Members of the String of Pearls congregation in Princeton have begun a Friday night service to fill what they perceive as a spiritual need in the wider community.
The Reconstructionist synagogue’s service weaves Sephardi and Mizrahi tunes into the kabalat Shabbat section, and offers traditional elements of a Shabbat service in a more “compressed” format, said Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum.
It is not “Jewish lite,” she said, but “Jewish accessible.”
The first Contemplative Erev Shabbat service on Jan. 7 drew 35 people on a bitter cold Friday night, including some new faces — many representing the “baby boomer” generation, said Kirshbaum. The congregation has a little more than 50 member families.
For those not familiar with traditional liturgy, synagogue services can be daunting.
Normally, Kirshbaum said, “it’s not a reflective time; it can be an anxiety-ridden time. It’s anything but reflective.”
By contrast, the new service strives to “make space for contemplation and reflection” and can serve as a “meaningful” way into Jewish life.
The Jan. 7 service, most of which was held in a darkened room, incorporated musical elements, with the playing of a clarinet and a doumbek, a Middle Eastern goblet drum. It incorporated material from Richard Kaplan, a cantor who has collected nigunim (wordless melodies) and piyutim (liturgical poems) from Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews that are “old and authentic to our tradition,” said Kirshbaum.
Kirshbaum’s husband, Louis Friedler, also played an Ashkenazi nigun on clarinet to accompany the silent Amida prayer.
Participants did not actually open a siddur until it came time for the Mourner’s Kaddish. The service concluded with a rendition of “Am Yisrael Hai” sung by the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda; an oneg Shabbat followed.
Although Kirshbaum called it a “successful experiment,” the contemplative service will not replace the synagogue’s regular service; instead, it will be offered intermittently.
“I wouldn’t make a steady diet of that,” she said. Rather, she is hoping the experience of the contemplative service will make people “hungry for a traditional service.”
But at least two more contemplative services are planned in the coming months. “As long as it seems to serve a need in the community, we will do it,” she said.