High-interest Holy Days

This will be the sixth consecutive year that I lead Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I would like to revisit lessons I have learned in retaining attendees’ interest in the service and even in keeping hundreds of them in synagogue all day on Yom Kippur.

My agenda here is to share these ideas for those rabbis and congregations wrestling with how to keep Jews interested in the very long High Holy Days services. Obviously, some of these lessons cannot be applied to Orthodox, or even all Conservative, congregations. And I recognize that some services may need no help from me as they are already quite inspiring.

1. Many Jews Prefer Learning to Davening

I was raised Orthodox and attended yeshivas until the age of 18, but I rarely found davening meaningful. Moreover, my reaction didn’t seem to be atypical. At Orthodox summer camp, for example, all the other Orthodox kids sitting on my bench in shul were playing “siddur baseball” instead of davening.

That is one reason I believe that study can bring many modern Jews closer to God and to Judaism than prayer does. That has been my experience. Therefore, in our services, there is less prayer time and more study time. By study I am referring not to Torah study, but to studying the prayers that we do say (all from the traditional machzor, the High Holy Days prayer book), to the talks I give, and to a two-hour question-and-answer session on Yom Kippur afternoon. 

I regularly explain a prayer that the chazzan is just about to recite:  What does it mean that “God revives the dead?” If “God loves His people Israel,” why have His people suffered so much? Virtually every paragraph in the machzor offers the leader of the services a chance to speak on a great theme.

2. Music Is Vital

Music, too, brings many of us closer to God and religious feeling than prayer alone. Of course, many prayers are sung by cantors and/or the congregation. And I find the distinctive High Holy Days melodies extraordinarily uplifting. This is especially so with musical instruments. As I noted in a previous Jewish Journal column on musical instruments on Shabbat, God obviously knew the power of musical instruments to bring people closer to Him. He ordained their use in the Holy Temple on Shabbat and holidays. It was the rabbis who forbade their use after the Temple was destroyed.

I well recall the first time I attended a Reform Yom Kippur service — at Stephen S. Wise Temple — and heard the Kol Nidre played on a cello. I had tears in my eyes. 

We have a four-person professional choir and four instrumentalists accompanying Cantor Michael Freed (who is a member of Los Angeles Master Chorale, the choral group that sings with the Los Angeles Philharmonic).

3. Shorten Prayer Time

Most people — of any faith — do not find long periods of prayer meaningful. Many Orthodox Jews I know boast about the short amount of time their shul takes to get through Shabbat services. But in order for Orthodox services to take much less time, they have to be recited as if speed-read. The obvious solution — eliminating some of the prayers — is, however, inconceivable to Orthodox, and most Conservative, congregations.

In our services (pragerhighholidays.net), the goal has been to shorten prayer time, but not necessarily the length of the service. Between listening to beautiful liturgical music sung and played, regular commentaries on the liturgy, and a sermon on a religious or ethical Jewish theme, the percentage of time during which the congregation prays is relatively small. In addition to holding people’s interest, this has another benefit: the prayers we do recite take on added meaning. 

Keeping the services interesting and, hopefully, inspiring, has yet another benefit: people come on time. 

4. On Fasting

The screenwriter and novelist Roger Simon attended our services last year and afterward wrote a column on how the services motivated him to fast for the first time since he was a child. 

In order to encourage nonobservant Jews to fast on Yom Kippur, the best thing one can do is figure out how to keep them in shul all day. So this is what we do: 

First, we start Yom Kippur services at 11 a.m. This late beginning is enormously helpful. For one thing sleep gives you strength to fast. For another, we reach the afternoon break after only about four hours. Instead of going home, the attendees are then encouraged to stay for an open discussion with me (and sometimes a guest) on any subject except politics for two hours. By the time that ends, we are within about two hours of the fast ending.

I wish all my readers a meaningful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and a happy and healthy New Year.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Live in the ‘hood: Davening at Aishhhhhh

You walk into an elegant, minimalist little building on the corner of Pico and Doheny in the heart of the hood. It’s Shabbat, and you’ve come to pray.

