Final shul-hop of my month in NYC: Kol Zimrah

Kol Zimrah is the premier progressive, non-denominational chavurah in New York City. They meet monthly for Kabalat Shabat and a veggie pot-luck dinner in an Episcopal church.

Overall, my impression was good. However, let us not forget that this is me we’re talking about and I can’t daven with any community without a few nits to pick.

First the good stuff: I counted about 80 daveners on this particular week with Kol Zimrah. We sat in a multi-layered circle, the innermost ring of which contained the leader and couple of the most spirited daveners as well as the holder of KZ’s innovative flipchart. The flipchart is a bound booklet, which says on each page, “The leader is on page 18,” or whatever page the leader is on. At each turn of the page, the flipchart operator hold it up and shows it around so that those who are lost can find their spot in the sidur.

The sidur is Chaveirim Kol Yisrael, an Friday night-only sidur created by the  National Havurah Committee. CKY is also the sidur that inspired my personal favorite sidur, Siddur Eit Ratzon, the first edition of which was a Shabat morning companion to CKY. The group also actively encourages people to bring their own sidurim. I counted about ten or so people who had done so. Their choices ranged from  the venerable Conservative Birnbaum sidur to the despicable ArtScroll sidur to the Israeli Reform sidur Ha’avodah Shebalev. I was giddy at the sight of a community the cares enough about liturgy that a full eighth of those present saw fit to bring their own sidur with them. I was content to use CKY.

The leader was Ben Dreyfus, otherwise known in the blogosphere as BZ and the proprieter of Mah Rabu, one of the jblogosphere’s best offerings. I was told by several regulars that I spoke with that Ben is the best of KZ’s many layleaders. He lead from the center of the room with a good voice and a guitar. The focus of the group, as the name indicates, is music. And it shows. The music is quote good, without lapsing into B’nai Jeshurun-like, performance-style concert-worship.

The prayers are in a typical progressive style. The imahot make all of their usual appearances along with Miryam in Mi Chamocha (my jury is still out on whether or not Miryam’s appearances are good or not). Meitim is the order of the day for G’vurot and L’cha Dodi is sung in its entirety to three different tunes, messianic verses intact. Structurally, I have no complaints about the service and I don’t feel that the music ever became distracting as I always feel it becomes at BJ.

There was a wonderful d’var Torah given by Jewschool‘s Kung Fu Jew, who, by the way, wears tzitzit and no kipah! Welcome to my club, Kung Fu Jew.

And now for the bad: There was dancing. I’ve figured out why dancing during services irks me so much. I should say, first of all, that dancing with the Torah is something I don’t mind. The Torah service is not a prayer service and revels in the joys of having Torah in our lives. Dancing is appropriate. During Kabalat Shabat, however, some of us are trying to pray. And I get that some people pray through movement, but for the rest of us it’s just distracting and awkward.

And that was really the only thing I disliked about it. Good job, KZ. You won me over.


22 responses to “Final shul-hop of my month in NYC: Kol Zimrah

  1. Interesting stuff. I dont think I’d be at all comfortable davening with this group but interesting nonetheless.

    Why is the ArtScroll Siddur “despicable”? I understand that your derech doesnt match their outlook, (nor does mine) but it does indeed have some nice features I think.

  2. dancing? dude… the theological reasonfor dancing at kabbalat shabbat is because we are joining into union with the shechina. Why do you think so may lecha dodi melodies are waltzes dude?

  3. Chris, the ArtScroll sidur is a tragedy because it means we’ve got a whole generation of Orthodox Jews who believe there is one way to pray. The sidur is unequivocal in its claim that it has THE derech. Everything is stated as though this conservative approach to ashkenaz prayer is the only way Jews pray. It leaves no room for nuance and shades of practice.

    Getzel, somehow I knew you’d jump on that particular bit. And I have to believe that you already know what I’m gonna say to your response: For me to accept what you’re saying requires me to accept that there is a female presence of God that descends upon us from on high one day a week and that we are in “union” with it. What do we mean by union, here, exaclty?

