A month ago, I wrote about my experience with a Renwal-style service led by some of the leaders of Romemu–NYC’s premiere Renewal shul and one of the most prominent Renewal outposts there is. It was a Friday night service being led, not actually at Romemu, but at Limmud NY.
I gave the service three and a half ballpoint pens (|||-), and said that I’d be going to Romemu the following week for Shabbat morning. To me, one of the true tests of a shul with a reputation for spirited davening is the morning after. A reputation for spirited davening usually comes from a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat, so it’s always interesting to see if a community can maintain a good morning service as well.
This can be harder to do because people have to drag themselves out of bed–and when it comes to liturgy, it’s harder to make me happy because there’s more to do on Shabbat morning than on erev Shabbat.
So I went. As I said, it was about a month ago, so my memory is a tad rusty. But I took a lot of notes while I was there and I started drafting this the day after, so I think I’ve got most of my thoughts in order. This is the first review I’ve written since I refined the Five-Ballpoint Pen Rating System. What I’m going to try to do is go through the copious notes I took first, as bullet points. Then I’ll do a more concise write-up at the end using the new rating categories. In the service notes, the section on the Torah service may be the most interesting and insightful about Romemu as a community.
Shir Yaakov, Romemu’s [musical director/insert correct title here] provided me with a copy of the song list he was using that week, so I’ll be able to provide correct [read: coherent] descriptions of the music this time.
- Began with “Hareini Mekabel Alai” by Gabriel Meyer Halevi, which I think I’ve identified as being by Kirtan Rabbi once before. That was wrong, although Kirtan Rabbi does a cover of it.
- There is a guy playing a cajon, Shir Yaakov is playing a djembe–though he also played guitar throughout–and a guy playing some very lovely classical guitar-type stuff.
- Rabbi David Ingber, of course, is leading. He’s using a mic, which it doesn’t seem to me that he needs. He’s a loud-voiced fellow. I asked him about it later and he said he does need to keep his voice from getting destroyed every week. However, does he really need a flesh-tone pop star mic? And does he need to be so loud? And do we need a full-on sound guy in the back sitting at a control panel and everything? The whole things engenders and odd atmosphere, in my opinion.
- There are, as we begin, about 20 people. They don’t fill the space at all. It feels quite empty. Ingber later told me that the previous night’s service had been one of the most packed they’d ever had. (This, mind you, was not the one I was at, which had been the previous week.)
- The set-up is quite similar to B’nai Jeshurun, in that there is a rabbi leading from a podium, plenty of open space between the rows pews and the rabbi, and a semicircle of musicians behind and to the left of the rabbi.
- Architecturally, the space is more similar in style to Anshei Chesed. I figure that they were probably built around the same time. Major difference: Romemu is in a church. It’s a wonderful space. If Romemu bought it from the church, they could turn it into a fantastic sanctuary for their purposes, but for now, I’m quite unsettled by the imagery around me. I’m actually a big believer in the notion that Jews ought now pray in churches. After services, I chatted with Ingber about this. He said that many in their community actually like that it’s a church. It’s a sign to many of the radical atmosphere of welcoming they want to engender at Romemu. I think you’ll all get my drift if I respond to that with an unenthusiastic “Whatever.”
An Atmosphere of Radical Welcoming
- The radical atmosphere of welcoming, by the way, leaves something to be desired. When I arrived–a tad early, as is my wont–there were some congregants puttering around near the entrance. I wasn’t greeted by any of them, nor did any of them offer me a siddur. And about this “siddur…”
The siddur is P’nai Or by Rabbi Marcia Prager. I chatted with Ingber about this creation after the service. Apparently it’s one of two Renewal siddurim. I told him I didn’t think too highly of it and he said that, in that case, I should stay away from the other one all the more so! He said it’s not quite right for Romemu and that they are working on their own.
- PO is pamphlet-y construction, overfull of clipart and poorly, inconsistently laid out.
- Liturgically, it goes far beyond cringe-worthy.
- Chanted Modeh Ani
- For the daily blessings, we alternated between Hebrew and English
- Once we had completed the blessings from the siddur, Ingber had people shout out the blessings they were thankful for in their own lives. Cringe-worthy doesn’t begin to cover my reaction to this. People are shouting out stuff like, “Warm gloves!” and so forth. And they’re doing all of this to the nusach!
- There’s a quite a bit of “Take deep breaths, etc.” sort of things from Ingber. Too much of that for my taste. More than once per service, and I start deducting ballpoint pens, I think.