You go through a narrow hallway, where you pass a few small conference rooms filled with books. Some congregants are milling about as you make your way to the big wooden doors of the sanctuary. You open the doors. The davening has already started, and you quietly find a chair. There is a modern mechitzah, made of blond wood,that is perfectly centered to give equal space to the men and women. The people are appropriately dressed; suit and ties for the men (some in black hats), and modest but elegant attire for the perfectly coiffed supermoms.

You are now inside the eighth wonder of the world: A shul where no one talks.I don’t mean a shul where they tell you not to talk, or where they have signs asking you not to talk; there are plenty of those. I mean a shul where really no one talks. Nada. Not a peep. And on the rare occasion that an unsuspecting newcomer will, say, utter a word that’s not in the prayer book, a supersonic shhhhhhh will immediately enter his airspace, guaranteeing that the violation will have occurred twice simultaneously: first and last.

At the Aish Center for People Who Don’t Do Small Talk, absolute silence during davening has been the norm for many years. Talk to the people who run the place, and they’ll give you a matter-of-fact explanation: It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the halacha (Jewish law). I did my own research and, yes, there is a source in the Talmud. (Did you think there wouldn’t be?)

But that doesn’t explain everything. Why would an outreach organization do something as extreme as enforce a no-talking rule in their shul? After all, isn’t outreach all about talking and hand-holding and explaining? Well, yes and no.

You see, there’s a question that all outreach organizations must eventually face: After years of doing successful outreach, is there a point where you must also do some serious inreach to keep your regulars happy?

In the case of Aish, a little history will help. Over the past two decades in Los Angeles, Aish has grown from a tiny outreach outpost to a real community. As newcomers became old-timers, their needs evolved. Many of them wanted more than the introductory fare Aish is famous for. Some started defecting to more hard-core shuls like Anshe Emes. Some started wearing black hats. This was to be expected: Aish has always attracted a serious, no-nonsense crowd. People in the Aish community take their Judaism very seriously, so it’s not surprising that as their learning and their families grew, they would expect more and more from their “outreach center.”

The synagogue became the natural place to cater to the old-timers. Aish groomed a new generation of leaders and Torah teachers, some of whom give regular classes at the synagogue. But Aish didn’t stop there. They delivered on the serious davener’s ultimate fantasy: a schmooze-free minyan.

It was a classic trade-off. You might turn off some new people (and from what I hear, they do), but in return, you keep your old-timers happy, and in the bargain, you develop a certain pride of sacrifice: “We believe so much in the sanctity of prayer, that we are willing to risk turning off some Jews.”

For an outreach juggernaut, that’s no small potatoes.

Of course, it helps that Aish has a whole array of other vehicles to reach out to the unaffiliated and the disconnected: special classes, singles events (they created the highly successful Speed Dating), Discovery seminars, trips to Israel, documentary films, a major Web site, even beginners’ services on Shabbat and the High Holidays.

But when it comes to the main davening, well, chalk one up for the old-timers. Membership has its privileges, and the no-schmooze sanctuary is high on the list.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about this zero-tolerance policy on shul schmoozing. I see the value of a prayer service where the emphasis is on the prayers and the praying. There’s a collective energy that sort of transports you to a higher place. It’s davening with a purpose.

My problem is with the emphasis on zero, as in zero tolerance.

Honestly, could we really have survived so long without some schmoozing in shul? Could we have accomplished so much? How do we know that Maimonides didn’t get the idea for his “Guide to the Perplexed” from conversing with a perplexed congregant during the Shabbat mussaf prayer, circa 1172? Or that Herzl didn’t use the little time he spent in sanctuaries to schmooze with big machers so they would help fund his Zionist dream?

