by Howard Lev
Years ago, as a first-time board member, I was corrected by our then-president that we are a Reform temple, not a Reformed temple, because we are constantly changing. By adding the -ed at the end of the word, Stan explained, we would cease to change. While many people would prefer the -ed, the Reform Movement is constantly changing (though not without some kicking and screaming from members).
After much discussion, Temple B’nai Torah made a daring double-change to Friday night services. On the third Friday of the month, we replaced our 8pm service with a 6:30pm Kabbalat Shabbat that kicked-off with a 6pm “pre-neg” to replace the after-service oneg. The skeptics – and I admit I was one – were concerned about the change. Voices from both sides of the bimah were heard.
Our clergy assured the Rituals Committee that although it would be a shorter service, none of the integrity of Shabbat would be lost; in fact, it would offer an opportunity to change (there’s that word again!) from month to month. The dress code would be less formal. There could be more music, a shorter sermon, more opportunity for congregational participation. As a show of support to our clergy, the Rituals Committee agreed to move ahead with a one-year trial that began this past September.
Part of my skepticism was purely selfish. I wanted enough time to have dinner before the service, which would also play a role for some congregants working in Manhattan. It was pointed out that part of the idea behind a service that ended around 7:30ish was that it would allow for a leisurely dinner afterward. To avoid the sounds of a hungry stomach during the service, there would be the pre-neg.
The pews were filled for the September and October Kabbalat Shabbat services. It was good to see many of the same faces from the regular 8pm and 7:30pm once-monthly family services. There was an even mix of the young and the young at heart. While some of the children sat with their parents, the first two rows spontaneously became children only; singing, praying, behaving, and taking in the experience while mom and dad sat a row or two behind. While I did miss the regulars who were unable to attend because of the time change, it was most gratifying to see the congregants for whom this new service was created, the ones looking for an early service, either because they didn’t want to drive late at night after a service that ended before 9:30 or simply because they wanted a shorter service. Now we don’t have to guess what ever happened to So-and-So; we can ask them in person!
The pre-neg, like the oneg, allowed congregants to, eat, mingle, and catch up with each other. However, thanks to our cantor, the pre-neg also allowed for something a bit different. To nudge people into the sanctuary as 6:30 drew near, the cantor started playing familiar melodies on his guitar, and as he began to sing, those gathered in the lobby followed him into the sanctuary, singing along. He continued this until everyone was settled down inside, where our rabbi welcomed us, lit the Kabbalat Shabbat candles, and began services.
The new format is still evolving, with some of the differences noticeable and others so subtle I doubt anyone can tell what has changed. Is an unnoticeable change really a change at all? At the October service, our rabbi told a personal story, welcomed back congregants who returned from Hadassah 100th-anniversary celebration in Israel, and took an informal survey, asking those people who came to September’s Kabbalat Shabbat service what they did afterward. My wife and I got to watch our favorite shows without having to turn to a recorded version; some people went home and put their pajamas on, and others went out to dinner.
As the October service ended, congregants – even those heading to dinner – were in no rush to leave. They shared the challah, the grape juice and wine, and the leftover pre-neg munchies. Conversations that were started before the service were finished, and new ones were started, reflecting on the service and weekend plans.
Our temple is about prayer, community, socializing, and food. None of that seems to be lost with the change to a 6:30 Kabbalat Shabbat. This skeptic is looking forward to November’s service.
Howard Lev is a member of Temple B’nai Torah of Wantagh on Long Island, N.Y., where he serves on a number of temple committees, including the Religious Education Committee.