Praying with Heart

A highlight of any trip abroad is the chance to get off the tourist route and into the homes of locals.  Barbara and I have  accomplished that in Israel by traveling with organized Reform movement groups, which typically includes Erev Shabbat services at a Progressive congregation, followed by dinner at the home of a member of the congregation.

While that opportunity was available to us on our trip this past June, we chose the other option, attending services at a fledgling congregation in downtown Tel Aviv, followed by potluck supper with the congregants. It was the right decision!

Our Kabbalat Shabbat was at T’filat HaLev, Prayer of the Heart, a congregation that was launched last year at Rosh Hashanah by HUC-Jerusalem rabbinic student Or Zohar, and that has met approximately monthly since. T’filat HaLev meets in a dance studio in downtown Tel Aviv, off Allenby Street – and the dance studio director plays an integral part in the service as she relaxes the congregation with a variety of motion exercises. The service is very musical – Or’s primary vocations are radio broadcaster and musician, and he leads services with his guitar while his wife Feliza, who describes herself as a musician and voice movement therapist, functions as the cantor, singing and playing the harmonium. This video provides a feel for what the service is like, (This was not filmed the night we were there, but it captures the “vibe” we experienced.)

T’filat HaLev has come into being with support from the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and a combination of networking, word of mouth, newspaper ads, email, and flyers posted on Feliza’s blog, Omanut Ha Emuna, , which translates as the Art of Believing. Or and Feliza’s musical group goes under the same name, and “seeks to investigate the relations between inner journeys and artistic expression. More specifically: Omanut Ha Emuna creates music that echoes inner search in music.”

In some sense, the congregation grew out of the music (and, in fact, at its inception last year, it was called Shirat HaLev, the Song of the Heart. But it also grew out of Or’s personal interest in Kabbalah, and his teaching of Kabbalah was part of the program during the early months of the kehilla (congregation) – now more traditional divrei Torah seem to prevail.

The music includes both familiar melodies and the Zohars’ own compositions. According to Feliza, “We sound like we sound. Sound like ourselves. Some say that our music blends Israeli rock, Middle Eastern rhythms and scales, American beats and styles such as soul and reggae, as well as a bit of Far Eastern coloring.”

Had we exercised our other option and gone to services at Tel Aviv’s main Reform synagogue, Beit Daniel, we would probably have used the “official” siddur of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, Ha Avodah she- BaLev, The Service of the Heart, in a service much like those at home, aside from being all in Hebrew. (At least, that’s been our experience at Yozma and Mevasseret Zion.) At T’filat HaLev, there is no siddur, only a photocopied program/song sheet, which Or explains as being less intimidating to his community of novice worshippers than a siddur would be – enhancing their sense of being at an event (Or’s word for all of T’filat HaLev’s gatherings – “tonight is our tenth event”) rather than in shul. As part of the same approach, the service does not (yet) include Aleinu or the Mourners’ Kaddish.

T’filat HaLev appeals to families, because child care is provided in an adjacent room by Mechina members (post- high school, pre-Army young adults, taking a “gap year” and doing community service). Nonetheless, kids – including Or and Feliza’s — run back and forth between the prayer room, where they are welcomed by their parents and others, and their own event. The congregation is heterogeneous, ranging in age from their twenties into their fifties, singles and couples as well as families. I doubt that they think of themselves as “members,” since the concept of formal synagogue affiliation as we know it is a hard sell in Israel. As explained to us when we met with Rabbi Meir Azari, senior rabbi of Beit Daniel, his synagogue is sustained with fees for wedding ceremonies and b’nai mitzvah, as well as through contributions, not primarily through dues as in the American model.

Beit Daniel has established a unique role for itself in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, not only operating its synagogue in fashionable North Tel Aviv, and a guest-house/cultural center in gritty Jaffa, but also three public elementary schools in partnership with the municipality, integrating Jewish, Muslim, and Christian children under a single roof. Rabbi Azari and the congregation have taken T’filat HaLev under their wing, and in fact have granted a stipend to Or to build the new kehilla as a branch of the Daniel Centers, on the way to developing a multi-branch network model throughout Tel Aviv – Jaffa. T’filat HaLev benefits from Beit Daniel’s organizational infrastructure and experience, and as part of the Daniel network is poised to work alongside its big brother on municipal projects. (T’filat HaLev has also received modest funding and generous encouragement from the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.)

We American visitors were greeted warmly and graciously at T’filat HaLev, and more concessions were made to us English-speakers than I’ve experienced at other Israeli Progressive congregations. (Or explained that his group probably knew English better than we knew Hebrew.) But the hospitality and spirituality were the least of our take-aways from a remarkable Shabbat. It was exciting to see the response of so-called secular Israelis to a religious environment and experiment that broke their stereotypes and responded to their tastes and needs. It was satisfying to note that Progressive Judaism is now serving Israelis, not just American transplants. In fact, in developing its own modes and models of operation, it has set the stage for becoming our teachers, not just our students, at a time when we are facing the challenges of adjusting our own synagogue models to a changing environment. As financial contributors to the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, it is gratifying for us to see the successes our seed money has allowed the IMPJ and its congregations to achieve. May we and they continue to be strong and to strengthen one another!


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