OK, I’m reaching, but if just about every shul on the planet allows at least a little bit of schmoozing during davening, there must be a good reason. I bet you a lot of it has to do with the fact that shul time is often the only time people get to connect with each other; so they look forward to their weekly schmooze, as much as they look forward to the Shemonei Esrei, or to the ketchup-laden cholent.

In a schmooze-friendly shul, you greet your buddy whom you haven’t seen since last week, and, during those davening lulls, you find out if the kids are OK, did he get your invitation to the AIPAC event, does he know a good dentist, did he understand the rabbi’s sermon and so on until Kiddush. It might not be very noble or pious, but hey, it’s real and it’s haimish, and, dare I say, it’s even a little Jewish.

I guess my issue with the zero-tolerance policy is that it creates the illusion that Maschiach is already here. It’s so bloody perfect! And I’m so bloody not! Whatever happened to the notion of work in progress? Do my friends at Aish realize what it feels like to be surrounded by all this quiet perfection? Can’t they just call a meeting of the old-timers and ask them to lighten up just a teenie little weenie bit?

If they invite me to the meeting, I will share with them this little insight: Keep making your davening inspirational, keep looking for captivating melodies that move the soul and everyone will be so into it, you’ll never have to go shhhhhhhhhhhh.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Davening for Dollars

Talmud teaches that a righteous act is its own reward. But if that’s not inducement enough, a rabbi in Woodland Hills is offering $10 cash plus a Krispy Kreme doughnut to teens who attend his 7 a.m. minyan.

It started like this: In 1998 Rabbi Netanel Louie founded the Hebrew Discovery Center to promote Judaism in the West Valley. His center, next to a sushi restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, began by offering after-school Hebrew courses that fulfill the public schools’ foreign language requirement.

Eighty Jewish teens, some of whom didn’t know an alef from a bet, soon signed up to study modern Hebrew (in addition to the classes, the center schedules teen events, including kosher pizza parties and snow trips).

The first weekday teen minyan began in December 2005. How to get sleepy kids out of bed at dawn? Louie, ever pragmatic, had an idea: “Why don’t we offer them something they can’t refuse?”

Thus the $10 payments — which continue for the first two months of each teen’s attendance. Currently 110 teens are registered for the short Orthodox service, with about 35 showing up each day. Eleventh-grader Joni Fakheri, who had fallen away from observance, says the minyan has changed his life. After three years of not putting on tefillin and straying from kashrut, “it all came back.”

Tenth-grader Elizabeth Benam, who sports a trendy diamond nose-stud and nails painted metallic turquoise, admits that “I used to never hang out with Jews.” But now she’s sold on the minyan, because “it gives you a good feeling inside.”

Her cousin, Mor Pinto, agrees: “We don’t do it for the money anymore.”

Hebrew Discovery Center is located at 19819 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills. For more information, call(818) 348-4432 or e-mail hdc@socal.rr.com. HDC also offers after school Hebrew classes at 11540 Santa Monica Blvd., No. 201, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 696-4432.


A Prayer Book of Many Colors

Lori Justice-Shocket thought that the traditional praying
experience was just a bit too black and white. Not the prayers, themselves, per
se, but the siddurim (prayer books), with their plain black typeface on white
pages and the archaic traditional language, made davening, for her at least,
formal, stiff and lacking in the visual and emotional engagement that she
thought prayer should have.

So Justice-Shocket, vice president of conceptual development
at the Los Angeles-based nail polish company, OPI, decided to take matters into
her own  presumably well-manicured hands  and create a prayer book that could
visually and intellectually inspire worshippers.

The result is the new Reform Shabbat morning prayer book,
“Mikdash M’at” (Behrman House Inc), which means “small sanctuary.” It’s a
prayer book unlike any seen before. The first page — the morning blessings — is
illuminated in deep reds and pinks, and thereafter the colors don’t stop.
Sometimes the graphics are superimposed on the text, other times they are
located at the side, but every page is replete with some design, either a
graphic of an old Israeli coin, item of Judaica or a vibrant and richly hued
modernist painting that causes one to look twice at the text it illuminates.

