September 25, 2018

Na’or: Soulful Shabbat

It’s Friday evening and dusk is falling outside Mishkon Tephilo’s synagogue on Main Street in Santa Monica. Rabbi Gabriel Botnick wanders out onto the street and greets everyone with a hearty “Shabbat shalom!”

Like children following the Pied Piper, congregants of all ages stream into the synagogue behind him to Mishkon’s social hall in the basement.

The chattering ceases almost instantly as close to 100 people take their seats in a darkened room with dim lighting. Up front, Botnick, final year Ziegler Rabbinical School student Aviva Funke and musician Brock Pollock — standing behind a double bass — prepare to begin Kabbalat Shabbat services.

The service is full of gentle tunes, poetry and soft musical drumbeats that thrum the chords of your heart.

Welcome to Na’or, created barely six months ago by Botnick, Funke and Pollock in response to what they saw as a need to create a more meaningful approach to prayer. Held on the third Friday of every month, Na’or bills itself as “an enlightened Shabbat and Soulful Supper Club” (a catered vegetarian dinner is held after services in the same hall).

“We want to slowly take people to a higher level.” — Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

The name Na’or (enlightened) came about because “we talked a lot about bringing the soul to Shabbat and what does it mean to have your soul illuminated by Shabbat,” Funke said in a phone interview. “It’s why we wanted to have more of a dark space, but to have light around.”

Botnick told the Journal he was speaking with Funke last summer about the issues she was having finding meaning in prayer services. “We spoke about how if you break it down and don’t try to overwhelm [people], and just work with a verse or two, you get a sense of what you’re doing,” he said.

It’s why Na’or services are short. Each week, for example, only one verse of Lecha Dodi is sung, but the meaning is explained and emphasis is placed on connecting to the words.

“I’ve always been frustrated with our current custom of communal prayer,” Funke said. “We don’t communally interpret or learn or dissect what is in our prayer book. What we’re missing is engaging our communities with kavanah (intention).”

To that end, Botnick, Funke and Pollock have drawn on a variety of musical traditions to help congregants connect and engage. Funke and Pollock write many of the tunes. Other influences come from Nava Tehila’s Ruth Gan Kagan, IKAR’s Hillel Tigay and Hadar’s Joey Weisenberg.

Nor is the music happenstance. “That’s all Aviva and Brock,” Botnick said. “We have this narrative arc we want to take people on, to slowly take them to a higher level, and leave people on a high at the end of the service.”

“Brock and I get together and evaluate the music each month,” Funke said. “We want it to have a particular vibration so that it feels soulful and exciting, but we look at the service as a roller coaster. What are our high points and low points?”

For Botnick, it’s all about drawing in a more diverse crowd and ensuring visitors come away with a meaningful experience. “I have very little ego in this game,” he said. “I just really like bringing in people and creating something awesome.”

It’s quite an achievement, given Mishkon’s reputation as a more traditionally based Conservative synagogue. Not only has Na’or drawn people from a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds, it’s also created a space for those new to the fold.

“I sponsor a lot of people for conversion — up to 10 per year,” Botnick said. “And many of them turn up to Na’or’s services. We create a space that’s really accessible.”

Moving forward, Funke, who will graduate next month, said she hopes to be able to continue to expand Na’or. “I want to work on crafting Shabbat morning services and eventually implement and create a Havdalah program — the full kit and caboodle — including High Holidays.”

Botnick also hopes the program continues to expand. “My biggest dream is to have a much larger space, without pillars between people.”

He was again assuming the mantle of the Pied Piper. “People would be able to hear the singing outside on the street,” he said, wistfully, “and come on in.”