Jerusalem — The bar is doling out drinks as fast as it can manage. A man at the front recites Kaddish while the mixed-gender congregation slouches, sipping beer, eating snacks, talking on cell phones.
It sounds like anarchy to even rabbis with the rowdiest congregations. But here, there’s consensus that this represents a renaissance for the liturgy instead of a degeneration of religious standards.
The 400 people assembled include Jews from secular to Orthodox. All of this is taking place in Jerusalem, the city that has a reputation as dominated by Haredi zealotry — just a few minutes drive from the Western Wall where this year women holding communal prayers have been pelted with eggs.
As of this spring the city has a new trendy recreational venue called the First Train Station with cafes, restaurants and in the middle a stage and seating. During the summer every Friday a group of musicians takes to the stage and performs a funky version of the synagogue service to welcome the Sabbath, Kabbalat Shabbat. The performance varies depending on which group leads it, but there tends to be original tunes and catchy chants that help those unfamiliar with the service to get involved.
When Jerusalem’s Bridge of Strings opened in 2008 the city famously insisted that the girls in a performance troupe wore shapeless clothing on top of their outfits for the sake of modesty — and there have been numerous controversies in Israel about women being prevented from singing at public events.
But here, two energetic women dominate the stage, one in a sleeveless top and one with short sleeves, singing and jumping up and down.
“Maybe this is the beginning of a new development of non-religious people coming to see Jewish culture as something that doesn’t necessarily need to be done the Orthodox way,” said Adi Talmon, a middle-aged secular Jerusalemite as he looked at the scene approvingly.
Talmon has become a regular because “as a non-religious person I think it’s great to finish the week with Kabbalat Shabbat — every person has his own Shabbat and this is to separate between the sacred and the mundane.”
Retiree Tzipi Eldar was tapping along to the music, and full of praise for Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who replaced his Haredi predecessor in 2008, and promised to broaden the city’s cultural character.
Eldar credits him with overseeing the opening of the venue — which as its name implies is an old renovated train station — and with ensuring that the atmosphere was welcoming for the event. “Jerusalem has needed this kind of event for years,” she said.
The organizer of the Kabbalat Shabbat is a local non-profit group, the interdenominational Ginot Ha’Ir Community Council, which started the event to build a sense of unity in Jerusalem.
“The idea is to create a place for all the different kinds of people in Jerusalem — religious, secular, Reform and Conservative, and to create a sense of community with everyone feeing a sense of belonging,” said the council’s director Shaike El-Ami.
Ginot Ha’Ir has run Kabbalat Shabbats on and off for three years, but only this summer with the opening of the First Train Station has it come in to its own, and attracted hundreds.
Despite the local emphasis, word has traveled fast and people come from far and wide. Ned Lazarus, a Washington-based researcher, was enjoying the “feeling of renaissance.” And Rali Even, a kindergarten teacher from Modi’in, a city 15 miles from Jerusalem, attends every week.
Until she found out about the event, Even and her husband and four children did “nothing connected to Shabbat apart from a meal.” The event provides a focus for the weekend, and also a shared experience with her father, with whom she attends. While she is secular, he is more traditional.
“I listen to the music while to him it’s something more as well,” she said.
On stage, the group leading proceedings was well aware of the different ways that different people relate to the event. This week it was the ensemble of Jewish Renewal rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan, who stressed to the Forward that she doesn’t see the event as “religious outreach.” She said: “Outreach means ‘I know the way and you don’t so I’ll give you something to bring you in so that eventually you’ll see things how I do — this isn’t what we’re about.”
The Orthodox people in attendance were appreciative for the timing — just before the Sabbath instead of on the Sabbath, especially so that they can attend (otherwise they wouldn’t as Orthodox Jews don’t attend musical performances on the Sabbath).
Educator Millie Eisenberg said that she didn’t mind that the event was a world away from the Orthodox Kabbalat Shabbat she is used to, commenting: “But I wouldn’t like it to be on Shabbat with music, so this is a nice way of letting everyone enjoy it together.”
How does Eisenberg feel about it taking place in a venue that has become a hub for shopping on Shabbat? She is generally against Jerusalem businesses opening on the Sabbath, but makes an exception for this venue. “It’s not only that it’s outside of the city center; it’s also that it’s entertainment not shopping,” she said. This is the position of Ginot Ha’Ir, which wants Jerusalem to become more accommodating of Sabbath recreation that violates Orthodox law — but not to allow it to become a normal business day.
There were no Haredim in attendance, but apart from that the religious spectrum was broad. However, the ethnic mix didn’t reflect Jerusalem’s diversity. There was lots of Hebrew, English and French spoken among the people in attendance, but there were few Russian-speakers. Ethiopian Jews were conspicuously absent. And there was far heavier representation of Ashkenazim than Sephardim.
“There’s no such thing as a secular Sephardi,” insisted Shmuel Aaranov, a Sephardi taxi driver who was there for his mother and children’s sake. He doesn’t wear a yarmulke, but believes that Jewish rites should be observed the Orthodox way.
“For my mother it’s nice and it is for my kids, but it’s not my way, which is the way of the Shulchan Aruch,” he said, referring to the compendium of Jewish law.
He then gave a look of disbelief, as he exclaimed: “Beer with Kaddish!”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay @forward.com