Taking Prayer Seriously

Laura Geller, Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills, CA

Rabbi_Laura_GellerThe first part of this article first appeared in the CCAR Journal in Winter 2009.

I didn’t set out to transform our synagogue by creating an alternative Shabbat morning minyan.  I only wanted a place to pray. I knew that the ultimate measure of the success of my congregational rabbinate would be if I could pray in my own synagogue.

When I came to Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in 1994, it was a congregation in distress. It was close to $5,000,000 in debt, the previous senior rabbi had left, tension between the day school and the synagogue was toxic, and it was about to be acquired by another major congregation in what was called a merger. The Board of Directors of both synagogues favored the merger, as did the rabbis, including the emeritus rabbi of Emanuel who was called back into service when the senior rabbi had left, tension between the day school and the synagogue was toxic, and it was about to be acquired by another major congregation in what was called a merger. The Board of Directors of both synagogues favored the merger, as did the rabbis, including the emeritus rabbi of Emanuel who was called back into service when the senior rabbi left.   Everyone assumed the merger was a done deal until the congregational meeting where the merger was defeated by less than 50 votes.

When Emanuel chose me to be the senior rabbi, the leadership was taking a risk.  Although I had been a rabbi for 18 years (serving as the Hillel director of USC for 14 years and the director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the American Jewish Congress for 4),  I had not had a day of congregational experience.  It was less of a risk for me.  As Rabbi Lenny Thal advised me: “If you succeed, it will be your success; if you fail, everyone will assume it was an impossible job.”

For the first several years, I served as the only rabbi. Our b’nai mitzvah services, while lovely, were essentially private family celebrations as opposed to communal worship.  The congregation was too big for everyone to know each other’s children and therefore want to participate in a service led by a 13-year old, however well trained. So it was clear that we needed to create an alternative Shabbat morning experience. My hope at the beginning was that this alternative service be a model for what prayer at its best could be and that it might begin to influence the other worship experiences in the congregation.

I was fortunate to be able to hire two incredibly talented rabbis in Los Angeles who didn’t have Shabbat morning responsibilities and to trust them enough to invite them to use this opportunity to create their ideal Shabbat morning service.  Rabbis Janet and Shelly Marder created our New Emanuel Minyan, established the matbeah tefillah, and worked with several different cantorial soloists to create a style of music that was participatory as opposed to performance. On those shabbatot when I didn’t have b’nai mitzvah responsibilities, I attended the New Emanuel Minyan. For me it was a learning experience in the power of communal prayer.

In the early days the minyan met once a month, then twice.  By the time Janet and Shelly moved on to other positions,  I had been joined at Emanuel by my wonderful colleague Rabbi Jonathan Aaron.  Together we continued where the Marders had left off, but now with the New Emanuel Minyan meeting every Shabbat, led either by Rabbi Aaron or me. The other one of us led the bar mitzvah service in the sanctuary.

As I reflect on the question of transformation, the key was not only the excellence of the service created by the Marders, but even more important, the conscious decision to create a partnership between the clergy and the congregation. Once the minyan was meeting every Shabbat, we created a Worship Care Committee along the lines Larry Hoffman describes in his book The Art of Public Prayer:  Not for Clergy Only. While it too has evolved over the years, the Worship Care effort is an ongoing process where congregants and clergy meet regularly to check in, and talk about what is working and what isn’t, and what kinds of risks people feel ready to take. This effort led to the creation of our own prayerbook, a labor of learning and love that involved about twenty congregants studying liturgy, reading poetry and exploring how best to create a living siddur.

The Worship Care Committee decided to have a kiddush lunch every week, understanding the important role that eating together has in creating community. Finally the Worship Care effort led to the decision to hire a rabbinic intern whose job it is to care for the minyan, train the greeters, act as gabbai, send a weekly e-mail and be present every week in a non- liturgical function to pay attention to who is there and who isn’t, to make sure new people are seated with regulars and to nurture the sense of community. Our intern, Jill Zimmerman, noticed, for example, that people were turning down honors because they weren’t exactly sure what to do. So, she brought this issue up at a Worship Care meeting and people shared what they need to learn in order to be able to own the worship experience.   She then instituted a series of mini-classes, offered after lunch, taught by other minyan participants on everything from where to bow during the amida to what to do in a torah service, to the history of prayer.  This learning complements the learning that goes on within the service; instead of a formal d’var torah the tradition has evolved that one of the rabbis leads an interactive torah discussion with prepared texts that are studied both in chevruta and in a larger group discussion. Rabbi Aaron and I try to coordinate our teachings so that over the course of a year, we have demonstrated the various lenses through which one studies torah.

