I experienced something amazing last Erev Shabbat. I got to be part of another start-up, not a high-tech start-up, but a Jewish start-up: The first Friday night davvening of Zion, a new congregation/kehilla in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. Zion is the initiative of my friend and colleague, Rabbah Tamar Elad Applebaum, who saw the need for a different kind of community in the neighborhood - "musical, egalitiarian, traditional and innovative"; a community incorporating both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi customs, ritual poetry from across the generations, and the tunes of the land of Israel." Baka, a neighborhood filled with synagogues large and small, minyanim of every flavor and custom, hardly seems to be the place needing yet another minyan. Yet, Zion brings something different.
The setting was so familiar. When I was younger, The Nativ Program met here. The campus is now home to Young Judaea's Year Course, as well as the historic home of Ulpan Etzion. Sitting in the Bet Knesset, I immediately felt the specialness of this first tefillah. I was one of the few anglo saxons in the room. Most of the participants were native born Israelis, Ashkenazim and Sefaradim, married couples with children as well as singles. While many of the new initiatives in the area of tefillah here are based around North Americans, Zion is focused on Israelis. Innovations that include what is called Nusah Sefarad, the Sefardic custom, may be taking place in other areas but this is the first one about which I have heard.
The evening started an hour before Shabbat's arrival. We started singing the poems of Bialik, Alterman and Goldberg, religious poetry of the modern era now included in our tefillah. By starting so early, the service could include a group of musicians playing a variety of instruments native to the Middle East. I have never been a big fan of musical accompaniment during tefillot, be they weekday or Shabbat services. My past experiences included those where the tunes were in the style of rock, and those where the tunes sounded more like one would hear in a French cafe. Last Shabbat, however, the music was Middle Eastern, it was ancient, its ebbs and flows followed the words and enhanced the tefillah.
The dominant tune for Kabbalat Shabbat was native to Morrocan Jewry. As an Ashkenazi Jew, my only exposure to this particular melody comes from the little shul directly across from my apartment here in Jerusalem. Yet, I never felt out of place. As I sang along, out loud, every word of the Psalms leading up to L'kha Dodi, my Sefaradi side started to emerge and I picked it up quickly. I was not the only one for whom this was not the regular practice and I saw others picked it up and also felt at home quickly. Praying according to a different nusah makes me even more sensitive to and aware of the words. I just have to pay closer attention. The accompaniment helped me find my key, my place, my comfort.
Before L'kha Dodi, two young women came dancing into the synagogue. They were wearing adorable head bands. They announced themselves as the Malkot Shabbat, the Queens of Shabbat and invited all the younger children outside for kid's activities. I watched as all the happy children ran to them and went out to the grass to play, to learn, and to enjoy. At the end of services, they returned to show us, with great enthusiasm, what they worked on during their activity. They smiled from cheek to cheek, as did their parents.
After a beautiful d'var Torah, the instruments were put away as Shabbat officially arrived, and we turned to Ma'ariv. For this service, the tunes were mostly Carlebach and other, older Ashkenazi tunes. Just as in Kabbalat Shabbat, there were those who were less familiar with the tunes and those who were more familiar. Everyone joined together. The spirit, the kavvanah, the intention, was powerful. I truly felt up-lifted. I felt part of a community. I felt part of Am Yisrael, of Eretz Yisrael and of Medinat Yisrael - of the People, The Land, and the State of Israel.
What Rabbah Tamar and those involved in the design of Zion accomplished in one evening was incredible. A new kind of minhag, or custom, an ancient and new nusah Eretz Yisraeli. It was a privilege to be part of the first tefillah and I look forward to being part of this growing and important new community in Baka - one that is native Israeli in its custom, welcoming to all, egalitarian, Hebrew, ancient and new. Are you going to be in Israel this summer? Come and see what can happen when customs are respected and combined; what can happen when the ancient meets the new; and what can happen when people see a need, act on it, and build something new that touches souls in the deepest ways. Come visit Zion: Kehilla Eretz Yisraeli, an innovation created by a Rabbah, a graduate of the Schechter Institute, and a member of the Masorti community.
Shabbat approaches. I am rushing out the door to get to the next Friday night at Zion. I hope to see you there in the future.
עַל הַחֵרוּת הַזֹּאת:
לִרְאוֹת, לָחוּשׁ, לִנְשֹׁם
ולקבל פני שבת, יחד
בתפילה שתביא לידי ביטוי את עצמנו,
יהודים בארץ ישראל שנושאים קולות קדומים
אבל גם קולות מיוחדים לעצמם ולזמנם.
וכל הטוב שהתקבץ לכאן,
נוסחי ספרד ואשכנז, פיוטים ממסורות שונות,
ניגוני ארץ ישראל ושירתה.
קבלת שבת מוסיקלית. שוויונית. מסורתית ומתחדשת.