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Experimental service offers ‘return’ to worship
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Experimental service offers ‘return’ to worship

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Naomi Levy, third from left, leads the band at her Nashuva service in California. Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield is adapting the Nashuva model for a Friday night service of its own. Photos courtesy Naomi Levy
Rabbi Naomi Levy, third from left, leads the band at her Nashuva service in California. Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield is adapting the Nashuva model for a Friday night service of its own. Photos courtesy Naomi Levy

A band, meditation, reinterpreted prayers on a handout sheet, and a PowerPoint presentation — these are all part of a Friday night Shabbat service that takes under 45 minutes.

If it’s not what most people expect, that’s the whole idea.

“There are segments of the Jewish community who have no contact with organized Jewish life. That’s who we’re looking for,” said Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, which will offer the experimental “Nashuva” service on Friday night, May 14.

Based on a model pioneered by Rabbi Naomi Levy of Los Angeles, the service seeks to attract Jews who would not ordinarily walk through the doors of a synagogue.

It will begin with a guided meditation and include a three-piece band playing up-tempo music. Mallach has created a handout accompanying the prayerbook that includes his own interpretive translations of prayers.

And all the prayers will be on a PowerPoint slide, making them easier to follow — a common practice, according to Mallach, in “mega-churches.” Child care and a youth service will also be available.

Earlier this year, Mallach took part in a training course run by Levy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He will be among the first rabbis anywhere to bring a version of the service to his congregation.

Nashuva (“We will return”) grew out of Levy’s experience as a pulpit rabbi in a Conservative synagogue in Venice Beach, Calif., located right on the ocean.

“We had enormous foot traffic,” said Levy in a phone interview. “People in bikinis and flip-flops, surfer dudes. They’d walk in, say, What’s this? But the service was for insiders. They always left.”

Levy said she began thinking about how to reach those who lack the background to take part in traditional services.

“They can’t read Hebrew, and they can’t understand Hebrew. I spent a long time talking to people who were unaffiliated, asking them what they’re interested in, and why they are going to the Zen Center for spiritual life, or the yoga center.

“Judaism has what to offer on a deep level,” Levy said. “It’s about coming home to something new.”

She took the service out of the synagogue, created a model with mass appeal, and the service had almost immediate success. The first Friday night drew several hundred worshipers, by word of mouth alone. The service, now held in a church, regularly attracts 400 or more.

Levy founded the Nashuva outreach organization in rented space in a Los Angeles church in 2004. There is no membership. Services are held one Friday night a month, and participants take part in a monthly social action project organized jointly with the church congregation.

Upbeat music, meditation, and prayers that are both transliterated and translated are a staple of the Nashuva approach.

“I think Nashuva is really easy to do. It’s really replicable because it’s not just a service; it’s a very simple approach,” said Levy. “And the way it gets played out with every rabbi in every community will be different.”

Mallach said he’s been exploring Jewish meditation for a while, but “working with Rabbi Levy has given me the confidence to try it.” Mallach added the PowerPoint presentation to Levy’s model but dropped the social action component, since his synagogue already has a social action committee that carries out community service projects.

He’s hopeful, if uncertain, about how the evening will go. “Can we bring avant garde Judaism to the staid community of the East Coast? I guess we’ll see,” he said. “I’m willing to take the risk.

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