The New Emanuel Minyan has become a sub-community within the synagogue. It has spawned a bikkur cholim and bereavement effort and is often the setting where we try out new ideas. We now offer a minyan alternative at High Holy Day services, and our ‘high church” high holy day services in the main sanctuary have been influenced by what goes on at the minyan. For example, we now have at least one group aliyah at every morning high holiday service. We invite people to come forward who are wrestling with some issue that the Torah opens up, explaining, for example that if this is a year that they are longing to make a change or give birth to something new that the aliyah of God remembering Sarah is for them. To say that this breaks down the formality of a service with 1200 people is an understatement! We were able to take that risk because we already had a significant group of people who had experienced group aliyot in the minyan.

The success of the minyan enabled us to understand that compelling worship is important to Reform Jews and gave us the courage to be playful about other services. On different Friday nights we have different kinds of services, a monthly musical service called Shabbat Unplugged, a monthly service with an in-house band called Shabbat B’yachad, and a more intimate chapel service on the other shabbatot. We are now instituting a Worship Care Committee for the chapel service and look forward in the future to each service having its own worship care effort.  This year, for the first time, because of the openness we have demonstrated about worship, some of our younger congregants (20’s and 30’s) created their own Friday night alternative that meets once a month late on a Friday night. That service is totally lay led,

The New Emanuel Minyan is hardly new any more. But we are not changing the name. Because the minyan is a partnership between clergy and congregation, it is always changing and therefore always new.  Sometimes innovations work; sometimes they don’t. We talk about what we want to do, and we reflect on what we have done, together, congregation and clergy. It is an ongoing experiment, a good example of living Judaism.

The categories described in the article “Functional and Visionary Congregations” by Steven M Cohen, Isa Aron, Lawrence Hoffman and Ari Kelman are helpful as I reflect on the evolution of the minyan and the impact it has made at Temple Emanuel. They distinguish between functional and visionary synagogues. Functional synagogues are categorized by consumerist purpose, segmented understanding, passivity and excessive professional control, detachment, resistance to change and non-reflective leadership. Visionary congregations, on the other hand, demonstrate sacred purpose, holistic ethos, participatory culture, meaningful engagement, innovative disposition and reflective leadership.

In all honesty, I would have to admit that TempleEmanuel is both at the same time. Much of what goes on is functional; lots of people join in order that their children have a bar or bat mitzvah. Many, unfortunately, leave when it is over. Others join because they send their kids to our day school.  They leave when their children graduate. Many others join just to come for the High Holy Days or view us as an insurance policy; they want to make sure someone who knows them will be there to officiate at their funerals.

On the other hand, there are sub-communities within the Temple that could be described as visionary.  The New Emanuel Minyan is part of that vision- a sacred community, participatory culture, meaningful engagement, innovative disposition and reflective leadership.  And while those who participate in the minyan would speak about its “holistic ethos”… participants pray together, learn together, celebrate each others’ simchas together, and comfort each other at times of loss, it is still a sub-community within a larger congregation.

But, perhaps because of the New Emanuel Minyan, the congregation has changed and continues to change.  The values reflected in the minyan support “visionary” work: participatory culture, meaningful engagement, innovative disposition and reflection. The experience of Torah study in the minyan has modeled “one on one” conversations between congregants so our work with other transformation projects, like the social justice initiative with congregationally-based community organizing that begins with one one on one conversations already had a base when we began and in fact it has drawn many of its leaders from that community.   Over the years, more and more board members come to leadership through the minyan, and over the years more of our leaders have begun to come to the minyan. We continue to aspire to spend more time in reflection with our leaders.

We try our best to move from “functional” to “visionary,” to transform our “consumers” into engaged members of a sacred community. We require, for example, that every b’nai mitzvah family come at least once to the New Emanuel Minyan.  Every year, a few become regulars. We create the opportunity at b’nai mitzvah family education programs for parents to talk with each other about concerns they have about the future of their children in this privileged and stress-filled world in which they live. We send a daily Elul reflection out by e-mail with a story by a congregant about a moment when the High Holy Days were particularly meaningful, as a way to model that part of what makes a sacred community is listening to each others’ stories.  Not everyone opens the e-mails, but many do, and seem to be moved. We deliver mishloach manot to the doorstep of every congregant’s home.  Sometimes the congregants are even home and they invite the one bringing the Purim basket to come in to visit. We’ve created an innovative teen philanthropy program where our high school students serve as the Board of Directors of an endowment fund and determine how to give away the money after they have researched organizations doing work they feel is important, and now these teenagers have challenged the Temple’s Endowment Board to reflect on whether Jewish values ought to influence how that endowment is invested.  Congregants are talking with each other about things that matter, across generational lines, and more of our teenagers are staying connected to the temple. Slowly slowly, we are coming closer to a congregation that matters in people’s lives, a sacred community.

