Culture, Religion

Romemu (guest post)

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,
Guest Shteeblehopper

13 thoughts on “Romemu (guest post)

  1. Thanks shteeblehopper! Great report. I wonder how long it will take for others who were at the event to chime in.
    Best of luck to Romemu in providing another option. There appears to be (ahem) a tension in Jewish renewal over the role of the leader vs. community leadership.

  2. One thing I learned at this minyan yesterday morning is that it seems it’s okay for people to pass along, hold and dance with a sefer Torah while many did not wear a talit. It did make a few people, especially older people there noticably uncomfortable…..I would vote for starting services with brachot instead of Modeh Ani. It would get services moving along at a quicker rate. By the time Torah services started enough people had had their fill, and headed for the exits. Maybe next time I will go to a different service in the area, go to their kiddush. And I could still make it to this service for Mussaf. There should be enough space by the end. It’s really hard to sit on those plastic seats provided for several hours. Though I understand I could do jumping jacks during the whole service and that would be a valid expression of me attempting to connect to the divine as well. Finally, could the guy who was lying down in front of the doorway for most of the service please find a different space to space out next time. He did seem connected to a few chicks so I have to give credit where credit is due.

  3. my view wrote:
    One thing I learned at this minyan yesterday morning is that it seems it’s okay for people to pass along, hold and dance with a sefer Torah while many did not wear a talit. It did make a few people, especially older people there noticably uncomfortable
    Is the sefer torah now pasul?

  4. I’m a musician in the group… obviously biased. But I want to offer one point of clarification. Shteeblehopper noted this interchange:
    “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?
    Shteeblehopper mis-heard the question. The questioner asked something along the lines of ‘How do we know if what we’re feeling is really love?’
    Hopefully the response makes more sense now.

  5. I am flattered that I attracted almost as much attention as Reb David in these posts–I definitely asked the question about love, and I believe I’m also the well connected space-cadet mentioned by “my view”.
    A brief timeline–
    April: I’m in the throes of the after-birth pain of crossing through the Red Sea, I’m not sure which direction to go, my girlfriend has broken up with me, i discover i’ve been internalizing self-defeating expectations, and twice when I pause to notice all this, I fall to my knees dry-heaving into the bucolic pastures of upstate New York.
    April 21 1:00-3:30: I’m at Elat Chayyim in upstate New York, trying to do some work, but every time I sit down, I jump up two minutes later, head buzzing and nervous energy freaking me out.
    3:30: My friend- “Can you bake challah for tonight? It’s been more than a week since I had real bread.” “Uhhhh. I think I have to get the **** out of here. I’m going to the city”
    4:15: I’m sitting in another friend’s car. The key was lost during Pesach-prep, and now I’m trying to start it with a bad copy.
    4:45: I still haven’t been able to start the car, I’m about ready to bang my head through the windshield.
    5:20: I get someone to drop me off at the bus station, we arrive just as the bus is about to pull away. It already looks like I’ll miss most of Kabbalat Shabbat. I’m not in a good mood.
    7:40: I get to Port Authority and jump on the subway to Columbus Circle.
    8:00: I walk through the doors at Makor, enter as David is doing his drash on Ahavat Olam; I find it difficult to accept the idea that the last few weeks have been a demonstration of God’s great love for me, and say,
    “Reb David.”
    He doesn’t move for a couple seconds, then he looks up at me,
    I say,”….” Actually, I don’t remember exactly what I said, though it seems others do :-). I believe it was something like, “How do we know we’re loved if it seems like the universe is fighting us at every turn?”
    “How do you know what an apple tastes like before you bite into it?”
    I look at him resignedly… What can I say? But then there’s really no satisfying answer to a koan,
    You have to just swallow it.
    I sit down and try to turn my heart from frustration to the possibility of divine love. Out of the hurt, a thought bubbles up. My parents sometimes relate to me in ways that are quite painful, but I believe in their enduring love, even when they seem misguided. Okay, I can work with this…
    So was I a plant? It depends how you relate to God’s sense of humor.
    Shteeblehopper’s alter-ego focuses their main critique around the question of David’s central role in the services. I understand how they might interpret what they saw through this lens. In fact, I myself talked to David about how it was unfortunate that he had to be up on stage. It is, however, a simple constraint of fitting 100+ people into the space at Makor. The review misses a lot of necessary context; it fails to appreciate the remarkable accomplishment of creating a prayer experience with so much camaraderie, joy, openness and intimacy among a group of people most of whom have never met!
    Where SH saw a cohesive group that would have been fine without David’s energy, I saw a sea of unfamiliar faces that David skillfully drew together into a communal prayer experience. Where SH saw an authority figure telling people “how to pray,” I saw a sensitive leader inviting New Yorkers to step outside their comfort zones, and engage their bodies and hearts in connecting to spirit. This was the second-ever meeting of this congregation, and it seemed to me a somewhat unexpected convergence of young renewal and boundary-crossing “shteeblehoppers” with an older and straighter New York crowd that I wouldn’t know what box to put in. Even so, people spontaneously erupted in dance on Shabbas morning, and the whole crowd was gathered around the Torah for the final aliyah. I have to think that hearts quickened and eyes opened.
    Did the services work for me? I have been going through some very tight spaces, and I ask myself whether I was able to be there with honesty and integrity–with all my tzuris. It is ironic that I’ve drawn attention in the above posts for exercising exactly what SH says was lacking–that is “freedom” and space for the individual. So, I spoke up when I felt challenged by what David was saying, and on Shabbas morning, I lay down when I felt overwhelmed (I was crying, not “spaced-out”). Shabbas was an emotional rollercoaster for me, but I thank my friends and Reb David for all their support.
    What can I say? Come to Romemu. There will be beautiful neshamas there. I hope to meet yours.
    Baruch HaShem.

