Since moving to San Francisco 10 months ago, I’ve heard about Congregation Emanu-El’s Late Shabbat program from a number of people. Its boosters told me I should check it out because I’m in the target audience: single 20- and 30-somethings. Last week, I finally went to see what the fuss was about.
Now in its 17th year, Late Shabbat is a monthly Friday night service targeted at young adults that starts at 8:30. The week I went was Mimouna-themed. Mimouna is a traditional North African hametz-laden celebration the day after Passover. Of course, this was weeks after, but they have a tradition of doing Mimouna at the first Late Shabbat after Passover with a post-service reception sponsored by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
According to Rabbi Jason Rodich, the week I went had unusually low attendance: around 200. “We normally are close to 300, sometimes 350,” he told me. Nonetheless, the Emanu-El chapel was packed. Many people seemed to know a lot of others. They sat with their friends, and it was clear as soon as I arrived that this crowd represents a distinct community.
Musically, the service was dynamic and energetic. Cantor Marsha Attie led a band that included guitar, upright bass and a percussionist with an array of hand drums. In keeping with the Mimouna theme, Attie drew on her Sephardic roots — the tune for the classic Ladino song “Quando el Rey Nimrod” was repurposed for Chatzi Kaddish, and she led a killer Moroccan Mi Chamocha I’d never heard before.
Emanu-El is a large Reform congregation; the typical Reform tunes that filled out the rest of the service were no surprise, though they tended more toward camp-style than synagogue-style. Some were undeniably schmaltzy, even as they put me in a nostalgic mood. Any time I hear the Hebrew-and-English version of Hashkiveinu by the band Mah Tovu (“Shelter us beneath thy wings, O Adonai, guard us from all harmful things,” etc.) I roll my eyes at first — but then it carries me right back to my youth in Reform summer camps.
Before Hashkiveinu, the lights were turned off. It created a calming, meditative atmosphere. Before we started singing, we were encouraged to think about people in our lives who are in need of protection, reflecting a concerted effort from the service leaders to engender a personal, touching atmosphere. “This is where we ask for God’s protection in the most broken of places,” Rodich said. Everyone sang along, whole rows of people wrapping their arms around each other and swaying.
To my surprise, the lights did not come up after Hashkiveinu. In fact, the darkness continued straight through the entire Amidah. This set me on edge. The Amidah, the Standing Prayer, is traditionally said three times a day, the core of every Jewish service. For many, including myself, it is the part of the service when our prayer is at its most focused. With the lights off, how were any of us to read the words of the Amidah? We were told to do as we wished: meditate, pray the words in our hearts — but what if we wanted to pray the words in our prayerbooks?
Those of us who wanted to “actually pray the words of the Amidah” were told that we could come down to the front of the room and pray by the candlelight. After the service Rodich told me that Late Shabbat is, in part, an outreach program — “an access point for people who aren’t yet ready for more intense davening.” But let’s say a Late Shabbat regular becomes ready for more intense davening. Who is going to disrupt a whole row of people, sliding out into the aisle to head down to the candlelight? And why place a stumbling block before Jews who wish to pray the words of the siddur in front of them?
The end result was that the overwhelming majority simply stood in silence. After a few minutes, one person sat down, and instantly all but a tiny fraction followed.
It was the day after Yom HaAtzmaut, so Rodich gave a nuanced, deeply personal sermon about Israel. He spoke about time he spent in Israel as a teenager, teaching Bedouin children in East Jerusalem how to read. The message was that we should love Israel — recognizing both its good points and its bad ones, embracing it in all its often troubling complexity.
Five artistic pennants hung above the ark, each one depicting the shape of Israel’s borders. But the simplicity of these borders was directly at odds with Rodich’s words. He spoke of Israel’s complexity, but these borders showed ideological simplicity, encompassing Gaza and the West Bank — no Green Line, no distinctions at all to show the true nature of Israel’s present situation.
After services, there was schmoozing with food and drink — including an honest-to-God keg of beer. As part of the Mimouna theme, we were treated to entertainment from two belly dancers. Again, I could see that Late Shabbat draws a true community.
Before I went, a few people warned me that Late Shabbat is something of a meet market. I looked around: Sure, there were a lot of well-dressed singles mingling. But maybe “meet market” was overstating things. And then …
Toward the end, I was chatting with a male friend and a couple other guys when a fifth guy came up and said, “Bro, how you gonna meet wives if you’re all standing around talking to other dudes?”
While it would’ve been nice to find a wife, I was there to write a column. And it was time for me to leave.
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