When I was growing up in Los Angeles, we attended an upscale Conservative synagogue called Temple Beth-El. (synagogues.com) Conservative was a compromise between my parents–my father who had grown up Orthodox and my mother who had not and who announced to my father early on in their marriage that she was not keeping kosher.
Conservative in those days meant long long High Holiday services where the clergy wore grand white robes and high ceremonial hats and people sat in pre-assigned seats based on how much you paid for your membership. Yom Kippur pledges were announced loudly from the floor as wealthy members strived to compete for admiration. Rabbi Ott, apparently a famous orator, spoke in polished rabbinese for no less than one hour and sometimes more. I wanted to leave in the worst way but this was frowned upon. Cantor Katzman was great but sang too little. Except for those from the old country who really knew Hebrew, and a few traditional songs, most of the service was not participatory although I remember with shame feeling embarrassed when my musical father sang the prayers out loud. How I wish I could hear him now.
Flash forward to the West Side’s B’nai Jeshurun, (newyorksideways) acknowledged leader of the “Jewish renewal” movement which emphasizes joy, music, and sometimes dance in prayer. Although the Rabbi swore that they don’t do franchises., nevertheless, in Los Angeles, this temple or that proudly refers to itself as “the BJ of Los Angeles or San Francisco.”
When our favorite Cantor retired from Central Synagogue, we went shopping for a temple, Rory swearing he would not go across town on High Holidays ever again. We started first at BJ because it was the closest and because we had heard great things about it. They call themselves a “liberal” congregation and indeed they believed all the things we did–women and gay clergy, social justice etc.
What we didn’t know was the prevalence of music throughout the service and I don’t mean just the Cantor with a guitar. I mean three professional musicians in every service-keyboard, cello and drums– and there are four services at different locations during the High Holidays to serve 4000 people. In addition, the Cantor plays a great keyboard and the Rabbis are terrific song leaders. They have long services but you can come and go as you please and nobody cares.
Every member of the clergy sings–really well–and they all sing in everything. If you can’t sing, you don’t get a gig at BJ. Also, much of the service is sung, again by all clergy, all the congregation and sometimes the Torah is chanted by incredibly knowledgeable and talented young people The music comes from Argentina, home of many of the clergy brought by Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, Israel and around the world. Sephardic and Ashkenazic, Hassidic, the Middle East, Turkey and South Asia. It is infectious, joyous, and often very moving. Most of all, these services are participatory. See: https://www.bj.org/spiritual-life/music-of-bj/
You don’t know who will lead your services ( a little like the New York City Ballet) but they bring in good people, although we adore the great Chazzan Ari Priven and always hope we will hear him. Although he has plenty of high notes, we especially like his thrumming low ones. Listen to his Hatikvah at the UN rally https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nO-cW213wkg. None of these clergy, however, “perform” for the crowd. They pray for themselves and we sing along.
It’s always open seating and of course, your pledge is private although by the time they finish reciting all the things they do, you are always sorry you didn’t pledge more and you rush to stay overnight at their shelters, cook food for the hungry, visit the sick and finally, just maybe, learn Hebrew.
When we walk out, we feel great–not sad, not depressed, but uplifted and part of our community. This is something I did not have as a child and relish now. I know that there are other great temples everywhere, but for us. BJ is the standout.
#Cantor Ari Priven