was simultaneously filled with the wonder of realization and a joyful, happy ease. We sang love songs and we allowed ourselves to experience the depth of our prayer.

Later, a Christian friend of mine who had attended the service said, simply, “God was in that room.”

I long for such moments. In this regard, I am spoiled by my congregation. I believe our members long for the same thing. 

Was there one love song we all sang together?  

Have I told You lately that I love You? Have I told You? There’s no one else above You. 


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