Shalom, Beth Am Israel!

I’ve returned from a week-long conference of the Renewal Movement of Judaism. You may wonder, “Why would the Hazzan of a Conservative Shul choose this particular conference?” Great question! But before I answer it allow me a small digression by way of Bethel, New York.

I stopped in Bethel (literally, “the House of God”) to visit the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Amazingly, the site is preserved exactly as it looked 49 years ago, and I was able to not only sit on the famous lawn but then walk down to the very site where the stage stood. When I got there, I was overcome with emotion. I have watched the movie countless times, read books, and of course, soaked in the music. Over time, the music and this spot became part of my own sacred myth, and in the quiet of this July afternoon I could hear the music and feel the energy of the people who were there a long, long time ago. The place felt very much alive and it awakened something in me, a feeling of connectedness to something timeless but also ephemeral. Outside of Israel, it was as close as I’ve ever come to calling a physical place, “Holy.”

From there I left for my conference, spending four days in studying a Kabbalistic approach to prayer with the title, “Davening the Four Worlds”.  In a word, there is a powerful and deeply rooted superstructure to ritual Jewish prayer that the ancient Rabbis created that when properly accessed- through chant, prayer, silence, breath, movement- taps into a human’s inner world and at the same time to worlds and realms that lie beyond our grasp. This prayer arc- from the early morning prayers through the Aleinu- can act as a gateway to connecting with the divine, however, one understands it. (I plan to offer a series on this “Four Worlds Prayer” concept in the year to come and I hope you will come to learn more about it with me.)

Renewal Judaism’s approach to prayer is woven into our own BAI prayer experience as well:  A focus on one’s breath, movement, niggunim, spirited song, prayer and music, and (and this might surprise you) a dedication and commitment to nusach (the ancient prayer modes) and a respect for and practice of traditional prayer.  We incorporate all of this at Beth Am – each week, on the High Holidays, and Festivals. All of this is a hallmark of how we at Beth Am Israel come together in prayerful community.  My visit to Woodstock became a powerful prelude to the conference and heightened my awareness of the holiness of time, space and prayer.  With my wanna-be-hippie pilgrimage now complete, I’m returning with new tunes, new insights and a hope that, in the words of the Joni Mitchell song, “Woodstock” that together we can “get back to the garden”. (Only this time with proper bathroom facilities.)

Shabbat Shalom – looking forward to seeing you all soon!

-Hazzan Harold