Shabbat at the Shtender

Peer through our chapel door on any given Friday night, and you’ll probably see nine or 10 people standing around an old wooden shtender (reader’s lectern), co-leading the Kabbalat Shabbat service with gusto. You’ll see two 20-somethings (a guy in jeans and a woman who is head of our social action committee); two women in their 40s, singing while their hungry families wait for them at home; an empty-nester couple in their 60s; a new guy whom nobody seems to know; and—a fairly new phenomenon—an infant or two, bouncing in a Baby Bjorn as mom or dad bangs along on the shtender to the rhythms of Carlebach’s Lecha Dodi.

It would be a lie to say that the Kane Street Synagogue created this vision of unity-amiddiversity overnight. It was, in fact, built over many hours and nights and days of discussion. Eventually, over the better part of a year, our Kabbalat Shabbat grew from a rather low-key service averaging 20 attendees into the robust, loud, and buzz-generating one that draws as many as 75. Its architect is the guy in the brown-and-black tallis standing at the center of the group, musical enrichment director Joey Weisenberg. Look closely and you’ll notice he’s gently giving instruction to the lay gabbaim (service organizers) with a hand gesture here or a quiet word there, even as he’s mostly lost in prayer himself. A few attendees are there just because of him. But there is a coterie of longstanding members who are learning under his tutelage to do just what he’s doing: Inspire us toward more kavanah in prayer.

Weisenberg, just 26 years old, is bearded, handsome almost to a fault, and the possessor of a 100-watt smile that has done wonders for disarming the shul’s old and new guard during many battles. He’s from Milwaukee (seventh-generation German-American stock) and he not only studies traditional nusach but also is a professional guitarist who plays gigs in clubs like Williamsburg’s Zebulon and Manhattan’s Joe’s Pub. Joey Weisenberg doesn’t talk much about himself but he can find ways to get those who have been too shy to lead services to come forward and he can encourage the whole congregation to welcome change. As a teacher and prayer leader, Weisenberg’s both enigmatic and charismatic – a powerfully effective combination.

When the members of the Kane Street board created the part-time position of musical enrichment director in fall 2007, they could not have anticipated how indispensable Weisenberg would become. Kane Street is a large and diverse Conservative congregation, located in the already diverse neighborhood of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Its membership of 250-plus boasts professionals, community activists, and many artists, coupled in relationships both straight and gay, in families large and small, from backgrounds traditional and secular. For every member fluent in Hebrew, there is another for whom reading is a chore. Some can read Torah with ease while others can barely sit still during the service. They all seem to have a preferred tune for Adon Olam, or a seat in the sanctuary from which they’d rather not budge, a melody from their childhood they’d like to introduce, or an aspect of the service they’d rather see struck. Kane Street is, in short, a highly opinionated congregation, populated by people who expect to be heard. The new musical enrichment director would have his hands full.

Weisenberg began by giving short, simple musical instructions at various times during the year. There is one easy-to-learn tune that he introduced in services, during children’s programs, and at almost every other event, a tune he named the Kane Street Niggun to share our sense of ownership and comfort. Whether we realized it or not, we had started participating in a pedagogical concept that Weisenberg calls “followership.” “You have leadership, of course,” Weisenberg said. “But you can’t blame leadership for all the problems. There must be people who follow actively. They have to be able to grab hold of what’s happening and take it to a higher level. That’s why, on Friday night, we invite gabbaim to stand and support the prayer leader.” According to Weisenberg, leaders of prayer have to feel the “immediate, proximate support” of their fellow congregants. Lines have to blur. “The leaders should feel like they’re steering a boat rather than pushing it.” Lay gabbaim aren’t a Jewish Renewal concept. The tradition goes back hundreds of years. In the interest of change, Kane Street found itself embracing that old concept.

By November, Weisenberg took over an hour-long Shabbat alternative service that ran in our small chapel at the same time as the Torah and musaf services, re-naming it the Singers Service. Not a service, per se, and not strictly a singing lesson, it instead became a close-knit circle of people, all encouraged to participate with tunes ranging from wordless chasidic melodies to traditional Shabbat songs. This ragtag assemblage learned how to be in the moment while taking direction from a leader. Participants would listen to a new tune, then break it down into sections, singing it at least 20 times before thinking that they’d begun to appreciate it. Then they would sit silently, letting the whole experience sink in. The overall goal for congregants, using our own abilities (and potentially unbounded kavanah), is to make an aesthetically beautiful experience out of prayer.

“In order to make something more than the sum of its parts you have to have people close, for the same reason that an orchestra sits close together,” Weisenberg said. “I see the congregation as being a giant Jewish orchestra. It changes its composition every week and frequently has a different conductor. There’s a certain amount of discipline in an orchestra. Is it time to be quiet? Time to be loud? And you’d never have people in a true orchestra talking to each other and ignoring the conductor.” Now these biweekly services are greatly anticipated; they have become a way for congregants to build confidence. No matter how you feel when you enter the room, you have to admit that something definitely has shifted before you leave.

More than half of the diverse crew standing at the shtender got their Kabbalat Shabbat skills during those spontaneous Shabbat morning Jewish orchestra recitals. But even newbies get the sense that whatever you bring to the table – the instrument of your kavanah – is enough.

“At the beginning of every service, the leader should request that at least six people come up to support him or her,” Weisenberg said. “What’s most important is that they’re physically there, and trying. Kabbalat Shabbat is a flexible service in a number of ways, and a good training ground for leadership. Of course, it’s helpful if you have people who know what they’re doing. But it’s equally helpful if you don’t. The service begins with the invitation to the community: L’chu n’rannena l’Adonai – Come, let us sing together to God.” At other times during the service, we make no noise at all.

Silence. A proud followership. Leading with sensitivity. Listening with initiative. It’s a recipe we highly recommend for welcoming Shabbat at the shtender – along, of course, with loud, loud song.

Sarah Schmerler is a Brooklyn-based journalist and teacher who has begun to lead services at Kane Street Synagogue.

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