September 22, 2019

Alternative Scene

The Shabbat morning services last Saturday were wonderful.

The bar mitzvah did a fabulous job. The weekly drash was thought-provoking, rich with morality and relevance. And the kiddush? Complete, including even those little rainbow squares that you can only seem to find at shul on Shabbat morning.

Sounds perfect. Traditional in so many ways. A blast from the past.

Only I wasn’t there. Again.

And I’m not alone.

The Shabbat morning service just doesn’t move me the way it does for the 150 or so congregants who are routinely transported through Sabbath rituals at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue with more than 900 families in Valley Village. There always seem to be other places to go on a Saturday, other priorities.

Put me in the twice-a-year camp. It would have been easy for Adat Ari El to write me off.Rather, it has only increased the congregation’s resolve to get me and many of my fellow congregants back into temple.

“The conditions are right for a change,” acknowledges Rabbi Moshe Rothblum, one of the architects behind a revolutionary new Sabbath morning service debuting Nov. 4 at Adat Ari El and being watched with interest across the United States. “There’s a spiritual revival, a great spiritual interest that people have expressed and are looking for in Saturday morning services,” he said. “We are trying to respond to that interest.”

One Shabbat Morning at Adat Ari El draws inspiration from the successful Friday Night Live at Sinai Temple and myriad experiments at synagogues nationwide attempting to reconnect individuals and families looking for a more spiritual Shabbat experience while retaining appeal to synagogue regulars. The liturgy is being scaled way down. The bimah will be centered in the room. Original music, played by a full band, will deliver the spiritual heft.

By design, this is not my father’s Shabbat morning service, nor is it the one I grew up with – and it has done the trick in grabbing my attention. Consider: There’s going to be one aliyah during the Torah service, not seven. The weekly portion will be read in Hebrew and English. Several prayers from the traditional musaf have been cut. Even the weekly sermon has been dispatched to a preservice study session. Best of all: The running time is no more than two hours.

“People have a difficult time tolerating three hours of meditation on a Saturday morning,” notes Craig Taubman, a contemporary Jewish musical artist and Adat member who has composed much of what will be heard during One Shabbat Morning. “The question is: How do you maintain integrity, yet have it speak to the heart and the passion of your average Jew on the street, who might be a member of a congregation, but might not be comfortable with traditional, Conservative liturgy?””One Shabbat Morning is an example of bridging Conservative Judaism with more contemporary methods of prayer,” Taubman said.

Changing the paradigm of worship is not unique to Jews, nor an endeavor undertaken without a lot of consultation, heartburn and whispered prayers. In some respects, One Shabbat Morning’s reliance on congregant participation, upbeat music – and maybe even some hand waving – hints at activities typically reserved for contemporary Christian churches.Not that there’s anything wrong with that, organizers of One Shabbat Morning say, especially if the services retain rabbinic tradition, enhance the experience and draw people in. Cantor Ira Bigeleisen, who will co-officiate at the new service with Taubman and Rothblum, notes that worship has always been influenced by popular culture: by German Jews who prayed in 19th Century Berlin to music composed by Louis Lewandowsky; to Jews in Babylonia in 500 B.C.E. who prayed in both Aramaic and Hebrew.

It’s only natural, Bigeleisen says, for American Jews who have completely integrated into American society and helped shape it politically and culturally to do the same.

“Today’s American Jews want to integrate this culture into their Jewish lives, just as Jews all over the world have done through the ages,” Bigeleisen said.

While there will be those who will criticize One Shabbat Morning for its departures, the project’s organizers are not without credential. Funded in part by grants from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Los Angeles and the Stone Family Foundation of Baltimore, Maryland, the project has had several collaborators, including Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College; Dr. Ron Wolfson, co-director of Synagogue 2000; Cantor Alberto Mizrahi of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago; and Cantor David Lefkowitz of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.

As the San Fernando Valley’s oldest congregation, Adat Ari El has experience pioneering new traditions. Organizers expect One Shabbat Morning will attract its share of the curious to the alternative service, some of whom might peek in and then retreat to the concurrent traditional service down the hall.

But Rothblum and Taubman, as well as the lay leadership of the temple, are upbeat about the potential of the project, which has been months in the making.

“I want people to leave and say, ‘I’m coming back the next time because I’ve found community. I’ve found joy. It moves me. It touches me,'” Taubman said. “But, more importantly, I hope they’ll say, ‘I want more.'”

One Shabbat Morning will be held one Saturday each month beginning Nov. 4 at Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. Informal study session, 9 a.m.; services begin at 9:45 a.m. A children’s Shabbat program (preschool through third grade) from 9 to 11:45 a.m. is available with preregistration. For more information, call (818) 766-9426, ext. 416, or visit the Adat Ari El Web site