By Micah Symons
As the concluding line of psalm 150 goes, “כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָה הַלְלוּ־יָה All with breath will praise Adonai, Hallelujah” (Props to sefaria.com for the Hebrew). During Friday night services at URJ Biennial 2017, this was all too true for me and the nearly 6,000 other Reform Jews sharing in the joy of Shabbat. In the parts of the service when we collectively raised our voices in celebration of our heritage, our traditions, and our community and in parts when we continued our study themes from the week, Friday night services served as the culmination of my Biennial experience.
To me, the music of reform Friday night services is the driving factor, drawing memories from NFTY events to my time spent at URJ Camp Harlam, URJ 6 Points Sports Academy, and URJ Kutz Camp to my synagogue at home. It draws me in to a place of comfort, of celebration, and of my weekly ‘reset’. Hearing the words of Debbie Friedman (z”l), of Dan Nichols, and of centuries of Jewish voices fills me with awe and inspires me to continue the work I do outside the sanctuary.
All of us in that plenary room have unique backgrounds tracing back to our synagogues, camp, NFTY, Israel, and Jewish organizations. We use those backgrounds to strengthen our community as a whole. Sure, I may not know that version of L’cha Dodi or my synagogue usually sits for the V’ahavta, but t’fillah gives us the opportunity to engage and experiment with our worship experiences. We’ve all heard the saying “diversity makes us stronger”, but I truly believe nothing in our movement changes without a variety of experiences. NFTY’s principle of יְהוּדִים כֹּל- Pluralism- “The acceptance and encouragement of alternate modes of Jewish experience” perfectly encapsulates who we are as Reform Jews. In large instances such as Biennial and smaller ones such as NFTY events and our home synagogues, we take into consideration all peoples’ backgrounds as we push our understanding of Judaism forward.
Ultimately, it is in these times when we sing our hearts out during services and song sessions that I feel most connected to the community and to my faith and heritage. It’s when it doesn’t matter who I am standing next to as long as I can wrap my arms around them as I lose my voice and don’t even have to think about that essay due in English class or that math homework I should probably get around to. It’s when the service leader completely shifts my Jewish paradigm by translating a piece of Hebrew text even slightly differently than to what I am accustomed. It’s when my connection to Jewish is both at its strongest and its most vulnerable, enforced by the community yet susceptible to alteration. And these sensations, while coming along often during NFTY events and in my congregation, fully come to fruition at Biennial, where I hope it also happens to the 6,000 other Reform Jews in that room simultaneously.
I started this blog post with כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה-all that breathes. Prayer should give every single one of us breath in our mission as Reform Jews. Texts like the Shema/V’ahavta and Amidah invite us to challenge our relationship with God. Songs like Oseh Shalom and Dan Nichol’s L’takein spark our desires to better the world around us. The nature of services as being communal lets us reconsider time and again what it means to be inclusive and “audaciously hospitable”. T’fillah, to me isn’t just what makes me Jewish, but what makes me active in the Jewish community. It is the inspiration that leads me to another one of NFTY’s principles, נִלְמָד וְנָעָשֶה- To Learn and to Do. “כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָה הַלְלוּ־יָה All that breathes will praise your name” through song and dance, through study, and through action.