A rabbi, a monk, and a Sufi walk into a minyan. It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke circulating by email. But it's a reality every month at Nava Tehilla, Jerusalem's first - and only - "multi-faith" Jewish renewal gathering. Started a year-and-a-half ago in the living room of Rabbi Ruth and Michael Kagan in Baka, a neighborhood popular with immigrants from North America, Nava Tehilla now attracts upward of 100 attendees for its mix of spirited prayer, a potluck meal and a chance to meet up with Jews and non-Jews alike of all religious persuasions. The minyan will be celebrating the High Holy Days together this year as well. Co-founder Michael Kagan stresses that Nava Tehilla is not an "interfaith" minyan. "We're not taking a bit of Christianity and Muslim prayer, adding a Buddhist meditation and doing some Jewish stuff. We do a completely Jewish Friday night service and invite people from all faiths to share in the prayer." Michael Kagan works by day as a hi-tech inventor for the health product, telecommunication and solar energy fields, and is the author of The Holistic Haggadah. He's participated in "Sufi zikrs and Indian sweat lodges, and they don't change their service for me," he says. "So we're not changing the service for our guests either." Nava Tehilla draws its eclectic congregation from a funky mix of New Age-inspired Jews - both Anglos and veteran Israelis, secular and religious - who come from as far away as Tel Aviv and Beersheba; several Western-leaning Muslim Sufi sheikhs; and a Catholic order of monks and nuns known as the Beatitudes who live near Latrun in the center of the country and regularly attend Jewish services around Jerusalem. "It's very important for us to know more about Judaism and to pray in Hebrew," explains Sister Nathalie Bruyere, who came to Israel from Lyon. "I feel like the roots of my religion are in Judaism and without roots we cannot live." Indeed, on a recent Friday night, the Nava Tehilla congregation represented a kaleidoscope of inclusion. In addition to no fewer than six members of the Beatitudes sporting their traditional brown and white flowing robes and large crucifixes, there were Jews dressed in post-India peasant skirts as well as others in more traditional sports jacket and slacks with head coverings ranging from turbans hiding dreadlocks to nothing at all. There were veteran attendees and newcomers. First-timer Lynne Weinstein says the "combination of the music, the singing and the ecumenical community created an uplifting atmosphere." Weinstein brought her three-and-a-half-year-old son with her. "The way he swayed with me, listening to the music, was very moving." Finding Muslim members has been a bit more of a challenge. Ruth Kagan - Reb Ruth as she likes to be called - explains that "most Muslims in Israel who are involved in interfaith dialogue are non-religious and so don't want to go to a religious activity. They want a secular dialogue." She adds that, unlike the Beatitudes, Muslims also seem to have "less of a need to look at Jewish prayer as a part of their Arab identity." Nevertheless, creating a space that was welcoming and inclusive was a clear motivating factor. Michael Kagan says that it was painful for him to realize that "not far from where I live are churches and monasteries and mosques and everyone is separate, we all go into our own cubbyholes and do our own worship. I wanted to experiment with doing it differently." For Ruth Kagan, the motivation to create a multi-faith environment goes back to her youth. "In my student years, I was always involved in interfaith dialogue groups," she says. "I found a great commonality between myself and other people who love God, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha'i or Christian. "That excitement about being a religious person in a non-religious world is very uniting and affirming." The Kagans have long been on the cutting edge. Earlier incarnations of Nava Tehilla introduced the first service based on tunes by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach long before that style of prayer became mainstream in Orthodox synagogues throughout Israel. The Kagans also allowed women to lead the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service - a practice that has now found a home in congregations such as Shira Hadasha. "When others picked these up, we felt we could do even more," Ruth Kagan says. That "more" includes using acoustic instruments during the Kabbalat Shabbat service - guitar, drums and the occasional wind instrument. A Friday night at Nava Tehilla doesn't feel like any other synagogue, though. Ruth Kagan received her rabbinic ordination in 2004 from Jewish Renewal movement head Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi during the two years the family lived in the US. Men and women sit together in the Kagan's cramped and overflowing living room while the prayer leader pilots a spirited davening. Prayer frequently focuses on just a few specific lines; there is no push to "say everything" in the siddur as at Orthodox synagogues. The specific tunes chosen are almost entirely original compositions. "I got bored with regular shul," Ruth Kagan says. "Even the most innovative ones, they do the same thing again and again with maybe a little variety around 'Lecha dodi.' "I don't want to get to shul and know exactly where I'm going in a totally prescribed path," she explains. "At the same time, this is not just a campfire. We follow the full Kabbalat Shabbat order. Usually there's a lot of singing, sometimes there's meditation. The surprise is important. People shouldn't act as if they're buying a ticket to a show and then say 'Hey, you didn't sing like you did on the record.'" Yoel Sikes, 21, is a student at the Center for Classical Oriental Music and Dance in Jerusalem's Musrara neighborhood. He has scored an entirely new service that fuses Western structure with Eastern motifs and a bit of flamenco guitar strumming. The result is an ethereal experience that goes beyond a mere performance and propels the audience into a hand-clapping, body-waving frenzy. "I grew up listening to the Grateful Dead, Phish and other jam bands," Sikes says. "The music I write is also very influenced by Arab music. There's also one that's very reggae-ish. I try to be sensitive to what's going on in the Jewish calendar or on a particular Shabbat." That sensitivity can sometimes be taken to the extreme and the service on occasion devolves into pure camp. Once during the portion of the week in the book of Genesis that discusses Joseph and his brothers, the minyan set the entire Friday night service to music from the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock musical Joseph and the Amazing Technical Dreamcoat. "It was a lot of fun," Ruth Kagan says, "but I'm not sure we're going to do that again." Daphna Rosenberg alternates leading services with Sikes and also wrote her own niggunim for use at Nava Tehilla. She says Nava Tehilla is the only place at which she feels comfortable praying. As important as the prayer service itself is, that's only a third of the entire experience. Following the davening is a potluck meal that appeals particularly to singles and people without children "who might not normally have a place to spend Friday night with a community," Ruth Kagan says. Following the meal is a virtual "open mic" session where participants are encouraged to sing a song or tell a story. "It's not prayer but devotion," Michael Kagan explains. "There is a heightened sense of worship through poetry, movement, music and Torah." On a recent Friday night, Michael Kagan gave a dvar Torah, a guest shared a story from a trip to Egypt and Sikes led a rocking multi-guitar multi-faith jam until 1 a.m. "We call it jamming for God," Ruth Kagan says. The Kagans have four children at home, aged nine to 17. What do they think of their parents' living room adventures? "They call us pagans... it rhymes with Kagan," jokes Michael. "But, seriously, I am happy that they have the opportunity to experience other forms of Jewish expression. There is so much joy in our house." Nava Tehilla meets monthly at the Kagans' home at 8 Rehov Gidon.

Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin

Think others should know about this? Please share