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Shul tweaks a Shabbat morning ritual
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Shul tweaks a Shabbat morning ritual

In place of ‘Musaf,’ S. Orange’s Beth El adds prayer options

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The changes in the Saturday morning service at Congregation Beth El, said Rabbi Francine Roston, is an exercise in better understanding the tradition.
The changes in the Saturday morning service at Congregation Beth El, said Rabbi Francine Roston, is an exercise in better understanding the tradition.

In an attempt to make its Shabbat morning prayers more engaging, one Conservative synagogue in the area is adding a service that drops the traditional Musaf prayers.

The Musaf, or additional, service is usually the last of the Saturday morning services, coming after the weekly Torah reading. It features a repetition of the silent Amida prayer and an emphasis on recalling the Temple sacrifices.

In its stead, Congregation Beth El in South Orange is introducing “Shabbat Ohr.” Four times a year, the Musaf service will be eliminated and the extra time used to embellish and explore the structure and meaning of other prayers — with the aim to finish the Shabbat morning worship by noon. The first “Shabbat Ohr” will be held on Oct. 24.

“There’s a crisis in congregations regarding prayer. People feel detached from the traditional service, and it feels inaccessible,” said Beth El’s Rabbi Francine Roston. “Fewer and fewer people are coming to services. We needed to do something radical to address their needs.”

As for those who prefer the traditional structure, “even they are looking for more,” she said.

Congregation Beth El is not the first Conservative synagogue to experiment with dropping Musaf, but it is not the norm.

Options for augmenting the service include meditation and chanting at appropriate times, and adding new melodies and perhaps percussion between the Sh’ma and the Amida, Roston said. Meditation will surface again just before the Amida, to help people focus on the purpose of that section of the service, which is often considered a meditation itself.

“This is an exercise in understanding our tradition better,” Roston said.

During the Torah service, there may be simultaneous translation of the verses into English to enhance understanding; and in place of a sermon, there will be bibliodrama — a dramatic interpretation of the parsha bringing in a contemporary perspective.

The ultimate goal is not to drop Musaf, but to integrate the elements of Shabbat Ohr that resonate with the congregation into the regular Shabbat morning repertoire. “It’s my hope that after a few years, the need for this service will disappear, and people will find their way back into prayer with a new energy and inspiration,” said Roston.

For those who like the service as it is, the congregation will offer a parallel lay-led traditional service.

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