"You should have been here last night," said Rabbi Scott Meltzer to me before the service. Last night, the Shabbat Kehilati Service & Dinner had started at 6:15 and lasted until 10 p.m. Still, the morning service would be followed by a New Member Lunch & Learn, sponsored in part by two parents celebrating the naming ceremony for their daughter. Besides the use of Hebrew, the most notable thing about the service -- the inescapable, remarkable thing -- was how much of it was sung: by the cantor, by the congregation, by both, going back and forth. Now and then, there were pauses for spoken prayers in English: "May the Lord bless you and protect you."... "The Lord redeems the life of his servants."... Prayers for our country, for Jewish communities worldwide, and for Israel. But the singing carried the service: the Sabbath Psalm (92), numerous songs of praise, songs of petition, the Hymn of Glory. Festive songs, haunting songs, mournful songs. Quicksilver songs that shifted in tone. Little of it had the feel of a performance; rather, it was prayer. "Sweet hymns shall be my chant and woven songs/ For Thou art all for which my spirit longs."
Also remarkable was the relaxed character of people participating in such a structured liturgy. As the cantor moved from song to song and prayer to prayer, people leaned close for brief exchanges. Several times, Rabbi Meltzer wandered off the stage to converse with congregants.
Before the Torah was processed, Meltzer told a story about his days in Jerusalem, where he attended a shul populated mainly by aged Syrian emigrants. "When they processed the Torah, one of the gentlemen would follow with an atomizer, and as you kissed the Torah, he would spritz you in the eyes -- and God forbid your mouth was open and he would spray this foul rosewater down your throat. The idea was, once you had stopped gagging, that the words of Torah would be sweet to you and sweet on your lips and in your mouth. We aim a little bit higher. So that the words of Torah should be sweet in our mouths, we pass around chocolates" -- as well as sugar-free candies for the sugar-restricted.
The doors of the ark -- wooden frames backed by fabric and displaying carved Hebrew letters ("Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one") -- were slid back, revealing six scrolls draped in velvet. (Only three of them were perfect enough to use.) The central scroll -- clad in burgundy, draped with an engraved silver plate, and topped with wrought metal scroll-caps -- was brought forth and carried around the synagogue. Congregants touched either their prayer shawl or their service book to the silver plate and then kissed them.
Meltzer's commentary before the readings took up the matter of perspective -- "It all depends on how you look at it. The details are the same either way." He marveled at how Judaism had flourished in America over the past century. On the other hand, there was the threat to Israel's existence posed by its enemies.
Then he applied the matter of perspective to the day's reading from Genesis, which recounted, among other things, Sarah's death at the age of 127. "One of my college roommates was a nonpracticing Catholic." Once, "he made a comment that the only reason religion has significance --
bite -- is because of mortality. I said, 'You're right.' Later, we realized that what he meant was that religion has bite because people die and they're worried about what happens on the other side. What I meant was: religion has relevance in this world because we have limited life, and what do you want to...make your life?
"If I could steal language away from any group, it would be the term, 'prolife.' When you hear that, right away, your mind jumps to a very successful advertising and marketing campaign for a political position...but I know of nothing more prolife in this world than Judaism.... The blessing is life. When Sarah dies, we bless and remember -- not her death, but her life." Abraham received similar treatment: "God blessed him in all things.... It says that he was old and he had come into days.... The blessing was to grow old." From the Torah: "...And Abraham breathed his last and died at a good ripe age, old and contented..."
After the blessing over the lunch following the service, everyone shouted "L'Chaim!" before drinking from their cups -- "To life!"
What happens when we die?
From the commentary on the passage about Abraham's death in the copy of the Torah provided to congregants: "'He was gathered to his kin': Death is regarded as a transition to the afterlife, where one is united with one's ancestors in Sheol, envisioned as a huge cavern under the earth."
2512 Third Avenue, Hillcrest
Denomination: Jewish (Conservative)
Founded locally: 1989
Senior pastor: Scott Meltzer
Congregation size: 400 families
Staff size: 12, including part-time teachers and musicians
Sunday school enrollment: 30, in after-school and Sunday program
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: dressy, plenty of jackets and dresses
Diversity: Jews from many backgrounds
Sunday worship: Kabbalat Shabbat, Fridays, 7:15 p.m.; Shabbat morning, 9:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 2 hours, 45 minutes