The text, however, is still the same. “Mikdash M’at” is a
traditional prayer book with traditional prayers — they’re just presented in a
funkier fashion. Justice-Shocket also worked to make the prayers easier to
follow. The book is divided into the seven parts of the Shabbat morning
davening. Many of the prayers are transliterated, but all are translated into
gender-inclusive English. Most are prefaced with a brief explanation of what
the prayer is about, to inhibit mindless recitation of the words. For those who
get distracted during prayer, this is the kind of book that keeps you looking

To order, visit www.behrmanhouse.com .

Happy Minyan Hits a Sour Note

I am sorry. Davening just isn’t what it use to be.

This past Shabbat, I wandered into a well-respected, modern Orthodox institution for Shabbat morning services. Because it was late, I wandered into a small room where the so called "happy minyan" was in progress. I was greeted warmly and invited in.

For the uninitiated, the happy minyan is a fairly recent American phenomenon, in which the melodies of Reb Shlomo Carlbach of blessed memory are infused into the davening.

Well, it used to be true that the melodies were infused into the davening. Now the davening is virtually one long Reb Shlomo-fest.

I realize that happy minyanim are found among all denominations that have adopted the practice to meet each group’s particular needs. My issue is with the way these minyanim are held in Orthodox synagogues.

We have a concept related to tefilah (prayer) called nusach. This word has been roughly translated as rite, such as the Sephardic rite, the Ashkenazic rite, etc.

Nusach involves the particular order of the prayers, as well as the way in which prayers vary by punctuation, phrasing and melodic pattern. By melodic pattern, think of something similar to a blues pattern.

A typical 12-bar blues progression allows the musician playing the melodic lead to dissect the notes that make up the chords. Nusach acts pretty much the same way.

Those leading the prayer service create intricate combinations of notes within the patterns or modes of the nusach but are bound by the chords that make up these patterns. In addition, certain prayers are open to innovation outside the nusach.

For example, there is a long-standing tradition of making the El Adon prayer in the Sabbath morning services a kind of dealer’s choice. There are also places where innovation is limited or prohibited outright. In the Ashkenazic rite, for example, the "Kaddish" said before the Shabbat Musaf prayer is a melodic constant.

Unfortunately, the man leading this happy minyan prayer service apparently had no real concept of nusach. In addition, he mispronounced many of the words. Clearly he was warm and engaging, but that does not in and of itself qualify someone for leading congregational prayer.

Just one week earlier, I was in another local modern Orthodox synagogue, where a guest of some musical renown was invited to lead the congregation in prayers. He, too, did not know the nusach and believed that spirited and catchy melodies were a fair substitute for proper davening.

I was privileged to know Reb Shlomo Carlbach, although I will not say I was close to him. (I wasn’t at Woodstock either.) I brought groceries for his mother of blessed memory and ate at his table while 2-year-old Neshomole was munching on cucumber salad. I tuned his guitars at a concert on the beach at Bat Yom in the summer of 1971.

This much I know: Reb Shlomo knew how to daven He knew the nusach and respected it!

Innovation serves a wonderful place in Jewish life. That being said, we cannot play fast and loose with the tradition.

Picasso’s abstract art was respected precisely because he had the technical skill of a classically trained artist. He did not paint abstract images because he didn’t know how to paint realistic ones.

Before those leading prayers innovate, they should understand the rules of nusach. They should have the skill and, yes, the humility to realize that the clapping and the warmth and spontaneity you can set your watch by must take a back seat to the integrity of public prayer.

I would love to hear the rabbis of these synagogues address the question of Jewish law and respect for nusach. It can be argued that a discernible unity in selected parts of the prayer service gives us a spiritual continuity we so desperately need in these difficult times. Our enemies are, after all, pretty good at prayer.

This does not detract from the sincerity and the warmth of the people I met in the happy minyan.

Rafael Guber is founder of the Sepia Guild and a featured expert on the PBS series “Ancestors.”