01 August 2009

Nava Tehila

The way Friday night on Bronfman Youth Fellows works is that the Fellows have four or five synagogue communities to choose from for their prayer experiences, giving them a diverse choice of how Jerusalem celebrates Shabbat. Fellows will often choose one experience on Friday, another on Saturday, and are encouraged to try something that is different from what they have grown up with and are used to. It's by design and the educational experiment in pluralism is, along with text study and great speakers, the programs greatest strength.

It's a cliche to talk about how special Jerusalem is on Shabbat but cliches do generally come from a place of truth, no?

One of the new scenes in Jerusalem on Shabbat is the "emerging prayer and study" community known as Nava Tehila, led by Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan. Musical, meditative, and totally open to varieties of Jewish spiritual expression in real time, Nava Tehila is a bit like an alternative universe here--musicians create an ambient feel, rooted in Middle Eastern and Indian spiritual mantras as well as their own contemporary Israeli musical tastes. Besides a Friday night service once a month, the group hosts a pre-Shabbat community sing-a-long which we took the Fellows to before they went off to their separate shuls on Friday.

Set in the garden of the Natural History Museum, this experience gathered a large selection of Jerusalem's secular crowd, along with a handful of curious observant Jews. All ages and backgrounds seemed represented and the singing was a combination of Shabbat songs, a song by Ehud Banai, and niggunim, or spiritual melodies. The setting, combined with the music, leveled the playing field for everyone and it was a classic example of how if you take everyone out of their normal place for a shared experience, an openness to trying something new can emerge. Once a month, Kol Haneshama, Jerusalem's main Reform synagogue, gives space to Nava Tehila--an important and generous act by its community and its leader, Rabbi Levi Kelman, to foster spiritual growth and innovation here in the city.

Anyway, from 5 pm til 6.30 pm we sat together and then split the group up into their various shul choices. Nine of the Fellows decided, spontaneously, to head back to the campus and create their own Friday night service, an idea prompted by two kids from observant backgrounds who had never prayed in a non-Orthodox minyan before. Given that the kids from Reform and Conservative backgrounds had been davenning in traditional shuls all summer, it was a welcome conclusion to our Shabbat experience.

It also made me realize that communities in the States have a great opportunity to build pluralistic, shared experiences like this ourselves and gave me some good ideas for the coming year in this regard.

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