Music-infused Shabbat encircles congregants in spirit

At Temple Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, a twice-monthly music-focused Friday night service called Shabbat Sovev draws 100-500 people.

Sovev is rabbinical student Rebecca Schatz’s baby. And now, she’s doing Shabbat Sovev once a month at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City as their rabbinic intern. It doesn’t draw as many people as in L.A., but Schatz tells me it regularly brings in 30-40 participants. For a relatively small congregation, that’s quite a lot, since Conservative synagogues have not traditionally emphasized Friday night services.

The Sovev I attended at Peninsula Sinai was a pleasant surprise, though perhaps not entirely representative; it was also a Shabbaton for bar/bat mitzvah families, of which there were perhaps 20 in attendance.

In the Peninsula Sinai sanctuary, fixed pews on three sides face in toward an open area in front of the bimah. For Sovev, the center area was filled in with a couple of circles of chairs facing in toward each other, with the pews radiating out like concentric circles. This is a good move — and an increasingly popular one.

That packing humans in close to one another in a circle engenders spirited singing isn’t a new idea; it’s present in every culture. But progressive, independent, non-mainstream Jewish communities rediscovered the practice decades ago. And now musician, composer and teacher of prayer-leading Joey Weisenberg and others are spreading the technique far and wide.

It’s one thing for this style to gain traction at independent groups in San Francisco (The Kitchen) or Berkeley (Urban Adamah) or at a large synagogue in L.A., but when it crops up at a shul this size in Foster City, you know it’s inching toward the mainstream.

This setup, with everyone facing each other, puts community at the center of the service. It creates an intimacy and realness I’ve not experienced in other configurations. “Sovev” means surrounding or encircling. (Think sivivon, Hebrew for dreidel.) In this case it refers to “the ability to create prayer space that is encircled in people with song and spirit,” as Schatz put it.

Naturally, the music included several Weisenberg tunes. There were also some tunes from Nava Tehila, a Jerusalem prayer community/musical ensemble. And then there were the Shlomo Carlebach tunes. In L.A., Schatz told me, Sovev is explicitly non-Carlebach; it’s intended to be something fresh in the Conservative Friday night landscape, where the music of Carlebach has been traditional for a generation. At Peninsula Sinai, however, where Sovev is newer, some Carlebach creeps in to give people something familiar — a good lesson for any service leader trying something bold and new.

The inner ring of the circle was Schatz, Peninsula Sinai Rabbi Corey Helfand and about two dozen bar/bat mitzvah kids and their younger siblings. Schatz led with aplomb. One younger girl squirmed around in the chair next to Schatz, who interacted with her without diminishing her charisma or ability to keep the music going. She was assisted by Peninsula Sinai Cantor Doron Shapira on a crisp Middle Eastern drum. Several kids with smaller percussion instruments made a small chaos of themselves as well.

Not everyone knew quite what to do at the beginning — these parents looked unaccustomed to really participating in a service — but by the end, they were starting to get the hang of Sovev. I imagine it’s tough for Schatz to get people on board with something so new when she’s only there once a month. New paradigms take time; the people of Peninsula Sinai will catch on.

After services, there was a tisch, as part of a Camp Ramah alumni event. A tisch (Yiddish for table) is a Hasidic tradition of sitting around a table on Friday night, singing and drinking. This tisch was sorely lacking in drinking (seltzer doesn’t count), but the kids were game to sing some Shabbat songs. (I was too.) I wish every Friday night services was followed by a tisch.

For now, a service in this style is a special treat, but the model is growing. A new generation of rabbis and other leaders are spreading the gospel. I compare this to the proliferation of folk and guitar in Reform services a generation ago. That mode started as an outlier before becoming a monthly event and eventually the dominant style throughout the Reform movement.

I predict a similar trajectory for this new style in Conservative settings and beyond.

Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send religious, ritual and spiritual goings on to david@jweekly.com.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.