  4. KZ’s innovative flipchart
    Fascinating. I don’t know I’d call it innovative, although I think I know where the idea *may* have come to KZ’s founder from – it happens to be an Orthodox minyan. :-)

    venerable Conservative Birnbaum sidur

    The Birnbaum is many things. “Conservative” (capital c) is not one of them. Birnbaum is liturgically conservative (lowercase c), and, as evidenced by the introduction to the siddur, he opposed the idea of denominational siddurim because they fragment the Jewish community.

    Before Artscroll, it was one of the more common siddurim in American Orthodox synagogues. Before Sim Shalom, it was popular in Conservative synagogues too, perhaps because it’s consciously non-denominational and because Conservative Judaism hadn’t yet embraced liturgical changes for egalitarianism (The Silverman or Bokser siddurim were the denominational alternatives for Conservative Jews at the time). Artscroll, on the other hand, has a consciously chareidi outlook, and Sim Shalom a consciously Conservative outlook.

  5. Correction duly noted, DH. Thanks. Good to see you back here.

  6. Glad you made it to KZ and enjoyed it! Come back any time.

    A few small corrections:
    * Chaveirim Kol Yisrael (“the purple siddur”) wasn’t created by the NHC, but by the (now-defunct) Progressive Chavurah of Boston.
    * KZ’s policy is that microscopic variations in the liturgy are at the discretion of the leader, and of each individual participant. This is explained in Hilchot Pluralism Part IV. So the inclusion of Miryam and the imahot was my choice, but other leaders might make different decisions. And I actually said “mechayei hakol”, but it was drowned out by other people saying “hameitim” (and that’s just fine – that’s how grassroots prayer works).

  7. BTW, I was glad the dancing happened this time, but it doesn’t happen every time, only when it arises spontaneously. I think people were feeling particularly joyous this Shabbat in the Kol Zimrah community, the US, and the world.

  8. Elf’s DH writes:
    I don’t know I’d call it innovative, although I think I know where the idea *may* have come to KZ’s founder from – it happens to be an Orthodox minyan. :-)

    Ha. :) Good guess, but the flipchart is actually a fairly new thing at KZ (sometime in the last year, I think), and started only after said founder retired from the steering committee. In earlier times there was no flipchart, in part because there was no one siddur that was standard at KZ.

  9. The Silverman or Bokser siddurim were the denominational alternatives for Conservative Jews at the time

    Silverman wasn’t officially denominational either (even if it was de facto Conservative).

  10. Silverman wasn’t officially denominational either (even if it was de facto Conservative).

    Huh? It was authored by a Conservative rabbi, with the RA/USCJ label, and makes liturgical changes in line with Conservative ideology of the time (eg, non-egalitarian, but the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book and Weekday Prayer Book have past-tense korbanot; the mahzor, which was published first, has future tense korbanot.)

    Bokser wasn’t an official Conservative movement prayer book, but also was written by a Conservative rabbi and had Conservative Jews as the intended audience.

  11. It was authored by a Conservative rabbi, with the RA/USCJ label

    Oh, did it have the RA/USCJ label? Then I guess I’m thinking of the mahzor (which I have; I don’t have the siddur), which was published by The Prayer Book Press, and doesn’t use the word “Conservative” (or any other denominational label) in the introduction.

  12. BZ, thanks for your many corrections. And thanks, of course, to DH and BZ for bothering to have a discussion here. Doesn’t happen on my blog too often and it’s nice to have.

  13. David,

    glad you dug services. I would echo BZ’s point about the dancing- it is spontaneous and happens rarely. And add my own: some of us are moved to dance when Shabbos arrives. And for some people, it being the first Shabbos of the Obama administration, there was a lot of joy. FWIW

  14. one more flipchart comment (from the person who actually designed it and had it printed and bound): i feel what makes it ‘innovative’ is not just the fact that we are showing pages rather than announcing them, but that the chart says “the leader is on page ___” – this means that those who are trying to keep up with the leader can do so, while at the same, others can go on at their own pace.

    as i remember, we got the idea from national havurah institute.

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