In what is believed to be a first for the area, six local congregations came together to usher in the beginning of the High Holidays with music and collaboration.
The synagogues — Adat Shalom, Beth Shalom, New Light, Rodef Shalom, Temple Sinai and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha — hosted a joint selichot service on Saturday, Sept. 1 at Temple Sinai to mark the beginning of the High Holiday season. This selichot service, which traditionally includes a set of customary penitential prayers but not customary liturgy, also offered a unique twist with a performance by the Afro-Semitic Experience, a band that strives to combine several different genres of music to portray a message of unity.
The goal of the event was to simultaneously bring more people to the selichot service and introduce the service in a new and innovative way, according to Cantor Laura Berman of Temple Sinai. Berman said she had been toying with the idea of a joint selichot service for some time because it would be a good way to “connect and refocus ourselves.”
“Rather than us having our own small service, why not pull together and do something we can’t do individually? And maybe people will wind up coming that have never come to a selichot before,” Berman said.
The combination of multiple congregations participating and the musical group brought about 250 people to the service, which many spiritual leaders said is more than they would have gotten if they had hosted on their own.
“There have been different efforts at selichot to share [services] because no one gets a full house on their own and everyone appreciates being in a room with their friends and neighbors,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom.
“The community is changing,” he continued. “The numbers are what they are and the fact that we’ll come together so that our sum is greater than our parts is an inevitability. It’s nice to see people embracing this ahead of necessity.”
The 2017 Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, which the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh released in February, found that while the Jewish population is growing, denominational affiliation is dropping; only 35 percent of Jewish households belong to a synagogue or other Jewish worship community, declining by 53 percent in the last 15 years. Additionally, the proportion of Jews who claim no denominational affiliation has increased from 17 percent to 30 percent of the population.
Even before the results of the study were released, most representatives from the participating congregations said their communities have been working hard to embrace more collaboration, particularly around special services including selichot, Simchat Torah and Tisha B’av.
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation said these collaborations help synagogues pull together not only their members but also their finances, which allows for more creativity in programming — inviting the Afro-Semitic Experience, for example.
“[The selichot service] continued to demonstrate to the community the value in collaboration and how we all benefit from it,” he said. “We’re far better and stronger when we can all work together.”
The service itself combined traditional liturgy with melodies that resonated with jazz, bluegrass, funk, soul and many other different backgrounds of music, one of the main goals of the Afro-Semitic Experience. The group also evokes Jewish cantorial music in its sets, including several songs from Yossele Rosenblatt, a cantor from the 1950s.
Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light Congregation, described the evening as an “overture to the High Holiday opera,” particularly for people who do not generally attend a selichot service.
“It combined the beauty of the service with the beauty of the music which is very unusual and very different,” he said. “I think it was a fantastic combination of two different strands into a tapestry.”
For Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom, the fact that the congregations collaborated on this particular service had a special meaning. At the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, he said, it is traditional to quote Isaiah 57:19 — “Shalom: shalom to those who are far off, shalom to those who are near, says Adonai” — in some ways to recognize that many people are returning to synagogue who haven’t been there in a while.
“There’s this sense of togetherness that we acknowledge as we enter Rosh Hashanah,” he said. “So what I really liked about this [selichot service] was the sense of togetherness, this sense of we’re gathering together in preparation of the High Holidays.” PJC