With the #Pope visiting the United States, and the Jewish High Holiday season in full swing, I wanted to share with you an article I wrote published in the Detroit Jewish News’ High Holiday edition.
Two days ago, my wonderful congregation spent 26 hours in intensive prayer, fasting and reflection. Prayer is hard work. It does not come easy. That is why I am thankful to those in the community – in my synagogue, and in yours, or maybe in your church, temple or mosque – who volunteer their time to learn how to lead prayer.
Have you ever led a prayer service? If so, how did you learn? Why did you decide to lead? Did it feel different than sitting in the pews? I’d love it if you comment below.
During the Middle Ages, an unknown cantor, humbled at the task of praying on behalf of the entire congregation so that God would inscribe them into the Book of Life, penned the prayer Hineini, meaning “Here I Am.”
Before the invention of the printing press, leaders of tefilot, or Jewish worship, carried the weighty responsibility of keeping an entire congregation engaged and focused.
Fast forward several centuries, and not much has changed. Although the words of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy are widely available in printed machzorim or even transmitted electronically onto large video screens, it is still the task of the leader to be the shaliach tzibbur (lit. “messenger of the community”) in shepherding today’s Jews through the most prayer-intensive time on the Jewish calendar in an increasingly secular society.
Throughout Metropolitan Detroit, many consider it an honor to volunteer leading services alongside professional clergy as an ultimate expression of contributing to the Jewish community.
Rachel Jacobson, 28, of Silver Spring, Md. each year returns to her hometown congregation of B’nei Israel in West Bloomfield to be with family and to lead various parts of services. Inspired from her years in Jerusalem learning from pioneering women leading tefilot in egalitarian congregations, she was one of the first female prayer leaders for the B’nei Israel during the high holidays.
“I never was formally trained to lead,” said Jacobson. “It is something I picked up over the years in school, at Camp Ramah, and living in many different Jewish communities. It is when I can do my best praying because I am not only responsible for my own davening, but for the congregation before me.”
Jacobson credits her singing ability to her school days performing in musicals, though it is not necessary to be able to carry a tune in order to lead tefilot. But just as in show business, services must go on, even when the prayer leader is sick.
“Sometimes I think God does not want me to daven,” Jacobson jokingly said, thinking about leading Rosh Hashanah services while fighting a cold. “It is moments like that when I really must remind myself that I am not up there (on the bimah) to sound pretty. I am an emissary of all the congregation’s tefilot to deliver them to God. That is what leading prayer is all about.”
When Clergy get sick, congregants step up
Last Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Norman Roman of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield found himself not on the bimah but in the hospital. It was then that the congregation showed its strength and proudest moments according to congregant Diane Siegel Di Vita of Northville, who helps coordinate monthly lay-led services at Kol Ami throughout the year. She said the entire executive board filled in to lead the services and deliver sermons under the facilitation of Cantor Tiffany Green. Rabbi Roman’s stepson Chad Rochkind delivered the Yom Kippur sermon.
“What happened at Kol Ami last year was very community affirming,” said Green. “It was important for our membership to see fellow members stepping up to the plate at a moment’s notice, and showed how they care for their community through their leadership,” said Green. “Leading prayers shapes and grows our small congregation. It shows that our members care about what happens here.”
In an effort to bring to his fellow congregants the meaningfulness of the season, Bruce Plisner, an active congregant at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, designed with Rabbi Mark Miller a one-hour text study for Yom Kippur afternoon that will focus on the central themes of the day: the sounds of the shofar, fasting, repentance and forgiveness.
Plisner, 68 of Farmington Hills, said that Jews for generations have recited prayers such as the Ashmamu and the Unetana Tokef but may not know their origin or significance. Through text study and rabbinical and contemporary commentaries, he hopes to enlighten the worshippers by offering them something less passive and more participatory.
“During Yom Kippur, we say certain prayers over and over again which few people understand what or why we are saying them,” said Plisner, who said he tries to get to services during the year as much as he can to usher and lead. “We thought it would be meaningful to take a different approach to reading about the prayers through rabbinical interpretation. We will also examine the tradition of fasting and through various texts, will explore who fasts and who is pardoned from fasting.”
In synagogues and temples that do not have a chazzan, rabbis such as Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield rely upon a deep core of capable and willing congregants to lead prayers. This year there will be some new Torah readers joining the ranks of volunteers, he said.
“Leading tefilot is a big part of our congregation’s culture,” Rubenstein said. “Leading gives people the opportunity to be invested and involved in congregational life. It makes services more enjoyable, not only for the High Holidays but throughout the entire year.”