  6. I too was there on Friday night, and was not really sure whether Oren’s question was planted or not. Regardless, it helped to break down the wall I felt between the bimah and the tightly-packed chairs. Thanks, Oren.
    I agree with SH’s critique that the service seemed very top-down. I have only been to one Jewish Renewal service previously (Pardes Levavot in Boulder), and that service seemed much more communal than this one. Then again, the Boulder congregation had a number of “regulars,” whereas Romemu is a start-up. My guess is that if/when Romemu manages to build a more regular following, it will start to feel more interactive and less directive.
    Other things that surprised me about the service:
    The crowd seemed to be dominated by 35-55 year-olds. There were surprisingly few 20/early-30-somethings in attendance (although a few more showed up once the service began), and almost no families with children (I think I saw two kids). One of the things I liked the most about the service in Boulder was that there were a decent number of children who were allowed to freely explore the room, flowing in and out of participation in the service without being treated as interrupters or pests. So many American shuls (particularly Reform and Conservative) treat services as a time when children have to be shushed, but the Boulder congregation had percussion instruments for the children to play with, and physical movement to go with certain prayers that the children gleefully joined. If more American kids grew up enjoying shul, I think we wouldn’t have the attrition levels we have today.
    But I digress…. this is supposed to be about Romemu, not Pardes Levavot…
    Another surprise was the amount of Hebrew. Romemu used the same Renewal siddur they used in Boulder (a semi-homemade, but thoughtfully constructed work by Rabbi Marcia Prager). But unlike in Boulder, Rabbi Ingber focused almost entirely on the traditional Hebrew liturgy, bringing very little English text into the service. While I personally prefer all-Hebrew services, a number of the people around me seemed very lost, and struggled to keep up with the Hebrew. Once the niggunim got going, most people would join in, but as soon as the la-la-la’s ceded to actual liturgy, a good chunk of the room would drop out of the singing.
    A couple other notes… To the floutist: your flute-playing and singing were very nice and added a lot to the service. But when trying to play quietly, please simply move farther from the microphone and play semi-softly, instead of trying to play super-quiet and underblowing directly into the microphone (which creates loud, distracting noises in the speakers). One other criticism: please try to keep the guitars tuned throughout the service. When they were in tune, they sounded great! But when they weren’t in tune, they induced cringes in my section of the room.
    I was definitely glad I went to Romemu on Friday night, and I think a Renewal congregation is a welcome addition to the diversity of NYC prayer options. While Renewal is not my personal favorite mode of prayer, one of the things I love most about living in NYC is the ability to visit different shuls and experience different modes of prayer, and this is one that has been sorely lacking. I wish Rabbi Ingber the best in building a congregation, and look forward to returning some time soon to see how his progress is going!

  7. I was there too. I got there late, so I didn’t see the siddur, since they were all out at that point (wow there were a lot of people there), so I used my own. But I thought there was quite a bit of English in the service; it’s just that it was Rabbi Ingber’s own words rather than the English in the siddur. If there’s going to be English (or anything that’s not the traditional liturgy) in the service, my aesthetic preference is that it be spontaneous and fresh rather than rote “responsive readings” out of the siddur.
    Maybe the relative paucity of 20/30somethings was due to geography? The younger set on the UWS tends to live further north (90s and above).

  8. Oren wrote:
    Shteeblehopper’s alter-ego focuses their main critique around the question of David’s central role in the services. I understand how they might interpret what they saw through this lens. In fact, I myself talked to David about how it was unfortunate that he had to be up on stage. It is, however, a simple constraint of fitting 100+ people into the space at Makor.
    This comment is late, and I wasn’t at Romemu so it’s possible I’m talking about that which I know not. But, I just wanted to point out that no matter what the room setup, the shaliach tzibur and the kahal can co-exist on the same level and in the same space (i.e., no bimah for the sha”tz) IF both are committed to the idea that kahal is just as important as the leader and that the leader’s voice shouldn’t necessarily be heard that much more frequently, or more loudly, than the kahal’s. Again, I wasn’t there, but I imagine that it was physically possible for Rabbi Ingber to have sat among the kahal or stood among them or perhaps to have sat in front or in the center facing everyone else if a frontal style was absolutely necessary.
    The Renewal services I’ve experienced (in various places) have all revolved around a charismatic leader telling the kahal what to do, so Rabbi Ingber being separate/elevated seems like it’s in keeping with that particular culture. I know different things work for different folks, but that definitely doesn’t work for me. Power to the people and all…

  9. in attending romemu recently, it seems that the critiques leveled here have been dealt with successfully. rabbi inger led from the center of a “concentril circle formation” a la havurah style. there was minimal instruction, but enough to familiarize people with a probably unfamiliar siddur. it was a lovely and inspiring service.

  10. I find these comments on Romemu to be so super picky and way too critical. I find criticizing prayer as if it were some kind of Broadway Show to be absurd and distasteful.

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