Shared experiences

We don’t have to choose: Reinvigorating worship is leadership development

In Short

Do any of us want to be part of a Jewish future without Jewish prayer? Without Jewish music?  Boardroom decisions must, and will, help us meet the concrete needs of our community. But what will speak to the community’s neshama (soul)?

What do all the key priorities of Jewish philanthropists and funders have in common? From engaging young people, pipelining emerging leaders and meaningful diversity, equity and inclusion work, to inter-denominational and interfaith understanding and collaboration, they are most fully realized through shared experiences.  

I believe that those priorities must include shared experiences in the area of communal prayer, of gathering in search of the sacred, of meaning-making and relationship building through the lens of singing together and praying together. Prayer, and music, have long been at the center of Jewish life.  And they will be at the center of any vibrant Jewish future.

In many of the conversations I’ve had as the executive director of Sing Unto God, the nonprofit organization I started in January, I discovered that numerous community leaders are looking for the reinvigoration of worship, including the consideration of musical liturgy and songleading as instrumental in bringing people together, both within and across organizational structures, and want well-supported and trained leaders to do so. Most importantly, they are looking to do this through collaboration, co-creation, and working across organizational and movement boundaries.

On the recent Identity/Crisis podcast of The Shalom Hartman Institute, in which Yehuda Kurtzer speaks with Dr. Andrew Rehfeld of HUC-JIR about the rabbi shortage across liberal movements, they talk about a wide range of issues, all relating to the future of the rabbinate, movements and institutions. It was well-curated, informative, and clearly articulated some of the issues at hand.

When reflecting on their conversation about the role of the rabbi and how the current climate demands that all rabbis be excellent in all things, I thought about the opportunities for clergy already in the field — rabbis as well as cantors — to receive ongoing training and resources. Many organizations, fellowships and networks on leadership development came to mind.

I was disappointed but not surprised, though, to find only a scant handful of programs or networks dedicated to reinvigorating worship and music. There are wonderful programs like Hadar, which invite people to deepen their prayer leading skills, or the Institute for Jewish Spirituality whose mission is to develop and teach Jewish spiritual practice. But these are only two. 

What we need are more well-funded programs that:

  • develop leadership and networking growth in the area of facilitating spiritual moments for communities
  • support new thinking about leading what we might call “expected worship services” (ie Shabbat, Holy Days, Festivals)
  • experiment with the role of music, chant, the varied voices of our people in creating sacred sound
  • build relational communities within the milieu of connected prayer, where participants ask deep questions of themselves and their world, use the traditions we have been given, and continue to build around liturgy, prayer, and music to do so.

The good news is that we do not have to choose between nourishing our souls and leadership development. Leadership development is crucial, certainly. This must include evolving worship leadership, being agile and dynamic as spiritual music leaders, and support for the long term work of building much-needed pipelines of music and prayer leaders for a diverse and ever changing Jewish communal future.

Summer and day camps, worship in congregations, gatherings for shabbat dinners, meeting for an action or rally for justice, mourning the tragedies we see daily in our world – these are anchored in a belief in some kind of ritual, in the collective voice to share the cries and joys of our experiences, and of using “prayer” to find in each other shared strength to walk through life.   

Do any of us want to be part of a Jewish future without Jewish prayer? Without Jewish music?  Boardroom decisions must, and will, help us meet the concrete needs of our community. But what will speak to the community’s neshama (soul)?

As we emerge — tentatively and haltingly — from a pandemic that drove us into digital facsimiles of cherished traditions, the moment is now to reimagine what we expect from our leaders and our communal spaces. 

With our world deeply polarized, violence seemingly around every corner and the rights of so many in jeopardy, we have understandably pursued initiatives that empower action, and have supported big voices and big platforms. It is now time to complement that — really, to undergird that — with philanthropic support for the reinvigoration of worship, in whatever form it may take in the 21st century. 

In The Way Into Jewish Prayer, my mentor Rabbi Larry Hoffman wrote, “Prayer is a delivery system for committing us to the great ideas that make life worth living, because ideas that are ritually construed empower us to do what we would otherwise never have the courage to do.”

When we work holistically toward the intersection of practical leadership and spiritual inspiration, we will find there the courage to build a future that not only addresses key priorities, but also delivers sacred experiences that inspire us, empower us, and sustain us in our pursuit of a stronger Jewish community and a more holy wider world.

Cantor Rosalie Will is the founder and executive director of Sing Unto God, is the author of Songleading: A Work of Art, and is a past Synagogue 2000 Fellow and PresentTense participant. She was congregational clergy for 16 years in metro D.C.