Dr. Yossi Chajes is an alumnus of Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class IV, and he is a professor of Jewish Thought and History at the University of Haifa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the past decade, I’ve led High Holiday services in stunningly diverse religious contexts. My challenge has been to distill and express what is most meaningful to me in the dovening within very different pre-existing frameworks.
Recently, however, I’ve had the daunting experience of leading services within a community that had no pre-existing framework. At Limmud UK, I met the dynamic leaders of two of London’s independent minyans, Gabi Pomeroy & Naomi Soetendorp. They took a liking to my gonzo dovening and decided that London was ready for a High Holidays alternative. I was hired; now to create a congregation!
A crew motley and impressive planned the unimaginable: a 100% independent minyan that would cater to all. The group went with the Leader approach (the model later popularized by Shira Hadasha), though with a twist: a “tri-chitza” would be fashioned of mylar sheets painted Jackson Pollock-style by Elliott Tucker. There would also be rich alternatives to the main service.
If Grassroots catered to all, it also challenged all. No one could have been entirely within his or her comfort zone. Perhaps that edginess made possible the cut to the quick of real prayer. That—plus love and devotion.
What did it mean to lead services for this community? If I may borrow a metaphor: the strength and suppleness of a reed. But here’s the Jewish part: this was a sea of reeds. My teacher, Shlomo Carlebach, gave some advice to chazanim: “Don’t sing so well that people don’t want to sing along, or so badly that they can’t bear it.” From that in-between place, you don’t so much lead as facilitate. You lead…together.