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The article is about Lab/shul where party and davening are merging, and where - perhaps for the first time in my life - I felt I could bring any friends, aquaintances or relatives to be part of it, without feeling out of place!
Rebelling through davening? Lab/Shul, a Gesamtkunstwerk of tfillah
One of the most pressing issues Jewish organizations face today is how to engage the growing masses of unaffiliated young Jews in their communities. For organisations for whom religious practice is important, this engagement often involves participation in prayers. However, this is not an easy task, given that religious services must compete to occupy their congregation’s free time with more accessible leisure activities. It seems especially challenging to attract busy young adults; particularly those with low Jewish literacy but high expectations. Yet, there are a number of communities across the world who are able to answer these needs in unique and experimental ways. Take the New York based community Lab/Shul: a “laboratory “of Jewish religious practice that meets on Jewish holidays and once a month for Shabbat services. It is genuine in itself: it does not affiliate with any specific stream of Judaism, therefore can be understood as post-denominational. In just two years Lab/Shul has grown incredibly quickly, and it is by far the most exciting experiment I have ever seen in this domain. But what precisely is it that makes this “God-optional” and “everybody-friendly” community attractive? What can other communities learn from it? In the following essay I will outline some of the basic features that I found particularly engaging during my experience with Lab/Shul. Though this study focusses on a singular community, I hope to contribute a possible answer to the global issue of the decline of Jews participating in religious practices.
I first heard about Lab/Shul after moving to New York in 2013 to pursue a pHD at New York University (NYU) in Education and Jewish studies. When I was inquiring about services for the High Holy Days, a Hungarian friend of mine – a young, secular Jew, a professor of theatre studies – told me she was going to “Labshul-or-what’s-it-called,” for Kol nidre, which she labelled a “very alternative community.” It caught my attention because this particular friend rarely took part in any Jewish activities, especially not religious ones, and even though I chose a different service for those specific high holidays, Lab/Shul remained on my to-do list. It is a testament to how much New York has to offer when it comes to Jewish life, that it was not until over a year later, in January 2015, that I could taste the atmosphere of Lab/Shul - finally.
In the summer of 2014 I moved back to Budapest for a year to participate in launching MAROM Budapest’s most exciting project ever, Auróra: a unique, self-sustaining, and self-governing grass-roots Jewish community centre for young adults offering a rich programme of cultural activities and NGO activism. A memorable moment of our first year in Auróra was the visit of Rabbi Amichai Lau Lavie, the founder and Rabbi of Lab/Shul. Amichai came to spend Shabbat with MAROM in Budapest in the January of 2015. His program included: an interactive lecture on how to reconcile queer and Jewish identities, a kabbalat shabbat service and a study session about what we can learn from the Torah regarding community building. It was clear from the excited reactions of the crowd that had squeezed into the different facilities of Auróra that Amichai’s personality, ideas and vision matched perfectly with our own members’ and audience’s needs and practices. Amichai’s musical-spiritual style of service, his sensitivity to social justice, and his rebellious take on inspiration and creativity chimed with the values and minhagim at MAROM Budapest and Dor Chadash, our egalitarian, masorti minyan. Amichai’s visit was both inspiring and encouraging: it reassured us that Jews could share similar ideas about how to worship G-d and how to build a community - regardless of their respective age, nationality, ideology or social and cultural background. It was one of those rare moments, where it seemed possible to redefine the frames of the global Jewish peoplehood and make connections that transgressed geographical borders.
After this experience, when I moved back to New York the first thing I did was to attend the Lab/Shul service during the high holidays of 5776. I was so excited to see it after the special experience in January, that in August I even signed up for Lab/Shul ‘Prepent Day Series.’ The concept is simple, during the 40 days leading up to Yom Kippur you receive a short, spiritual daily reflection in your inbox – written by Amichai Lau Lavie – explaining how he connects halachah, prayer and the general Jewish tradition with his everyday life, and inspiring you to do so, as well. The aim of the series is to help you prepare for Yom kippur, the day of Atonement – from such elevated excercises as to think through your final testament up to the prosaic questions, such as can you do tashlich using your toilet. Making a connection of the everyday with the traditional forms is an essential part of Jewish practice. German Egyptologist Jan Assmann claims that unlike Egyptian culture – which ceased to exist after ancient times – Judaism survived because it invented both the practice of interpretation (commentary) and the act of actualization, the combination of which makes text alive and relevant. The ‘Prepent Day Series,’ and everything I have experienced within Lab/Shul since then are the perfect embodiment of this practice.
I followed Amichai during the 40 days of prepent and loved every word of it. I was already so excited to see Lab/Shul live, that I was even willing to pay for a ticket – something a Jew coming from Central-Eastern Europe would rarely do, unless there was an exceptional reason. It was the first time in my life I had paid for a synagogue service (!), but the price was reasonable, and I felt it was right to support this new and exciting initiative. And from the moment that I bought the ticket, I felt no regrets; the services were both amazing and unforgettable. During the fall I was able to participate in a few more Kabbalat Shabbatot with Lab/Shul, all of which were so beautiful and exciting that I still feel the urge to share them with others. I believe these examples can somehow lead to basic principles that may be the foundations of a new worldwide movement that helps us to reconnect with our sacred tradition.
