Yom Kippur is a blast and our leader is its first true rock star

When we moved to Israel nine years ago, we met all kinds of changes — schools, work, food. And as September approached, there was the additional question of where we would pray for the High Holy Days. When we lived in North America, this wasn’t such a big deal; there were only a few options in our community and, in any case, we were members of a lovely congregation.

In Israel, however, and particularly in Jerusalem, there are literally thousands of options. So on the High Holy Days, we found ourselves shul-hopping for a few years before discovering a place so unique it has developed its own fan club. Dubbed the “Leader Minyan” for brothers Avraham and Zelig Leader, who founded it, the service is heavily inspired by the music and teachings of the late Shlomo Carlebach. The minyan meets only for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and once a month during the year on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh. But that’s more than enough to keep our spiritual batteries fully charged.

The Leader Minyan is the kind of place you either love or hate. The growing number of “Carlebach” minyans around the world are famous for their spirited singing and dancing, but the Leader Minyan takes this to an extreme. Shabbat services start at 8 a.m. and rarely end before 3 p.m. An extended Kiddush with more than a little schnapps doesn’t hurt, either.

Those who’ve never experienced the intimate joy that this kind of over-the-top davening brings are quick to deride its “unholy” length, rolling their eyes judgmentally and commenting how they like their prayer short and to the point.

To each his own. We love it.

While the minyan is always a blast, it especially rocks on the High Holy Days when Ebn Leader, son of founder Zelig, leads the services.

Ebn has developed a style all his own. A musician and Talmud scholar, he scores the service like a rock opera, bringing the music at times to a crescendo, dipping down to melodic introspection, rocking out with an infectious beat, and finally soaring with a repeating wordless chorus on a par with the best of Genesis in its 1970s Peter Gabriel heyday.

Arms flailing, dancing at the bimah, he mixes Israeli pop tunes, snatches of reggae, classic folk (“Greensleeves” is a favorite), Sephardi niggunim, the best of Carlebach, of course, and rap (his hip-hop adaptation of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” during last year’s Rosh Hashanah services is missing only the scratching on vinyl.)

There are those who say Ebn is too over the top. That he is more self-aware than selfless. I say he is Yom Kippur’s first true rock star and we are his groupies. We are awed when he enters the room and high on life during the all-together, arms-bonded dancing at the end of the Kaddish.

When I was growing up, I imagined that prayer must necessarily be composed of somber wailing, and that Yom Kippur was the saddest day of the year. At Israel’s Leader Minyan, I discovered how wrong I was.

Yom Kippur is the happiest, rockin’est, dancin’est holiday on the Jewish calendar. And I know a shul-full of pre, post-, and wannabe hippies who’ll gladly testify to that!

Brian Blum writes the syndicated column “This Normal Life,” online at www.ThisNormalLife.com.