Oakland temple celebrating community with exuberant service

A decade ago, Temple Sinai’s Sisterhood ruled the bimah with their Sisterhood Shabbat service. Then the men got inspired.

For the past 10 years, the Oakland synagogue’s Brotherhood has led a special Friday night service. This year’s service, with community as its central theme, will take place at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28.

Bob Unger

“It’s a very exuberant service,” says Bob Unger, 59, chair of the Brotherhood Kabbalat Shabbat and a retired attorney. “There will be lots of music and the choir will be participating. But some participants also write creative versions of the prayers. It will be a multisensory experience.”

Twenty years ago, Leona Chester, wife of the soon-to-be-retiring senior rabbi, Steven Chester, introduced the Sisterhood Shabbat service at Temple Sinai.

“I don’t think anybody thought the men were capable of doing what the women were doing,” Unger admits. “But I was determined to try. I wanted a piece of what I could see was an important spiritual and community-building experience.”

Unger’s interest was piqued more than a decade ago when he overheard the excitement and laughter in his wife’s and the other Sisterhood members’ voices, sprinkled amidst discussions ranging from midrash and music, to seating arrangements. When he witnessed the final result, a service written by congregants — some of whom had never written a prayer before — he was hooked.

So Unger, who has been affiliated with Temple Sinai since 1982, invites members of the Brotherhood each fall to meet and plan the service.

“We study the history and meaning of the regular Shabbat service prayers,” says Unger, and then the participants create a unique version of each one.

“It’s a very creative process,” says Dan Fendel, 64, a retired math professor at San Francisco State University. “When we meet it’s really straightforward.”

This year Fendel has chosen the Hoda’ah, a thankfulness prayer contained in the larger series of meditations before God known as the Amidah.

“I’ve tried to combine the theme of the service — community — with the theme of thankfulness,” Fendel explains.

Fendel, given his analytical and academic training, takes a cerebral approach, but the 15-member Brotherhood group is quite diverse.

“We have two composers and two published poets,” says Phil Rubin, 63, the substitute cantor for this year’s service and chair of the temple’s ritual committee. “I’ve heard the drash [biblical commentary] for this year, and an excellent scholar, Bob Knoll, wrote it.

“It’s quite a moving experience, and well attended for a Friday night service,” Rubin adds.

The Brotherhood worked on the service all fall, meeting once or twice a month, and more often as the service approached.

Unger says the theme of community is appropriate to where the synagogue is right now. “We have just come home to a newly renovated and expanded campus in which our community will be able to grow,” he notes.

“Brotherhood Shabbat helps us build our community in several ways,” he continues. “We all learn more about Jewish teachings and traditions, we create prayers that we share with the whole congregation, and we get to know each other in ways that just doesn’t happen in any other context.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.