Friday Night Lights
Take a look inside the Gorn Chapel at about 5:45 PM on a typical Friday night.
Up in the front rows, a family is beaming—no, bursting—with pride while a 13-year-old battles butterflies before saying the kiddush in honor of the next day’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
A few rows back, some are in a more reflective mood as they prepare to stand and observe the Yahrzeit of a loved one. And still others may be attending services that evening because they are facing the fresh wounds of a more recent loss.
In other parts of the chapel, grandparents greet grandchildren, friends kiss hello, toddlers toddle, babies giggle and babies cry. Many—in fact, most—are there for no specific reason or date on the calendar; they are there simply to observe Shabbat in shul.
Rabbis Schwartz and Saroken and Cantor King emerge with hugs, smiles and handshakes, preparing to lead the evening’s service.
What you also notice, perhaps subconsciously: the room is full. Packed, even. Get there early, or you risk not even finding a seat. And the Gorn seats roughly 250. This comes at a time when Jewish congregations nationwide are clamoring for members and for participation in religious activities.
The people gathered have come as they were, so to speak, the dress is casual. The service will last 45minutes to an hour. It is filled with music to greet the Shabbat, traditional observances and prayers, and wisdom from the rabbis.
Rabbi Schwartz recently relayed the story of Passover through a comical story of his Passover: a hunt for shmurah matzo from Brooklyn to Baltimore.
On another Shabbat, Rabbi Saroken told the story of a woman who daily carried daily two containers to pickup and deliver water. One of the vessels was pristine, perfect. The other vessel was cracked, leaky and nearly empty by the time she arrived at her destination each day. But on reflection, the path the woman had traveled was filled with lush vegetation and flowers on the side where the cracked container had leaked water. The side where the “perfect” vessel had been carried was barren. It was a beautiful lesson in the expectations and limitations of what we perceive to be perfect.
Cantor King will wrap things up by singing L’Cha Dodi to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, or Shalom Aleichem to Gershwin’s Summertime. Or, he might keep everyone guessing with a different 'mash-up.'
“I attend almost every week, and have been for probably more than 10 years,” says Steve Kravet. “I enjoy the parshas, the music, the reflective amidah. The services are at a convenient time, they are uplifting, and there is a group of 'regulars' that make it wonderfully social.”
The history of Beth El’s Friday night services may date back to the congregation's decision in the 1980's to allow Bat Mitzvahs to take place on Saturday mornings. Bat Mitzvahs had been the staple of Friday nights prior to that, and subsequently, the services languished.
The next milestone was the construction of the Gorn chapel which would allow the services to be relocated from the Kreitzer Room. And another catalyst was Cantor King’s dedicated effort to infuse the services with more music and participation. From there, attendance grew.
“What we have done with Shabbat evening is to offer a low-pressure service, not overly long, where our members (and friends) can come together as a happy and casual community, participate in singing familiar melodies mixed with new music, hear a brief but inspiring message from the Rabbis, and leave Beth El feeling both spiritually uplifted and socially engaged,” said Cantor King.
“The most important word here is community—people come to the Gorn Chapel on Friday evening not just to worship, but because they feel powerful sense of belonging, togetherness, and yes: enjoyment on Friday evening."