I’ve been hired this year to serve as rabbi (not rabbi+cantor) for the HH’s at a suburban Conservative synagogue. I mostly tell page numbers and give sermons, compared to when I’ve been ba’al shachrit, ba’al koreh, ba’al t’kiyah and chazzan for musaf, in addition to sermons and teaching during the service.

I’ve done that several times. It’s called being “kol bo” — “everything in it/him.”

But I always liked being “kol bo” — I could set the tone of the service the way I wanted it. I learned more from my “kol bo” experiences than from just being either cantor or rabbi.

I learned to consider the “theatrical” aesthetics of communal prayer — meaning, how do I keep the audience/congregation interested and involved? It’s also a (social) group work and pedagogical consideration.

Have you ever been to a concert or play in which you become so involved as a member of the audience that you become “carried away” by the experience? Even if only for a moment, something magical can happen. 

 

I remember once going to a Pete Seeger concert at Carnegie Hall (Dec. 7, 1960, I think). He had so much to offer as a musician and performer, but his unique specialty was getting an entire audience to sing together, no matter how many were there. As we were singing there that night, I suddenly felt as if I filled the room and was every person in it. Every voice was mine. It wasn’t an egotistical or “manic” experience. Years later, I understood it as a moment of higher consciousness.

During the years when I was making a living as a free-lance performer in nursing homes and hospitals, my goal in every performance was to move people from being passive listeners to being carried along by the rhythms of songs that were familiar. Outwardly, it might have looked like a “sing along” program. But it was far more than that. One program director even commented that I was doing something “spiritual.” Right — even though the songs were secular songs and utterly non-religious.

It’s true of social group work, too. The goal is to make people feel connected with each other, instead of a collection of disunited strangers.

I had a wonderful experience in the Summer of 1965, my first summer as a sleep-away camp counselor. We had a wonderful supervisor, who was a teacher at the time but later became a social worker and the director of several agencies. His specialty was group work. He formed us into a group in which we were united in our goals; each person was a cooperative part of something larger.

 

In both, there’s an element of “self-forgetfulness” which is, at the same time, a moment of “self-awareness” or “self-realization.”

I brought these experiences and associations to leading services. I certainly wasn’t able to do it at first. My beginnings as a cantor were “humble,” to say the least. But as I got more familiar with doing the service in front of a congregation, my vision of what I wanted to accomplish changed from “sounding good” to creating that “moment.”

I also brought to leading a service the yogic emphasis on direct personal experience over an intellectual exercise or a focus on meaning alone. 

I learned over the years to vary the speed of the services. Not too many years ago, I attended a Shabbat service at an African-American Jewish congregation in the Bronx. They used the old, black Conservative siddur (edited by Singer, I think). They started from the very beginning and went through the entire service — but at the same pace at all times. The pace was also rather slow, compared with services that I was otherwise familiar with. Every word was clear — but the service lasted many, many hours. I actually left after about 6. I might have suggested to them that Pesukei d’Zimra, which is a section meant to prepare one for the actual prayers that begin after Bar’chu, needn’t be read as slowly as it was. Also, there can be variety between solo readings, group readings and responsive readings, etc. But they showed enviable attention to detail and reverence for the service itself.

Leading a service, I’ve wanted to convey some spiritual teaching. But I was once harshly criticized for a congregation for giving a “class” instead of a “sermon.” So, I learned to introduce readings to convey ideas rather than interrupt the service several times by giving a few minutes’ of teaching (sermon aside, of course). I’d spend months choosing the readings. One year, I started with the Rambam’s teaching on the “Mitzui Rishon,” and chose subsequent readings from rabbis up through Rav Soloveitchik who quoted or referred to it. This provided consistency in the readings, and got specific ideas “out there.” If there are too many different ideas/quotations, no one remembers what you were trying to say. Best to have a theme.

I deliberately chose readings where I could quote a rabbi by name. It didn’t matter whether it was Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, etc. Quoting a rabbi brought a sense gravitas, of conveying tradition, to the service that might not come about just by talking about ideas as I, myself, saw them. I got a deep respect for a teaching tradition when I was initiated into TM back in 1971. The process begins with a gesture of gratitude not to Maharishi (z”l), but to his teacher, and to the tradition of teachers that preceded him.

On the other hand, I once included the “Love” chapter (I Corinthians 13) from Christian scripture, without identifying it as such. The congregation loved it.

Varying English and Hebrew, solo readings with group recitations and responsive readings helped keep people focused, too.

I learned a lot about Torah reading (and haftarah/megillot reading) over the years, too. At first, like most people, I think, I wanted to make each trop sound as “nice” as possible. After a few years, I got familiar with some of the basic trop patterns. I began thinking less about individual trops and more about phrases. Torah shouldn’t be read too fast, of course, but it needs to be fast enough to “flow.” It’s really about the text more than the melody or the beauty of the ba’al koreh’s voice. I try to think of Torah reading more as “declaiming” than “singing.” Trop provides variety and indicates phrases and pauses. Of course, expressiveness is much easier with narrative, story-telling sections than with sections that are only a list of details.

My son saw me lead a service when he was about 13. He had seen me do it when he was much younger and when we were living across the street from the synagogue where I was cantor at the time. But once I was traveling to services, he saw me a lot less. Anyway, he saw me that year (2002 or 3). I was kol bo, including being ba’al koreh and ba’al t’kiyah. Afterwards, he said to me, “You were awesome. You were so into it.” I never forgot him saying that.

I’m comfortable giving a sermon or drash. I was surprised to find that there are rabbis who don’t feel the same way. I can give one spontaneously but at times, it’s been useful for me to plan in detail what I was going to say. I once converted an essay I’d written into a sermon. I had to leave out a large part of it, because a sermon should only run about 10-12 minutes. So, I edited my essay and memorized it, like a script. I also practiced in front of a mirror and noticed that I tended to tighten and raise my shoulders. I made a conscious effort to keep them lowered as I spoke. Afterwards, the cantor of the congregation said to me, “You made your point and finished. You didn’t overdo it.” It was a kind endorsement.

This year already I’m thinking about my (3) sermons (RH I, RH II, YK) and how I can make them connected. I have to adapt my teaching to the congregation. I don’t know this congregation well, at all. How could I? But I met with the Ritual Committee (and will do so again). That gave me a bit of a feeling for who they are. The rest is intuition.

I haven’t done HH services in the last couple of years. During the year, I work f/t for the NYC Dept. of Education, then p/t on 2 evenings as a Social Worker/psychotherapist; once/month I give a talk on Jewish topics at an Assisted Living Facility — and then there are the weddings and other life-cycle events. I hadn’t look too hard for a HH position the last few years, but I missed it. When I got the call about this one, I decided to go for it.