You’re probably wondering what happened to the Shteeblehopper, after she introduced herself and hopped one shteeble and then seemed to disappear. Well, she’s been very busy and hasn’t had time to hop as much as she’d like to. In fact, this isn’t her. This is an anonymous guest blogger. (We’re staying anonymous for the same reason that restaurant critics disguise themselves.) The Shteeblehopper is away from NYC this weekend, so she asked me to check out the new Kehilat Romemu (previously advertised here on Jewschool) on Friday night and blog about it. The plan is for Shteeblehopper to become a bigger team (since one rabbit can’t be everywhere at the same time), so if you’d like to visit synagogues or minyanim in your own city and write about it, post a comment here, or email the Shteeblehopper. Also, drop us a line if you have suggestions of shteebles for us to hop.
Romemu is a new minyan on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that “seeks to integrate body, mind, and soul in Jewish practice”. This was its second service ever, and its first Friday night service ever.
The service was at Makor. Whatever criticisms one might level against Makor, it earns props for two things: (1) Letting a minyan meet in their space, rather than letting political concerns prevent this. Makor 1, JCC in Manhattan 0. (2) Like any other Jewish institution with a building, there was a security guard who searched bags. But he said “Shabbat shalom” to each person who came in and left. This made a huge difference in the atmosphere otherwise created by these searches.
There were well over 100 people there. The average age was considerably higher than at some of the other new minyanim. Not to stereotype or anything, but a lot of the people looked older than the typical Jewschool reader or the typical person who keeps track of what’s happening at Makor, so I’m curious where they all came from and how they heard about it. Clearly Romemu has done a very successful job at publicity. It’s too early to say whether all these people will become Romemu regulars, or whether they were just there to scope it out.
The service was led by Romemu’s founder Rabbi David Ingber, along with three talented musicians (two guitars and one flute). The singing was high-energy and contagious, and the crowd was fully engaged. A wordless niggun would go on and on, continuing to build. Most of the music was Carlebach niggunim that everyone knows if they’ve been to any funky davening in the last 10 years, so most people could jump right in. But the crowd also seemed to be familiar with the less well-known tunes, including the “Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat” melody popularized at B’nai Jeshurun (which isn’t such a surprise, since who hasn’t been to BJ?) as well as an English song about “the way of the heart” that I had never heard before. In between the songs, Rabbi Ingber led meditations and kavvanot about the prayers and about Shabbat.
Given that Romemu’s website emphasizes individual “freedom” and “a community that expects and relies upon your active participation”, I was surprised and disappointed at how top-down the service was run. This mood was set from the beginning with the physical setup of the space: the congregation was sitting in rows facing forward, and the leaders were in the front facing us, on a raised platform. I thought bimahs were only for old synagogues that haven’t yet gotten around to remodeling their sanctuaries. Generally the wind is blowing the other way these days, with minyanim and synagogues finding ways for the leader to feel like part of the community (including synagogues that have bimahs and have stopped using them).
The vibe I picked up from Rabbi Ingber was “I’m going to tell you and show you how to pray and how to be spiritual”, and the vibe I picked up from the congregation was that they were already doing fine at this and didn’t need so much direct guidance. At a number of points he gave direct instructions, saying “Do this now”, which seemed contrary to the “freedom” advertised on the website. This style of leading might have been a better fit for a group that didn’t have prior experience with spirited prayer, but was unnecessary for this tuned-in Upper West Side crowd that provided its own energy source. Rabbi Ingber could have stepped away from the microphone more and let the kahal drive some of the singing, rather than maintaining tight control the whole time. Also, he injected laugh lines between a number of the prayers, which may have been intended to relieve tension, but had the effect of keeping the group’s attention focused on the leaders.
During the Ahavat Olam prayer before the Shema, Rabbi Ingber talked about the theme of love. Someone in the back (I couldn’t tell whether he was a plant) called out “Reb David, how do we know that we’re loved when the whole world is acting against us?” The response was “How do you know what an apple tastes like before you bite into it? Take a bite.” I don’t understand what (if anything) this means. Can anyone help?
I had to leave before the very end, to get to dinner further uptown, so I missed whatever announcements or shmoozing happened at the end. Given that Romemu appears to have started as a one-man top-down operation, I am curious as to what (if any) plans there are to build a sense of community among the participants.
Romemu is off to an auspicious start with its high attendance and spirited davening, and its next task is for the leaders to learn to take a few steps back and harness the grassroots energy of the community.
Until next time,