New Minyan in Jerusalem Brings Jews, Christians and Muslims Together

by Brian on September 26, 2007

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel

A rabbi, a monk, and a Sufi walk into a minyan. It sounds like the set up to a bad Internet joke circulating by email. But it’s a reality every month at Nava Tehilla, Jerusalem’s first – and only – “multi-faith” Jewish renewal gathering.

Started a year and a half ago in the living room of Rabbi Ruth and Michael Kagan in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka popular with immigrants from North America, Nava Tehilla now attracts upwards of a hundred attendees for its mix of spirited prayer, a pot luck meal, and a chance to meet up with Jews and non-Jews alike of all religious persuasions. The minyan held high holydays services this year as well.

Co-founder Michael Kagan stresses that Nava Tehilla is not an “interfaith” minyan. “We’re not taking a bit of Christianity and Muslim prayer, adding a Buddhist meditation and doing some Jewish stuff. We do a completely Jewish Friday night service and invite people from all faiths to share in the prayer. Kagan, who works by day as a hi-tech inventor in the areas of health products, telecommunication and solar energy and is the author of “The Holistic Hagadah” (Urim Publications), adds that he’s participated in “Sufi zikrs and Indian sweat lodges, and they don’t change their service for me. So we’re not changing the service for our guests either.”

Nava Tehilla draws its eclectic congregation from a funky mix of new age inspired Jews – both Anglos and veteran Israelis, secular and religious – who come from as far away as Tel Aviv and Beersheva; several Western-leaning Muslim Sufi sheiks; and a Catholic order of monks and nuns known as the Beatitudes who live near Latrun in the center of the country and regularly attend Jewish services around Jerusalem – not just those at Nava Tehilla.

“The Beatitudes have a desire to be inspired by Jesus as a Jew who knew his Talmud,” Kagan says. Members of the order which has communities worldwide and includes a mix of laypeople and monastics, are required to spend 1-2 years in Israel, learning Hebrew and Judaism.

“It’s very important for us to know more about Judaism and to pray in Hebrew,” explains Sister Nathalie Bruyere who came to Israel from Lyon, France. “I feel like the roots of my religion are in Judaism and without roots we cannot live.”

Members of the Beatitudes community go to other shuls in the neighborhood like Yakar and Kehillat Yedidya, and even the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, Kagan says referring to the weeks when Nava Tehilla doesn’t meet, “though in ‘civilian dress.’” At the Kagan’s minyan, the Beatitudes feel comfortable enough to come decked out in their full robes and head coverings.

Indeed, on a recent Friday night, the Nava Tehilla congregation represents a kaleidoscope of inclusion. In addition to no less than six members of the Beatitudes decked out in their traditional brown and white flowing robes and large crucifixes, there are Jews dressed in post-India peasant skirts as well as others in more traditional sports jacket and slacks with head coverings ranging from turbans hiding dreadlocks to nothing at all. There are veteran attendees and newcomers.

First-timer Lynne Weinstein says the “combination of the music, the singing and the ecumenical community created an uplifting atmosphere.” Weinstein brought her three and a half year old son with her. “The way he swayed with me, listening to the music, was very moving.”

Finding Muslim members has been a bit more of a challenge. Ruth Kagan – Reb Ruth as she likes to be called – explains that “most Muslims in Israel who are involved in interfaith dialogue are non-religious and so don’t want to go to a religious activity. They want a secular dialogue.” She adds that, unlike the Beatitudes, Muslims also seem to have “less of a need to look at Jewish prayer as a part of their Arab identity.”

Nevertheless, creating a space that was welcoming and inclusive was a clear motivating factor. Michael Kagan says that it was painful to him to realize that “not far from where live are churches and monasteries and mosques and everyone is separate, we all go into our own cubbyholes and do our own worship. I wanted to experiment with doing it differently.”

For Reb Ruth, the motivation to create a multi-faith environment goes back to her youth. “In my student years, I was always involved in interfaith dialogue groups,” she says. “I found a great commonality between myself and other people who love God, whether they’re Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Bahai or Christian. That excitement about being a religious person in a non-religious world is very uniting and affirming.”

The Kagans have long been on the cutting edge. Earlier incarnations of Nava Tehilla introduced the first service based on tunes by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach long before that style of prayer became mainstream in Orthodox synagogues throughout Israel. The Kagans also allowed women to lead the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service – a practice that has now found a home in congregations such as Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem and Modi’in. “When others picked these up, we felt we could do even more,” Kagan says.

