Havurah was founded in 1978 by a small group of several families seeking a more participatory Jewish experience. Part of the deeply-rooted ethos of the community has always been that it’s a collective effort. As the community grew in size, aspects of this ethos came into greater focus, including a clergy-lay partnership in all things; a parent-driven religious education model; and a fairly Hebrew-literate lay leadership capable of leading services without a rabbi when necessary.
A significant piece of Havurah’s ethos was that our High Holy Days services would be free and open to the Jewish public — no tickets or membership required. If you needed a place and a community to come haven with, you could join us. This has always been part of who we are as a community and we are very proud of maintaining that all these years.
Another great pillar of Havurah’s ethos was a tradition of glorious, community-engaging, fully participatory musical worship. Our community does not have a Cantor or a cantorial soloist in charge of all musical decisions. We have a Music Coordinator who makes sure that whenever music is needed, someone is available to handle it; and a rabbi who helps select music-leaders for High Holy Days based on their particular gifts and interests. As a result, no single musician is asked to assume the burden of learning all the music for the Holy Days. Instead, a group of some dozen very talented musicians serve as music leaders during the High Holy Days. This lends the ten Days of Awe a rich and varied canvas of musical worship, deepening and broadening the community’s experiences.
I joined Havurah in late 2002, after it was clear that my then-girlfriend (and future wife) and I had gotten “serious” and memberships at two separate synagogues would no longer make sense for us. Essentially, I “married in”.
As soon as Havurah figured out they’d gained another musician, I was put to work. I learned the Shabbat liturgy, was “put into the rotation” as it were, and took my turn leading music for Shabbat fairly regularly.
My first High Holy Days services as a music leader were limited to the more contemporary things I could learn quickly, and based partly on my gifts and partly on where I was in my life. In 2003, the year my father passed away, I was asked to help lead music during Yizkor (I learned over time that members who’d experienced recent losses would always be invited to help lead this service, if they were up to it, as a way of helping their grieving and healing processes and as a way of allowing them to share something of their process with the community. Singing Eil Malei that year was surprisingly difficult — I couldn’t stop thinking of my Dad the whole time and nearly teared up a couple of times — but I was glad I agreed to do it.)
For several years, I’d asked — begged, really — for a musical assignment that would allow me to learn more of the traditional melodies, something I hadn’t had an opportunity to do before. Finally, this year, I was invited to learn and lead the entire Musaf service for Yom Kippur. In meetings with our Music Coordinator and our Rabbi, I was encouraged to substitute a couple of my settings of prayers for the more traditional tunes, making for a distinctly different service than a “typical” Musaf. I was given recordings of the prayers, and after spending most of a week trying unsuccessfully to find the sheet music in my stack of cantorial books, I gave up and worked with the recordings, which had been made by Ilene Safyan, our Music Coordinator. Her rich voice was clear and her Hebrew was excellent, making it easy — and delightful — to learn from.
Over time, as I practiced these old melodies, I began to fall in love with some of them. I’d find myself singing them out loud on my daily bicycle rides, and I’d repeat a melody in practice over and over just so I could enjoy singing it again. Raised in a secular home filled with jazz, show tunes and opera, I had grown up knowing almost nothing of this musical tradition. After getting into Jewish music as a music educator and service leader, I found these melodies but didn’t know how I’d find my way into actually learning them. But now, here I was, diving in and diving deep. I found myself looking forward to Yom Kippur Musaf.
I was very nervous as I stepped onto the bimah and set up my guitar and music. I had a seemingly eternal lapse of memory as I search my brain for the tune to begin the Musaf Kaddish, but once I remembered it, we dove in and kept going. There were a couple of places I botched the Hebrew and I started Sim Shalom with the wrong melody (the community helped me get back on track by stubbornly starting with the right melody and waiting for me to catch up!). But overall, it went okay.
The most amazing thing that happened was that, a few times in the service, the cogs stopped turning so loudly and I was actually able to get out of my own way and just be inside the prayer, really and truly talking with God or the Universe or the Great Whatever. Was I heard? I don’t know. But I definitely felt like I was really communicating, and that was what mattered in the moment.
When it was nearly done, my Rabbi told the community — most of whom had stayed, which was perhaps the best thing of all, since people often duck out when Musaf starts — that this was my first time davening Musaf, people laughed in recognition. This was, and is, the Havurah way — you learn new things by jumping in and doing them, by taking them on, in a supportive environment where people lift you up and help you along the way.
At the end of the service my Rabbi hugged me and thanked me for taking it on, and I surprised myself by telling him, “I think I’d like to do this service again next year, if that’s cool.” He laughed loudly, which I took as a sign that it was probably cool.
During the afternoon break, I saw down next to my friend Sarah, who smiled at me and said, “I heart Musaf”. I giggled, and agreed with her.
I agreed with her because this year, I finally GOT it. Yes, it's basically a repetition of prayers we've said earlier in the service, and probably that's why people duck out before it starts. But it's also a different set of prayers, if you think about it. In the internal work of High Holy Days prayer, we enter the synagogue as who we are in that moment. Over the course of an entire day of prayer, singing and contemplation, we are bound to leave the synagogue at the end of the day slightly different -- and hopefully, slightly better for it. Musaf helps us get there if we stick around and utilize it as a part of the day's journey.
So I love Musaf.
And I heart my Havurah.