It seems that the most important element of Lab/Shul’s engagement is the central role that music plays in the services. Lab/Shul – as well as other engaging Minyanim I have participated in and enjoyed across the world – offers valuable musical experiences in addition to religious ones. Dor Chadash (HU), Nava Tehila (ISR), Assif (UK), Romemu (US) are just a few examples that come to my mind when I think about similar services. I know that for halachic reasons many communities cannot have musicians, but actually, one of my strongest musical experiences happened in V’ani Tefillah, an orthodox minyan led by Rav Raz in Nachlaot in Jerusalem, where singing, the melodies and kavanah are worthy stand-ins for actual musical instruments. Liturgical music – in my interpretation – is supposed to open people up to spirituality, to relax them, and to help them to bond and be present. Music arouses emotions, it amplifies and embodies them in an abstract but sensual way. It is the melodies, the abstractness, the repetitions created through music that enables us to leave our everyday, stressful life and enter the realm of utopia. Each community needs to find their own music. Musicality is not only to be found in music: music and poetry are intrinsically bound, and both can be extended to other areas such as the gaze, movement and even decoration.
One of the most striking and powerful experiences of the High Holy Days with Lab/Shul was to understand how they transformed the siddur from a book into a movie. The text of the prayer was projected on a huge screen in the middle of the room towards which everyone’s chairs were facing. The projections showed the Hebrew original of the prayers, its transliteration and a unique and beautiful English translation; all designed and displayed in a simple and elegant style. Everyone looking at the same screen, reading the same text, in the same rhythm, accompanied by the same music, created a much more collective experience than the usual individual struggle to follow a personal prayer book. It was much easier to participate, to be present, to sing and enjoy. This new posture changed my entire perception of prayer: instead of looking down and murmuring to my siddur, I was looking up and ahead in the direction of the musicians, and felt in complete union with the text, my fellow congregants and the music. It was not possible to lose one’s place - you always knew which part you were at. Because the text was shorter, I usually had enough time to read both the Hebrew and the English translation, which made my experience much more meaningful than if I had just read one or the other. Of course, this method necessarily reduces the amount of text read out loud for it is impossible to chant the whole service in such a deep and engaging way, but sometimes less is more. Of course this innovative practice raises complex halachic, educational and communal questions – but I guess that is why they call this a Lab/Shul, because it allows you to experiment and re-evaluate your former hypotheses. With its sensual style, non-judgmental environment and easy accessibility, this form definitely seems to be highly suitable for engaging those same masses I mentioned in the introduction.
In addition to the projection, at the High Holy Days service Lab/Shul also prepared a little booklet, which contained interesting and funny complementary materials – from riddles to a poem of Pope Francis in English, Hebrew and Arabic, which was later used in a workshop. On the Kabbalat Shabbatot I attended there were no projections of the prayers. I guess people are much more familiar with the liturgy there, so there was neither educational, nor other reason to do so. On these events the projections were used as decoration. For example, when we read the story of Noah in the Torah, a rainbow was projected on the screen. The rainbow was then echoed in the Rabbi’s d’var torah, his rainbow-color tallit, and more abstractly referred to the community’s commitment to LGBTQ inclusion which was highlighted in the speeches in between prayers. There is usually a two-page black and white Xeroxed flyer, that includes the main parts (refrains or occasionally selected parts) of the prayers, blessings and announcements. It does not include the Amidah, but a few people bring their own siddur for that part of the service. What happens usually is that whilst no one really looks at the text on the paper, they are able to join in to the mantra-like, meditative prayers simply by listening to and repeating the songs.
Music, poetry and the unique use of the siddur just a few of the many peculiarities of Lab/Shul that make the services both attractive and meaningful, but there are many more. All Lab/Shul events start with volunteers greeting the participants at the door. This makes your experience much more personal, and takes away the awkwardness of arriving to your community where you might not know that many people. The location of the prayers and the arrangement of the prayer space are well chosen, too: Lab/Shul is a pop-up community that meets at random, atmospheric spaces. The participants sit in concentric circles during prayer; the musicians sit in the middle. Lab/Shul is run by volunteers, and events are promoted on the community’s website and on Facebook. There is often an open bar and buffet style dinner served before, after (and sometimes during) the service, which creates a sense of community among the members.
What I found very important during my experience with Lab/Shul was the way Amichai – and other speakers – connected the service to our everyday life. Whenever I went to Lab/Shul there was always some reference to what happened in the world that week. Even though it seems clear that Lab/Shul stands strongly on the left-wing, liberal spectrum of the political arena, the inclusion of the truth and power of the news – good or bad – into the service is not concerned with bringing politics into the synagogue. It is much more about acknowledging the unity of humankind - and our awareness of the joy and sorrow that happens beyond our own physical existence. In light of this, it is significant that Lab/Shul offers regular interfaith services and events. In fact, Lab/Shul is truly ‘everybody-friendly,’ – to borrow its own language – which is to say that every member of the community is viewed equal regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Lab/Shul represents a community united because of the diversity of its congregants, not despite of it.
While I am writing these words, I am back in Budapest for the winter break, and I am happy to spend some time with Dor Chadash where I bring back the spirit of experimentation. I will soon return to New York and I am excited to be back and explore ‘Jewish New York’ further through alternative minyanim, and cultural events a lot of which I am sure will take place at Lab/Shul. There is nowhere like home – but sometimes you can find your second, third, fourth home. If you visit New York – or Budapest, make sure to spend shabbath in one of my “homes”, and take a piece of experimental spirit with you!