Caryn Malchman of Morris Plains isn’t a member of Congregation Beth Ahm in Verona, but she’s trying to rearrange her schedule to be able to go to Shabbat morning services there on Feb. 7. If she does, she will meet Elizabeth Shaw of Glen Ridge, who can’t remember the last time she went to services on Shabbat morning (she regularly attends Friday evening services at Beth Ahm).
The draw is Rabbi Mark Biller’s “Top of the Morning” Shabbat, a casual learning and discussion session that he is calling “a grand experiment.” Instead of formal worship in the sanctuary, participants, dressed casually, will sit in a circle, discussing parts of the liturgy over breakfast. According to publicity material, the group will “look at some lines of psalms. Talk about our own lives. Snack on waffles, orange juice, nibble nuts and babka. Sit at the table and hear a story. And make meaning out of life, modern and ancient.” If it is well-received, said Biller, he plans to offer “Top of the Morning” once a month.
Biller has tossed out everything that he thinks turns people off — including the length of the more traditional service. His service will run from 10:30 to 11:45 a.m. instead of the regular two-and-a-half-hour service.
“I want people to feel like they are gathering in a home where they talk about something meaningful — to take a break from the experience of walking into synagogue, sitting, and turning pages.” He added that rather than follow the liturgical structure of introductory prayers, Shaharit, Torah service, and Musaf, “I’ll pare it down and pick a few to do more in depth. We’ll have a discussion and do something experiential — maybe meditation, or maybe something more personal.”
The idea struck him when he realized that while a small core of worshipers comes for Shabbat morning services, a larger crowd arrives for discussions about prayers on other days of the week.
“Saturday morning does kind of drag,” said Shaw. “Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever gone. I do pop in on the later side on the High Holy Days, and those services are even longer.”
“I consider myself agnostic, and at the moment I’m unaffiliated,” said Malchman, who is nonetheless involved in Jewish life, and has taught in the religious schools of several area synagogues. Biller was her rabbi at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, where he served before coming to Verona. “But when I listen to his Torah stories and midrash,” Malchman said, “he makes it so relevant to my life. He can bring the parsha into contemporary life and I feel illuminated.” She has stayed in touch with him, has attended several events at Beth Ahm, and is considering joining despite the distance from Morris Plains. “When he has a program, I know it will be refreshing, interesting, funny, and will somehow help me wherever I am in my life.”
Malchman said she believes this kind of program has the potential to reach beyond Biller’s own congregants and other followers. “I’ve always been very concerned with the disaffection of unaffiliated Jews. I don’t think synagogues are reaching people at a level that is meaningful. People feel alienated by rituals they don’t understand and formality they don’t understand,” she said.
“From the beginning, this service is about connecting to the text and making it meaningful in a nonjudgmental way. Engaging and connecting rather than alienating. I think that’s golden.”