Jewish renewal communities, an alternative way to pray

The growth of Jewish Renewal movements has led to a proliferation of pluralist and egalitarian options for prayer services over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Beit Tefila Israeli (photo credit: COURTESY BEIT TEFILA ISRAELI)
Beit Tefila Israeli
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are highlights of the spiritual calendar and a time when crowds swell at pluralist and egalitarian prayer services in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Particularly during this season, people from across the religious spectrum look to gain meaning in the rituals and services central to the holidays, according to Daphna Rosenberg, one of the leading members of the Nava Tehila Jewish Renewal community in Jerusalem.
“There are many people looking for a new connection to tradition, but in a way that is not forced on them. They want a connection to the essence of Rosh Hashana and are looking for a spiritual experience,” says Rosenberg.
This desire for connection with Judaism and spirituality typifies the sentiment behind the pluralistic Jewish Renewal movement, which has grown increasingly popular and vibrant in Israel over the past 15 to 20 years.
It is estimated that in Tel Aviv there are around 15 Jewish Renewal groups, involving thousands in prayer services, communal events and other activities related to such communities.
Beit Tefila Israeli is a Jewish Renewal community that was founded in 2004. It is just one of the groups in Tel Aviv which will conduct egalitarian prayer services for the High Holy Days.
The community began with an experimental Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service.
It has since blossomed into a functioning community that holds regular Friday night services, celebrates the Jewish holidays and life cycle events for its members, holds study sessions, and engages in social activism projects.
Its signature event – which has attracted as many as 1,000 people – is an open-air, musical Kabbalat Shabbat service, held every Friday evening from July through September at the Tel Aviv port.
Again this year it staged services in the Goren Goldstein Center in downtown Tel Aviv for Rosh Hashana, and will do so for Yom Kippur as well.
Beit Tefila Israeli created its own Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur machzorim, or prayer books, which combine traditional prayers with texts from Jewish and Israeli thinkers, poets, rabbis and figures of spiritual prominence.
In the machzorim one can find – alongside the central prayers of the machzorim – hassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov; Israeli poet and writer Leah Goldberg; excerpts from Jewish legends; poems by Natan Yonatan, and excerpts from Kafka.
This year, in order to help people get into the mood of the High Holy days, Beit Tefila Israeli produced Shvarim, a recording of five new liturgical poems put to music.
Rani Jaeger, one of the founders and leaders of Beit Tefila Israeli, said that the Rosh Hashana services are attended by approximately 60 or 70 people each year, while on Yom Kippur as many as 250 attend the Kol Nidrei and Neilah services.
“Israeli and Hebrew culture are a very important tool for addressing the High Holy Days, in discerning what is man, what should he do, what are the requirements and obligations of man to his fellow,” said Jaeger.
He said that the machzor, which has been made available to download, is also used by people who do not come to the services but want to use the day for self reflection and accounting and – particularly on Yom Kippur – want to “take advantage of the clear energy of the day to involve themselves in spiritual matters and to make oneself different from what you were before.”
Sigal Korenhendler has been a part of the community for years. She attends services with her husband, daughter, and occasionally, her two sons.
Korenhendler said that having a place for egalitarian prayer in a communal atmosphere is crucial for her religious experience, and to connect “to the two, three thousand years of our people at these times.”
Korenhendler’s grandparents were haredi (ultra-Orthodox) on one side and traditional on the other. But she grew up in Haifa “without being comfortable in connecting with the traditions.”
“But now I allow myself to accept Shabbat, to connect to Yom Kippur, to do these things from where I am now, and whether I am observant of Shabbat or not, I cannot go without lighting Shabbat candles, without saying Kiddush and doing these things.”
Korenhendler says she is extremely gladdened by the upsurge in participation in Jewish Renewal movements by Israelis who would not define themselves as being religious.
“There is really a deep revolution here, people are discovering what we all share and have a desire to sing together, to pray together, to learn together. More and more people, who you wouldn’t think go to synagogue on Shabbat or Yom Kippur, are increasingly doing so,” she said.
“We have a treasure-store of culture and tradition, whether it’s from Martin Buber or Or Haganuz (a community in Northern Israel). It is our treasure store and doesn’t belong to any one stream but to us all, and everyone can take what speaks to his heart and what is right for him. It is about the old and the new reconnecting today.”
The Jewish Renewal movement is not only active in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem, which is often perceived as a hub of haredi and religious life, is also home to an increasingly vibrant scene of religious diversity and pluralism.
Inbar Bluzer Shalem, director of the Reshut Harabim umbrella group of more than 30 Orthodox, progressive, Jewish Renewal and pluralist organizations in the capital, said there are approximately 1,000 paid employees working in this field, together with some 13,000 activists and volunteers.
“These Jewish renaissance movements offer communality, they bring people together for religious and civil ceremonies, and to learn together,” she said.
“In such a big city, people look for a place to belong, to be together for the events of the annual cycle and for life cycle events, and people are looking for relevance in Judaism.”
One such Jewish renaissance group is Nava Tehilla, founded 12 years ago and based in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. Nava Tehilla holds a Shabbat service once a month, and held a service this year for the second day of Rosh Hashana on the grounds of the Nature Museum in the German Colony.
Nava Tehilla focuses particularly on the power of music to uplift prayer. Leading figures in the community write and compose original music for their prayer services.
The group has its own You- Tube channel on which it uploads much of its musical work. It has also produced two albums of music for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot.
The High Holy Day services are not only infused with music but enriched by creative prayer forms and alternative takes on traditional liturgy, while the central prayers of the traditional machzor are preserved.
“So for instance, during the Al Chet [confessions] on Yom Kippur, those gathered at the service separate into smaller groups and each relate where they feel they are in their lives personally, communally and in the context of the broader world,” said Rosenberg, who serves as a prayer leader and is one of the community’s two musical coordinators who write much of the music used in its services.
The group also deals with the often lengthy prayers and liturgical poems of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur by focusing on one line, or particular aspect of the machzor. They then chant it over and over in a meditative manner, allowing in some instances for a single verse to be recited for 10 minutes.
Those who prefer to say the whole prayer can do so, while those who chant one particular line are able to focus on that, Rosenberg said.
“We want to create a space that allows everyone to be as they are. So we have religious people, secular people, those who are becoming religious and those who are becoming less so,” she said.
“We want people to have a spiritual personal experience, and we try and do this with music, classical and new, and make a connection between the past and the present. We give an interpretation of the service which seeks a private and meaningful experience.”
Rosenberg said that Nava Tehila is a religious group with people who believe in “not only a God giving instructions and punishments,” but in an interpretation in which an “encounter with God and the divine is also through inner work on oneself and in everything one does and says.”