That “more” includes using acoustic instruments during the Kabbalat Shabbat service – guitar, drums and the occasional wind instrument. A Friday night at Nava Tehilla doesn’t feel like any other synagogue, though. Formally a part of the Jewish Renewal movement – Reb Ruth received her Rabbinic ordination in 2004 from movement head Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi during two years the family lived in the U.S. – congregants sit mixed together – there’s no mehitza separating men and women – in the Kagan’s cramped and overflowing living room while the prayer leader pilots a spirited davening. Prayer frequently focuses on just a few specific lines; there is no push to “say everything” in the siddur as at Orthodox synagogues. The specific tunes chosen are almost entirely original compositions.

“I got bored with regular shul,” Reb Ruth says, “even the most innovative ones, they do the same thing again and again with maybe a little variety around lecha dodi. I don’t want to get to shul and know exactly where I’m going in a totally prescribed path. At the same time, this is not just a campfire. We follow the full Kabbalat Shabbat order. Usually there’s a lot of singing, sometimes there’s meditation. The surprise is important. People shouldn’t act as if they’re buying a ticket to a show and then say ‘hey, you didn’t sing like you did on the record.’”

Yoel Sikes is a 21-year-old music student at the Center for Middle Eastern Classical Music in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood. He has scored an entirely new service that fuses Western structure with Eastern motifs and a bit of flamenco guitar strumming. The result is an ethereal experience that goes beyond being a mere performance and propels the audience into a hand clapping, body waving frenzy. “I grew up listening to the Grateful Dead, Phish and other jam bands,” Sikes says. “The music I write is also very influenced by Arab music. There’s also one that’s very reggae-ish. I try to be sensitive to what’s going on in the Jewish calendar or on a particular Shabbat.”

That sensitivity can sometimes be taken to the extreme and the service on occasion devolves into pure camp. Once during the portion of the week in the book of Genesis that discusses Joseph and his brothers, the minyan set the entire Friday night service to music from the Andrew Lloyd Weber rock musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technical Dreamcoat.” “It was a lot of fun,” Reb Ruth says, “but I’m not sure we’re going to do that again.”

Daphna Rosenberg alternates leading services with Sikes and also wrote her own niggunim for use at Nava Tehilla. Rosenberg says Nava Tehilla is the only place at which she feels comfortable praying. “Growing up we didn’t drive on Shabbat but we answered the phone and listened to music,” she says. “After awhile I completely left religion. Now I’m coming back to it. Nava Tehilla has a good balance between the alternative and the traditional. And it has the mix of Jews and non-Jews. I’ve been to other places that are open to other people but don’t have a real Kabbalat Shabbat. And I’ve been to places that do a traditional Kabbalat Shabbat but aren’t truly open to others. Here I feel I can express my deep belief in God but practice it in a way that I can feel whole.”

As important as the prayer service itself is, that’s only a third of the entire experience. Following the davening is a potluck meal that appeals particularly to singles and people without children “who might not normally have a place to spend Friday night with a community,” Reb Ruth says. Following the meal is a virtual “open mic” session where participants are encouraged to sing a song or tell a story. “It’s not prayer but devotion,” Michael Kagan explains. “There is a heightened sense of worship through poetry, movement, music and Torah.”

On a recent Friday night, Michael Kagan gave a dvar Torah, a guest shared a story from a trip to Egypt, and Sikes led a rocking multi-guitar multi-faith jam until 1:00 AM. The effect was not unlike the good time communal feel at the annual Jacob’s Ladder folk-music festival…but coming from a spiritual orientation. “We call it jamming for God,” Reb Ruth says.

The Kagans have four children at home, ages 9 to 17. What do they think of their parents’ living room adventures? “They call us pagans…it rhymes with Kagan,” jokes Michael. “But, seriously, I am happy that they have the opportunity to experience other forms of Jewish expression. There is so much joy in our house.”

Though still small, the Kagans are already thinking of how to spread Nava Tehilla’s influence, perhaps even to “franchise” their concept. First step: a series of CDs with new songs from the minyan for Kabbalat Shabbat which Michael Kagan believes is in keeping with the spirit of his spiritual mentor Rabbi Carlebach. “One of the sad jokes is that Rav Shlomo was the innovator par excellence and yet shuls all sing the same set of his tunes for every psalm. That wasn’t Shlomo’s way. He’d innovate every time he’d come to pray. That’s our goal too.”

Nava Tehilla meets monthly at 8 Gideon Street in Jerusalem. Do its founders hope it will become weekly or even daily someday? Not for now, says Reb Ruth. “I’m not sure we can be creative enough if we had to do 52 Shabbats a year!”

This article appeared originally in the Jerusalem Post’s In Jerusalem on Sept. 21, 2007.

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