Saturday, November 24, 2012


Part I- Planning a coup

Apparently my friend Abraham has a master plan for taking over Beth Elderly and turning it from "the friendly but ancient shul" into "the friendly shul with lots of old people and a bunch of young folks, too." Interestingly enough, a lot of it hinges on me and Carlebach-style davening.

Like us, Abraham and his wife used to frequent Evil Minion quite a bit. And, like us, though they enjoyed the davening style, they found it a little hard to connect with the community. So they kept looking, eventually ending up at Beth Elderly, where the people are friendly but the davening is, sad to say, kind of dead. The cantor has a penchant for warbling and the rabbi likes Carlebach but can't carry a tune. Some of the older folks are interested but they don't know enough to lead it themselves. So when Abraham found out I can sing quasi-decently and knew all the tunes to Kabbalat Shabbat from our several years going to Evil Minion services, he got very excited.

Basically, the plan is to start our own breakaway minyan... except instead of breaking away from Beth Elderly, we'll instead take it over.

There is a spare room in the shul that is in the process of being cleaned out. Right now we're thinking that we will be able to set up shop in there and start doing some Carlebach stuff by January. If people like it, we will hopefully be able to attract some of the regulars (and maybe even some new folks) out of the main sanctuary and into our clutches. The goal is to have two services, give people a chance to do what they like, and then have both finish around the same time for a joint kiddush/oneg. The key to the plan is that once the alternative minyan gets more attendees than the main service, the rabbi has agreed to have the two groups swap rooms. The hope is that eventually, most people would opt for the livelier service while still giving the old-timers the option to stick with their preferred tunes if they wanted to.

At first I was a little alarmed by this idea, since to me it seems a little mean to boot the old folks out of their sanctuary. But I also realize that if Beth Elderly is going to keep going, it needs fresh blood, and this might be one of many ways to make that happen. So I'm on record as a potential minyan member, and we'll see what happens come January.

Part II- An early start

Abraham and I had this conversation a while ago, so it's been in the back of my mind. What I wasn't expecting was to get a dress-rehearsal for it last weekend.

I should back up. Mrs. Yid and I went to our first ever shul retreat! It's a big tradition and we'd heard a lot about it. Usually we are both a bit on the shy side at shul so it was a little overwhelming to think about spending a whole weekend with 100-odd congregants, but we decided to be brave and go for it. As it happened, it was a wonderful weekend. We got to spend lots of time with different people from shul-- some we already knew, like Abraham & Sarah and the rabbi & his wife, and some folks we only knew by sight who we now know a little better. I was happy to have Mrs. Yid there to help me get out of my shell a bit, and I think the whole weekend was the better for it.

One huge thing that happened was on Friday night. We got into the hotel late (it was about 50 miles out of town and we were driving during a rainstorm) and were gulping down dinner when the rabbi came over and mentioned to Abraham that he was thinking of doing a Carlebach tune or two during services.  Within a minute or two, this somehow morphed into him turning to me and asking if I'd like to LEAD a Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat! (My brain stopped working at that point so my memory is a little foggy, but I seem to remember Mrs. Yid having something to do with it.) I stuttered that I'd have to think about it for a minute and sat back down. Luckily I had insisted on bringing our transliterated siddurs to dinner, so I whipped one out and started going through the service to see if I could actually remember all the melodies. With some help from Abraham, I got through them all, and with lots of encouragement from my wife, decided to take the plunge and go for it.

I was quite nervous when we started the service, but I did my best to keep my eyes on my book (or closed during the niggun parts) and got through it. Half the time I even had some fun. And it was really interesting; a lot of the people seemed to really get into it. I had been worried some of the older folks would be annoyed that it was so different, but a lot of them were enjoying the energy of the davening-- especially the rabbi's wife, who said that loves Carlebach and used to go to a Carlebach minyan in Israel a lot when she and her husband were studying there, and has missed it a lot in the last few years. When we were done, one of the really active board members came up to me and said, "That was really great. Our services should be more like that. In fact, I think I services should always be like that!" Abraham and I were pretty happy after that.

The rest of the weekend was lovely and we had a lot of fun (though I got bested by an aliyah yet again!), but for me that was the absolute highlight. I've led Jewish stuff at my house before, but that's always been in a setting where I'm the most knowledgable one in the room. It's a very different feeling to be leading things in a group where people know what they're doing, in many cases probably more than you. It was nerve-wracking, exciting and special all at the same time.

Part III- Aftermath

The rabbi sent out an email before Shabbat. He thinks we should start doing Carlebach style davening more regularly-- at least once a month! I don't want to take too much credit, but I know that at least part of this is thanks to last week's service. I did something and it made a difference. I did something that had an effect, if only in a small way. All of a sudden I'm feeling like I'm really part of the community... and that the community is a part of me. I'm very happy to have been part of that service, and very hopeful that this direction, along with other things the shul is doing, help make the community more vibrant, sustainable and engaging.

Part IV- Epilogue

The Saturday of the retreat I realized we were just one week past Zayde's 16th yarzeit. Even though I was past the date, I said Kaddish for him anyway-- for him and Bubbe. Together and apart, images and reality, all of it mixed up together, as always.

It's amazing to think it's been sixteen years since he died. Sixteen years of me growing up in a mental shadow, or at least reflection, of him. Sixteen years of doing family research, discovering so much about where he and the rest of the family came from. Sixteen years of trying to better understand his faith; of learning about Judaism, and then actually putting my knowledge into practice. Sixteen years of forging my own identity, one strongly, even intensely, rooted in my family's past, but focused on my future.

Sixteen years ago I didn't know what a kippah was. Sixteen years ago the only Jewish friend I had was as clueless and disengaged as I was. Sixteen years ago I had never observed Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, much less Sukkot, Shavuot or Tisha B'Av. Sixteen years ago I wouldn't have imagined I'd ever have a Jewish blog, belong to a synagogue, or lead a prayer service.

I'm not the kind of Jew my grandfather was, and in some ways I regret that, because I know how incredible important that identity, that practice, and that worldview were to him. But I also hope that if he were here, there would be a part of him that would see how far I've come, and how much of it is rooted, at least in part, in wanting to better connect with him, and that he'd be proud.

Because I am.

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