Shir Hadash: A New Saturday Morning Service at Hebrew Educational Alliance, Denver

[The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and Clal’s CLI program. The Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) is a two-year program to support and encourage early career congregational rabbis in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is the newest program in the Rabbis Without Borders (RWB) family of programs under the auspices of Clal and is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz. Each month CLI offers a column called “Innovation and Institutional Change: What it Took; What we Gained.”

by Rabbi Bruce Dollin

Over the course of the past year, our traditional Conservative congregation created a second Shabbat morning service we call Shir Hadash that meets every shabbat of the year, which includes spirited congregational singing led by a team of singers and accompanied by drums. The service is not unlike what one might find at new congregations like Romemu in New York or IKAR in Los Angeles. What is different here is that Shir Hadash was created and thrives in a traditional synagogue of 940 families with an 85-year history.

When I came to Denver in 1994, Hebrew Educational Alliance was a declining Orthodox congregation of 300 families located on the west side of Denver. The Jewish community had long since moved across town. We quickly set out to move to southeast Denver, build a new building, and revitalize the shul. We succeeded. We built our membership over the next ten years to almost a thousand households. Our traditional services were lively with many young families. When the clergy’s kids were in strollers, a dozen strollers lined the aisles of the sanctuary each Shabbat. Three hundred and fifty people attended regularly, about half of them from young families. For nearly twenty years, our traditional service did not change. Aside from being egalitarian, the service is essentially indistinguishable from a traditional Orthodox service with full repetition of the shacharit and musaf amidahs, a full Torah reading, and classical hazanut.

However, as the clergy aged, so did those who attended services on Saturday morning. Attendance gradually declined to fewer than 200 each Shabbat, mostly aged 50 and above. Following the economic down-turn, our overall membership declined as well from nearly 1,000 to 940 families. The leadership of the shul became alarmed and approached me, asking that something be done to stem the decline and to get us back up to where we were. I had absolutely no idea what to do.

I asked for a much-needed sabbatical, having been in the rabbinate for 25 years without an extended break. The synagogue and I were both tired. The terms of the sabbatical were that I would travel the country looking for new models, especially for Saturday morning services. With a few exceptions, I hadn’t attended services at another congregation for over a quarter century!

With my four months off, I experienced religious services in churches, a yoga retreat and several shabbat morning services around the country, including cutting edge spiritual communities like IKAR in Los Angeles, and Romemu and Hadar in New York. When I returned to work, I wrote a comprehensive report of my travels, which can be found here.

It seemed to me that right after my return, I had a short window for innovation. My first meeting after the sabbatical was with the current and past presidents of the congregation. I told them generally what I had in mind regarding a new service and they were supportive and even excited. I went to the Board next and then to the Annual Meeting of the congregation. For the most part, there was little resistance to a new idea because no one, including me, had any real idea what this new service would become.

Keeping in mind the models that I had seen on my sabbatical and with the guidance of Joey Weisenberg’s book, Building Singing Communities, I asked a few people who I knew liked to sing, to come over to my home to simply sing together some of the melodies I had heard on my sabbatical. None of us had any formal music education, and that was by design. There would be no cantor or song leader, no center of attention at all; just people singing. We started out with drums and a guitar but even the guitar was too loud, drawing too much attention to the guitar player and making the rest of us listen too passively. We needed to hear each other sing; we needed to become a community with one voice, to leave aside consciousness of self and merge with the music, each other and God. We imagined that if we, the singers, could let ourselves go a bit, we could model it for the congregation.

Associate Rabbi, Salomon Gruenwald, and I began to craft an outline for the service. It was clear from the start that for this to work, both he and I had to be completely invested in its success. This wasn’t to be an alternative service or another program of the shul. It was a full service that would meet every Shabbat, and one of the two rabbis would be present at every service. We developed a “Leadership Team,” comprised of my wife Tammy, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumna and several recent Wexner Heritage graduates who were members of the congregation. We identified this group as people who had, through Wexner, experienced exciting Jewish learning and worship. We started by posing to them a simple open-ended question: “If you could create the ideal synagogue, what would it look like?” We allowed them to dream big and brainstorm ideas, resisting the urge organizations have to say “this isn’t possible” or “this is the way we’ve always done it.” We determined instead to start with our ideal and work backward toward what was possible. At the same time we empowered this team to become lay leaders of the shul. They and the rabbis would chart a path for Shir Hadash and deal with logistics like recruiting greeters and gabbaim.

The service is two hours in duration meeting from 10am to noon. We expect people to come on time and stay for the whole service. Our room is generally full by 10:15 and almost no one leaves until the end. Why two hours? Because a good Hollywood movie is two hours long; people don’t like to sit for longer without a break and people taking a break would disrupt the service.

