Alongside four others, I recently co-led Kabbalat Shabbat as part of the Friday night davening at a Limmud gathering. As a variegated group of learners and worshippers who had gathered for in-depth learning about the Limmud model, we used Limmud values to guide our planning process. Click here to read a long but lively description of how the service came to be the way it was.
I stood up to begin.
“Shabbat shalom. Hinei ma tov uma na’im. Let’s appreciate for a moment how good and meaningful it is for us to bring in Shabbat together as a community.
There will likely be parts of this service that make you uncomfortable, whoever you are. Keep in mind that there will be other parts that make the person next to you, or a person in another section, uncomfortable. This discomfort is the price we pay — we all pay — for the opportunity to be together on Shabbat. I think it’s worth it.
Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches that Jews don’t pray for, Jews pray with. And so here we are, each with his or her or their individual approach to bringing in Shabbat. Tonight, in our variety, we become one community facing G-d and welcoming Shabbat together. Tonight, embracing our differences, we pray with.”
We began with Yedid Nefesh and the room warmed as we went. The verses that were unfamiliar to some of the service leaders were easily carried by those in the kahal (community) who knew them by heart. The language was a delicious salad of gender pronouns and conjugations, the perfect way to sing to a G-d who is far beyond gender.
A short L’chu Neran’nah followed as we all got used to each other. Then a voice from the kahal started us on Shiru l’Adonai, which hadn’t been in our original plan. Limmud being a volunteer-driven organization, it felt perfect to have some of our service plan turn out to be crowdsourced!
The Brazilians at the front taught, then led, a Brazilian pop song — originally a love song but one that with a few word changes became a Shabbat song and allowed space for the bouquet of languages in the room.
And so it went: traditional liturgy, comments from the heart, unexpected songs and connections. By the time we got to L’cha Dodi, the feeling in the room was electric. Something truly unique, heartfelt, and Limmud-y was taking place, and we were taking it in with buoyant hearts.
When I started L’cha Dodi, the energy rose even higher. We welcomed Shabbat with joy and ruach…and then kept singing. A few of the men started to dance. I had a moment of wonder: Is this for everyone or is there a shomer negiya (protecting the modesty of touch — i.e. no physical contact at all between men and women who are not married to one another) issue to navigate? I don’t want to be the one to create a rift in our community by accidentally being my characteristically close and cozy self. I paused a moment, not even a moment. I needn’t have worried. The men swung around to “pick up” the (female) service leaders and we all swooped around the room, through all three sections, singing, dancing, laughing in holy community. When the person who was most cautious about praying with mixed seating present took my hand to join the dance, I knew that something truly transformative was occurring.
After my final reading, we took a short break to light candles communally and then returned for the Maariv service. We started with a blessing: two, actually. We made a Shehecheyanu (the prayer thanking G-d for giving us life, sustaining us, and bringing us to this present moment) over the groups representing the new Limmuds just starting out. Then we offered Birkat Kohanim (priestly blessing) over a young woman who happened to be celebrating the second anniversary of her conversion to Judaism that day. She was not the only one with tears in her eyes.
Led beautifully and soulfully, Maariv was the perfect cap: an earnest, traditional opportunity to pray, sometimes aloud and sometimes in silence, in the space that the community had created for itself. Much like Limmud in general, this was a beautiful example of the concept I hold so dear: that community is something we do for one another.
In the Friday evening Kiddush (blessing over the wine), we bless G-d m’kadesh haShabbat, who makes Shabbat holy. I know I’m not the only one who felt this in my every molecule, as, together as a community, we Limmudniks experienced the holiness of Shabbat.