The Year That Was: One Congregation’s Prayer Services without a Rabbi

My synagogue, Kehillat Emet VeShalom in Nahariya, Israel, just completed a year of prayer services on our own without a rabbi. We recently met to reflect on the year and to voice our thoughts and opinions.

First, to set the mood and remind us of some of the special moments that we shared during the past year, we watched a YouTube clip of some of the year’s highlights. With this introduction and the help of a questionnaire, we began to discuss, in the three languages of our congregation (Hebrew, English and Spanish), our Shabbat and holiday celebrations.

We remembered that to ease the transition, our president and ritual committee chairperson, both of whom took on a slew of new and extra responsibilities due to the absence of a spiritual leader, made sure that our first month without a rabbi was planned ahead of time so that our weekly schedule of Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening) services could continue without disruption. As one of the oldest Reform congregations in Israel, and the only one in the Western Galilee affiliated with Israel’s Reform and Progressive movements, we wanted to maintain our unbroken record of holding weekly services for the community, except during times of war, since our establishment in 1963.

As I wrote in “The Blessing of a Special Guest,” we faced our new challenge by arranging a schedule so that the three roles of leading our services were assigned to different members of the congregation on a voluntary basis. Additionally, as permitted by our shoestring budget or a scheduled bar/bat mitzvah, and Rabbi Jonathan Biatch’s volunteering to conduct Friday night services for several weeks, we occasionally had guest rabbis who gave us the extra spiritual nourishment that only a professional rabbi can provide.

Some members admitted that at the beginning, they felt unsure as to whether we would succeed, but at the end of the year, we overwhelmingly felt proud that we had pulled together to sustain our congregation. Our new reality had the positive effect of encouraging our multicultural and multilingual members to further integrate in order to overcome some of the differences between us. Without a rabbi, we discovered unknown talents and the hidden potential of many members who came forth willingly to contribute. Our ritual committee chairperson revealed that to her delight, she never received a negative response when she asked someone to give a drasha (discussion of the weekly Torah portion) or lead services. Moreover, some of the members who were not comfortable conducting services, stepped up their efforts in other areas for the well being of the congregation

Our discussion revealed that we unanimously agreed that the quality of the drashot at services was high and intellectually stimulating. Also, we were pleased that we were able to maintain our musical content via the participation of additional members and a talented musician who joined us; our services had remained spirited and full of song. Many congregants gave their heart and soul to our Shabbat and holiday celebrations, and so even when there were glitches or mistakes, our volunteers received gold stars, in our minds, for their efforts.

As we evaluated where we were and thought about where we are going, I realized that we had heeded the moral teachings of our sage Shammai, quoted in Pirkei Avot 1:15:

Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance.

I believe this ethical saying reflects Emet VeShalom. Because Torah was a priority for so many members, each week someone delved into the week’s portion and other sources to prepare an erudite and insightful sermon that provided a high standard of material for meaningful discussion and thought within the congregation. People spoke through their actions by taking on extra, and often challenging, responsibilities so that we could carry on. Everyone made a commitment to put the overall good of the congregation above our individual differences.

Although there were frustrations and differences of opinion along the way and numerous perspectives on how services should be conducted, we strived to greet each other warmly, to be open-minded, and to thank everyone for their input and effort. We are a diverse group of Jews from Israel and around the world, but through our do-it-yourself approach, we united so that we can continue to be a vibrant spiritual community that shares the best Israel has to offer in terms of an egalitarian and pluralistic approach to Judaism. Of course, we would welcome a more constant rabbinical presence, but we are gratified that through our experience, we grew together and have energy to maintain our congregation as Israel’s northernmost outpost of Reform and Progressive Judaism.

Sharon Mann made aliyah more than 20 years ago and lives in Nahariya, Israel. She is an active member of Emet VeShalom, where she is on the Women of Reform Judaism Steering Committee and volunteers as International Contact Liaison.

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