- The guitar is doing this cool Spanish-sounding thing. It’s great.
- Yeah, but how did we get here so fast?
- Psalm 92 (“Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat etc.”) to a slow, chant-y melody. We end after “Zamru lAdonai bechinor.”
- They play with God’s name a lot. It’s not clear if this is Ingber at work or the siddur at work on Ingber. Among others, we say Hashem, Yah, Ruach Ha’olam and Shechinah. It’s not per se, bad in my view, it’s just odd and jarring.
- Ashrei is done to a melody I don’t know. The song list Shir Yaakov gave me says, “Ashrei–Or Zohar.” It’s unclear to me what that means. After a bit of googling, I still don’t know.
- The spirit of the group, which is steadily growing in numbers at this point, is good, but Ingber’s mic is overpowering at times.
- We end Ashrei after chanting the first two lines through a few times. The melody would work for a complete Ashrei–but for that, we’d have to flip all that way to page 64! Why has it been hidden somewhere other than where it belongs?
- Psalm 150 we do to a tune I know, but it sounds quite new because the tempo is different and the instruments bring a new sound and a flavor to it. It’s good.
- Ingber asks for “chaotic” chanting “in our own way” for Nishmat. Sounds great! Is he pandering to me? (Kidding, obviously.) It doesn’t come out chaotic at all anyway.
- For “Uvmakhalot… Shochen Ad… Barchi Nafshi… Yishtabach… etc.” it’s quite hard to join in and follow Ingber’s wandering chant.
- The song sheet, however, says, “Shochen Ad–nusach / U’vemakalot rivovot–Carlebach / Yishtabach–nusach.”
- Directly from my notes: “Rm. has filled more, but still too big”
- Chatzi Kaddish is normal
- A Hadar fellow arrives. This seems quite odd to me. On the other hand, Romemu and Hadar are sponsoring some learning together lately, so perhaps it’s not so odd.
The part where things start to get meta…
- Ingber mentions that a new friend he made at Limmud NY is here and looks at me. He mentions that in my review of his service at Limmud the week before, I noted: “…Ingber asks everyone to say Shabbat [Shalom] to people around [us] that we don’t know. ‘Careful though,’ he says. ‘I don’t want it to become a shmooze fest.’ Yeah, OK. It quickly becomes a shmooze fest.” So we all say Shabbat Shalom to the people around us, and successfully avoid a shmooze fest.
- In my notes, it says, “Barechu same as at Limmud.” So I’ve consulted that review, where it says:
- “Barchu is done with an unfamiliar tune. People often have a hard time discerning what to do during Barchu when it’s a tune rather than nusach because the call and response nature of it is hard to parse. That happens here.”
- The song sheet, however, says “Barchu — Ein Od.” I guess that’s the particular melody they did?
- Yotzer Or: Ingber wanders in English and Hebrew, chanting and explaining through Or Chadash, which is:
- From the song sheet: “Or Chadash — Robert Esformes chant”
- Shir Yaakov has his talit over his head for a quite meditative Ahavah Rabah
- From song sheet: “Ahavah Rabba — Shimshai”
Random stuff from the middle of my notes
- This resembles the loopier end of Reform almost?
- More meditative than ecstatic, where Friday was more ecstatic. This is confirmed in a conversation with Ingber after about intentionally creating very different moods through Shabbat
- A Hadar fellow arrives, davening out of Koren Sacks
- I’m surprised by the number of stage directions. Maybe I shouldn’t be. I guess I’m used to spirited davening in a shul going hand in hand with a more knowledgeable community, which often means that stage directions are not needed.
Back to notes on Shacharit
- The Shema is done in full, with a very meditative, long-lasting opening
- From song sheet: “Mi Chamocha, Tzur Yisrael traditional”
- First three aloud, the rest silent, as I anticipated
- Musically, it’s interesting. At Mechalkel in Gevurot, the instruments comes in as the nusach picks up. This, I note, requires the musicians to remain standing during the Amidah.
- Kedusha uses a couple of Carlebach tunes I was unfamiliar with. From song sheet: “Nekadesh — Yasis Alaich Carlebach / Mimkomcha — ‘VeShamru’ Carlebach”
- After Kedushah is over, Shir Yaakov gets up and starts the Amidah on his own from the beginning.