In crafting the order of the service we sought to create a prayer experience that felt authentic, while also having lively participatory singing, and manageable in length. We abbreviate pesukai d’zimrah and we sing a lively, engaging melody for each of the psalms we select, which we rotate from week to week. We continue to shacharit with a “hechi Kedusha” for the amidah. We daven mostly in Hebrew with some English. We read about 30 pesukim from Torah and chant the translation using traditional trope. We recite an abbreviated Haftorah only if the text is particularly engaging. The rabbi, or occasionally a lay person, gives a brief d’var torah or leads a short discussion. We’ve also experimented with other modes of engaging Torah like bibliodrama. We end the Torah service, recite a traditional full kaddish and sing ein kelohenu with a Ladino melody. We recite alenu with a call and response melody for “v’hashevota,” Mourner’s Kaddish, announcements, and a rousing niggun called “tzfat niggun,” or “The Sanctuary Song,” adapted from a gospel melody of the same name. Our music comes from CD’s we purchased from IKAR (Los Angeles), Romemu (New York), Shira Hadasha (Israel) B’nai Jeshurun (New York), Hadar (New York) and several other sources we found easily for free on the Internet. We select melodies that the congregation can learn easily and sing loudly!

We have a volunteer “Davenning Team” (a term we borrowed from IKAR) of about 15 singers. On any given week, 8-12 of them participate in the service. The leadership of the service is shared, with no single person taking the role of “star.” Our diverse Davenning Team is comprised of singers and drummers from every decade of life; the youngest is 9 years old and the oldest, a drummer, is 75.

All of the singers and drummers are amateurs, with one exception. Early on in the process we realized that in order to achieve the kind of high quality musical experience we wanted, we would need someone with musical talent. Rabbi Gruenwald and I can carry a tune, but neither of us has any formal musical training. As it happened, our synagogue’s Youth Director, Kolby Morris, was a music major in college. We augmented Kolby’s professional role at the synagogue to include serving as the musical director of Shir Hadash. She has been invaluable in training the singers, leading monthly rehearsals, and selecting the music from week-to-week.

Rabbi Gruenwald and I alternate weekly between Shir Hadash and the Traditional Service. The rabbi at Shir Hadash sits with the Davenning Team, like all the other singers. We occasionally give very brief kavvanot and sometimes other Davenning Team members also speak about the prayers. These kavannot are informal and occasionally spontaneous.

The crowd at Shir Hadash is surprisingly diverse. As we expected, it has attracted a large number of NexGen Jews including several young people who work for Camp Ramah in the Rockies. But the service has also drawn young couples with children, baby-boomers and seniors. While Shir Hadash has brought in a lot of newcomers, we have also seen that it has become a spiritual home for our own members who never used to come to shul outside the High Holy Days. When we started Shir Hadash, the first service attracted 40 people. The second attracted 80 and the third, 120. Throughout the year, between 120-200 people attend this two-hour service weekly. During the two morning services of Rosh Hashana, held in a local 650-seat church near the synagogue, 600 people attended Shir Hadash. On Yom Kippur morning, 800 attended with people filling the choir loft and spilling out into the church lobby. Throughout the year, dozens of visitors from around the area, including community rabbis, have attended the service.

We had detractors. There were those in the traditional service upset to see their numbers decline slightly as about 50 regulars migrated to the new service. Compared to the high energy level at Shir Hadash, the regular service seemed sedate. As the rabbis spent considerable time creating the new service, some of the regulars at the traditional service felt neglected. Some questioned whether the synagogue was still Conservative, having a minyan that was so “non-traditional.” Some assumed we believed Shir Hadash was the “wave of the future” that would soon displace the traditional service and leave them without a place to pray. Some saw Shir Hadash as a “break-away” that would split the synagogue and lead to the creation of a new shul. Some complained that the new service was filled with non-members who are not paying their way. Rabbi Gruenwald and I spent a great deal of time during this process to reassure those most concerned about the new service that we were not taking away from the traditional service, only adding options for a diverse membership with varying religious sensibilities. Over the past several months, the anxiety seems to be slowly dissipating and the truth is that the Traditional Service remains strong, with 140-200 people attending regularly. Overall, Shir Hadash has resulted in a net gain in attendance. Where we used to have about 200 people attending synagogue on average, we now typically have over 300 people at the shul on Shabbat. One of the commitments we made in the process is that both services would end roughly at the same time and the community would join together for kiddush.

The process of establishing something new in an old synagogue has its challenges. But Shir Hadash has reenergized the rabbis, their partners and the congregants enjoying the lively new weekly Saturday morning service. Our plan is to use its momentum and innovative spirit as a model to reinvigorate all other aspects of our congregation as well.

Rabbi Bruce Dollin has been the rabbi at the Hebrew Educational Alliance since August 1994. He grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He and his wife, Tammy Dollin, have four children, Yonaton, Yeshai, Akiva, and Aviva.