So perhaps one key to transformation is creating “visionary” communities and projects within “functional” synagogues. And to remember that all synagogues are works in progress.  While the work of transformation is far from over, at least one thing is clear: I do have a place to pray.  And a community that helps me remember what Emanuel means:  God is among us.

It’s a beginning.

*                                  *                                  *

Addendum: Dec. 2013.

It has been over 20 years since the New Emanuel Minyan was created.  It is hardly new anymore. We now require that every bar or bat mitzvah family come at least once to the New Emanuel Minyan. A few of the adults have continued to come after the bar/bat mitzvah itself.  Occasionally a child of a regular minyan family chooses to celebrate a bar/bat mitzvah in the minyan.  This is only permitted if the child comes regularly to the minyan in the half year prior to his/her service.  Most of the adult b’nai mitzvah take place in the Minyan and it is a regular place for life cycle celebrations—uf ruf, major birthdays, etc. Because we have fewer b’nai mitzvah now than we did 20 years ago, the minyan service is often the only Shabbat morning service at the Temple.  That means our cantor is often the shliach tzibur along with one of the rabbis.  Ironically that has led to less musical creativity than in the early days when different music providers provided music. And ironically we have recently discovered through an innocent question from a new and youngish board member that many people don’t really understand what a minyan is –so they don’t see it as a TempleEmanuel service open to everyone. I suspect that in the coming year the Worship Care Committee, encouraged by the clergy, will rename it.

What continues to work is the Worship Care Committee, the learning and the lunch. Several times a year the chair of the Worship Care Committee, (selected informally by clergy) convenes a gathering after lunch to discuss whatever issues have come up. Out of these meeting have come a series of mini classes—classes that take place right after lunch for an hour seven or eight time a year. Right now we are studying Psalms.  Often the classes are taught by minyan regulars, some of whom are Jewish educators, as well as temple clergy. The meetings spend more time than I think is justified on lunch.  Some years ago the Board of Directors determined that the minyan lunch should support itself and we have experimented with pot lucks, collecting donations and encouraging sponsorships. The lunch has been crucial in creating a community; for many people it is the one time a week they see their friends. From this community has emerged new leaders for the Board, as well as the largest group of adult learners and the volunteers for the caring community which does the work of gemilut hesed. The Worship Care Committee has been less that bold in challenging the prayer leaders (us clergy) to take risks and be innovators. Most of them are happy with what they experience each week, but the minyan isn’t growing. We don’t spend money on marketing the minyan and the Board has chosen to label two of our Friday night services as our “signature services.” As a consequence more financial resources are available to these services which enables more creativity in music. Yet the minyan has not gotten the same level of attention or additional resources.  This is somewhat ironic because several of our Board members have become minyan regulars.

The learning at the minyan during the Torah service continues to be a high priority.  My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Aaron and I take turns teaching; we focus on text-based interactive teaching, often taught through a combination of chevruta and large group discussion. Our teacher, Isa Aron, has encouraged us to see the minyan regulars as our adult learners and to be thoughtful about what skills we want them to acquire as learners during the time that they will be regulars at the minyan. Jonathan and I used to share our teachings with each other in advance so we could really do that, but unfortunately, over time, other priorities have eclipsed that goal. We do, however, see the minyan as a place that we get to bring other teachers without the “permission” of the programming committee, so we do have guest teachers several times during the year. It is comforting to have one venue where we know we will get a reasonable audience for a visiting teacher.

I go to the minyan every Shabbat unless I have the bar/bat mitzvah. Sometimes I lead and teach but often, when it is Jonathan’s turn, I am just a Jew in the pew. It is my congregation. I want there to be more creativity and courage in the music and the prayer, more meditation, and ideally, a children’s program so as to attract younger congregants.

After all these years, the New Emanuel Minyan is still a work in progress. And as I begin to see retirement looming ahead, when I intend to participate in the congregation without being its rabbi, I have an even bigger stake in making sure it works… at least for me.

Rabbi Laura Geller is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California. Prior to being chosen for this position in 1994, she served as the Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, Pacific Southwest Region. Among her accomplishments at AJCongress was the creation of the AJCongress Feminist Center, which became a model for other Jewish feminist projects around the county. She came to AJCongress in 1990 after fourteen years as the Director of Hillel at the University of Southern California. 

Rabbi Geller has been recognized with numerous awards and honors, including being named one of Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America for two years in a row and receiving the California State Legislature’s Woman of the Year Award. She was featured in the PBS Documentary called “Jewish Americans.”  Author of many articles in journals and books, she is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and served on the Editorial Board of “The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary,” in which she has two essays. Rabbi Geller is a Fellow of the Corporation of Brown University from where she graduated in 1971. She was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in 1976, the third woman in the Reform Movement to become a rabbi.  She is married to Richard A. Siegel, and she is the mother of Joshua and Elana Goldstein and the step-mother of Andy and Ruth Siegel.

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