- We end the Amidah with Yihyu Ratzon in English to the tune of “Sanctuary.” More on what the means can be found here. Then, we move into the chorus of “Sanctuary” and then into a nigun version of it. Then we’re off into “Ve’asu li mikdash etc,” which often ends up in these odd Jewish liturgical mash-ups of the Christian gospel song “Sanctuary.”
- Ingber does something that I’ve never heard before in Kaddish Shalem. It deserves its own post. So here’s that.
Interruption on demographics
- I wrote at this point in my notes that the congregation appears to be demographically slightly older than my usual NY davening hangouts, but it’s still a quite diverse group age-wise.
- This felt like the longest Torah service of my life.
- Ingber says that anyone who wants to should come open the ark. “Grab a talit!” he says. “If that sounds new agey to you, it’s from the Ari!” He looks directly at me.
- I note a surprising lack of chaos in the service so far. This, of course, is a little troubling.
- But then the ark door like falls off while they’re trying to extract a Sefer Torah from it. “How many Jews does it take to to take out a Torah?” Ingber jokes.
- The service runs very much on the charisma and personality of Ingber and I wonder if Romemu could function without him. He is not just its current leader, but its founder.
- It’s appropriate this group called Romemu is at its most ecstatic in the morning service during the hakafah as they sing… Romemu.
- Someone is carrying the Torah around like a pile of wood. It’s bothering me.
- Musically, it’s remarkably clear that this, the Torah, is the climax of the service.
- Ingber mentions grassroots, DIY Judaism in the last 10 years. So nice, he says, to see people stepping up to take charge and lead their own Judaism. This seems a tad odious to me, given that Romemu was founded by a rabbi–Ingber!–and that the service is not at all lay-led. There will be some lay involvement as we get into the Torah service, but it’s worth noting that there has been none whatsoever so far.
- There are 20 people for the first Aliyah.
- He seems to mini-drash before each individual Aliyah. Each of these leads into an explanation of his kavanah for the Aliyah at hand, such that each Aliyah is for “anyone who [insert the particular thing here].”
- The drashing is quite participatory. He often asks for suggestions and ideas from the community, so there is a strong sense of communal involvement at this point in the service, but it’s still not lay-led, by far.
- The Torah is lay-read.
- Some of the Torah is read by Jake, whose Hebrew name is Ya’akov. It is his 30th birthday and he feels he is at a turning point in life, so this is the occasion of his Jewish name-change. He is now known as Yisra’el. The name change takes place after he reads the third and final Aliyah.
- There are many men and many women wearing talitot.
- The talitot tend to be more tradition in shape and color so there are few of the sort of contemporary talitot.
- Almost all men have their heads covered. I might be the only one with a bare head.
- In stark contrast, only a handful of women have their heads covered.
This is gonna be a hard one to do an overall rating for. Again, the full rating system is explained here.
Music and Ruach: Four Ballpoint Pens
The congregation is engaged and participates loudly and ecstatically. The music, led by Shir Yaakov, is fantastic, through and through. I’m giving four instead of five because of the bits chanted by Inger that were hard to follow along with and because of the sung Barechu.
The Chaos Quotient: Two and a Half Ballpoint Pens
Ingber is such a strong leader for the service and there are few moments of transition for chaos to occur within. Because of that, despite the loud and ecstatic nature of the service, there is little chaos. However, the near-demolition of the ark is a pretty good little bit of chaos. So two and a half sounds like a good rating to me.
Liturgical Health: One and a Half Ballpoint Pens
Liturgical health is indicated primarily by two things: 1) Attention to and regard for the structure of the service, and 2) the apparent liturgical knowledge and interest of congregants, as indicated by their siddurim of choice. The overall structure of the service was intact, but they play very fast and loose with the content of the morning blessings and Pesukei Dezimrah. The only people who brought their own siddurim were two visiting Hadar fellows. And that siddur. Oh, that siddur.
Welcoming Community: Four Ballpoint Pens
I noted earlier that I was not particularly greeted on arrival, but the kiddush afterward was fantastic and everyone was very friendly. Overall, the quality of the community is great. Romemu, in essence, is good people.
Overall Rating: Two and a Half Ballpoint Pens
I thought a lot about how many pens to rate this service overall. Though the people and music were truly phenomenal, the liturgical issues I had are too big for me to overlook. That said, keep in mind that this is a rating of this service, not of Romemu itself, which is comprised of much more than its Shabbat morning services. I am keen to go again, though I think Friday night might be as far as I get with Romemu again.