Monday, 22 June 2009

A Perfect Moment of Worship

I have not often written in this space about my work (or calling?) as a cantorial soloist for a small Reform synagogue in the north Jewish ghetto of Toronto. Perhaps it is because I feel that religion is an entirely personal matter, and far be it from me to impose my views of spirituality and prayer on anybody. Perhaps it is as basic as keeping the virtual walls I have created in my world intact, and not feeling all that comfortable with the deconstruction of those barriers. Perhaps it is simply because I cannot adequately verbalize the emotions that overwhelm and overcome me at perfect moments of worship. It is this thought that I am now willing to tackle and share with the blogosphere.

This past Shabbat was a particularly beautiful one for our congregation. We have started a series of community Shabbat dinners which have been embraced by the community. These dinners were the brainchild of our rabbi, who felt that in addition to helping our members connect and reconnect with both the synagogue and its members, it would allow those who were feeling the pinch of the economy to have a full Shabbat meal without incurring any costs, which have been defrayed by donors. A planning committee came together quickly and they contacted a local caterer to ask for his help and guidance. He graciously offered his kitchen (we operate out of a local Hebrew Day school and as such our kitchen facilities are grossly lacking!) and his expertise. Not only that, he oversaw and helped with all of the cooking. The first dinner back in April was a huge success with almost 90 people in attendance. We dined on roast chicken and potatoes, soup, salad and decadent desserts. We sang as a community and we segued directly into Kabbalat Shabbat services. It was so beautiful and well received that we decided to try it again last Friday. We moved the dining outside into the unlikely and unremarkable paved playground and we barbecued. Our friend the caterer took it upon himself to do the cooking, and we were stunned to see more than 120 people of all ages. Kids played, adults shmoozed and caught up with one another, and everybody felt appropriately sated as we welcomed Shabbat together as a Kehillah Kedosha, a holy community. Once again, we all moved towards the Beit T'fillah (sanctuary) as one group to begin our Kabbalat Shabbat worship.

Our senior youth group had been charged with the duties of leading services. This was a welcome change for me, as I always love it when the high schoolers put themselves into the creation of worship, and it affords me the opportunity to daven as a regular member of the congregation. The kids had asked permission of the rabbi, if they might take all of the traditionally sung prayers and change them to Beatles melodies. It was fantastic. We were treated to the S'hma sung to "Blackbird", V'shamru to "A Hard Day's Night" and Shalom Rav to the tune of "When I'm Sixty-Four". (My personal favourite!!) In between the chanted pieces, there were dramatic readings of some of Lennon and McCartney's other masterpieces. Yes, there were some chuckles from the congregation as they overcame their discomfort and yes, it took some creative mastering to fit Hebrew words to the melodies, but it was brilliantly done. The kids had obviously taken great care to prepare properly for the occasion and their guitar playing was masterful. The songs are so well-known to everybody that even a novice could pray comfortably and it proved to be a perfect capper to the evening. It reminded me of the best creative services from my URJ camp days, and it gave us a glimpse into the teenage mind as they strive to find relevance in prayer. I was overcome with pride as I watched these young people skillfully lead the congregation and I found myself connecting with the Shechina in a way previously unknown to me. (I think the lightning hit as the community was singing "Let it Be" as a concluding song and I worried over uttering the words "Mother Mary" in a Jewish sanctuary. Yes, I am aware that this is not a christological reference, but rather a shout out to Paul McCartney's mother, but it still stuck me as odd!) It was the rabbi who made the connection to the Shechina (the essence of God) for me, but I was already onboard. I realized that this was a perfect moment of prayer, a time when I connected body and soul to the words that I was uttering. I will admit that it doesn't happen very often for me and I am certain that there are many out there still waiting for their first occurrence, but I remembered why this community is so important to me. We are willing to dare. We are willing to experiment; to try new things and to allow all of our individual members, younger and older, to find God and Judaism in their own time and their own way. May we have many more Shabbatot like this previous one.


  1. Thank you for sharing that story. Your Shabbat must have really been 'magical'. I really wish I could have been there to hear all the amazing musical renditions. Was any of it captured on tape?

  2. About the tape, sadly no. I did take stills of the barbeque, but because that was before actual services, it was okay. We tend not to record our services unless it is unobtrusive, and since I was not properly prepared, I didn't have vidcam or tripod with me. Hopefully, there will be other opportunities.

  3. Sounds wonderful. I wish it had been on a date when Melanie and I could have been there as well to experience it.

  4. It was a great dinner and service. One of the wonderful things about the reform movement is acceptance of different ways to connect with god. Also thanks for the explanation of the "Mother Mary" bit, I did not know that was Paul Mcartney's mother. Probably would have been better to change the words to "When I find myself in times of trouble, Rabbi Gotlieb comes to me, speaking words of wisdom...."