Crafting a Worship Service

A Song For ShabbatPrayerbooks open, music compilations at hand, iPhones for downloading audio and video. And a dozen members of the Vassar Temple youth group.

Such was the scene yesterday evening when Vassar Temple teens worked over dinner to craft a worship service.

Working from an outline of the traditional Friday evening liturgy, the teens evaluated each worship element:

Which songs come from the traditional Friday evening Psalms? What melody should we use for Lecha Dodi? Should we sing the V’ahavta in English or Hebrew, and how does that choice influence the Shema that comes right before? Do we want a festive mood or a contemplative one? How long should the service last? What parts do we want to write ourselves? And so on.

Guided by the youth-group president, the teens reviewed 3,000 years of Jewish tradition as viewed through the lens of contemporary American Judaism. The result, a gift to the community, will be a remarkable worship experience on Friday, February 20.

You really don’t want to miss it.


Building a Holy Community: A Case Study

The power and impact of music are undisputed, but helping children find their Jewish musical voice is a tough needle to thread, because it demands an unusual combination of diverse qualities in a teacher: musical expertise and skill, an understanding of developmental psychology, an ability to relate to children, technical teaching skills, repertoire, patience, flexibility, and more.

PullQuoteFor example, musicians are frequently bored with the music that children like, while amateurs often lack the level of musical proficiency required to do justice to the music. As a result, supplemental music programs can end up backfiring, either teaching children to dislike music or teaching them that Jewish music isn’t very good.

Similarly, leading music is different than performing it, in the same way that conducting is not the same as playing the tuba. Many skilled musicians have difficulty making the transition to music leader.

So for a while I ran a rudimentary and fragmented music program myself, but I was limited by my own musical shortcomings. Most of the music I wanted to teach was beyond what I could do well.

Then two years ago a 10th grader who happened to be an opera singer joined Vassar Temple. She, obviously, could sing any of the music I wanted to introduce to the school. It turned out that she was also a natural teacher, and by nature patient and flexible. Most importantly, she would be a positive role model.

PullQuote2For a year and half we worked on applying her natural skills to the demanding task of teaching music. She learned how to lead services. She learned how to teach songs. She learned what kinds of music appeal to different age groups. She starting teaching music from time to time. She helped me lead worship services. Over the summer, she further refined her skills as she led a complete Friday night service with me.

After a year and a half of work, she was ready to start running our school’s music program. She began in the fall.

Then an opportunity arose for her to learn from two of the pioneers of American Jewish music, one an internationally recognized performer and songwriter, the other a professional cantor who runs one of the Reform Movement’s most important musical training programs. Together they offer a weekend-long master class in songleading. The rabbi funded the minimal attendance fee that made it possible for our music teacher to join a handful of other high-school students from around the country who gathered to perfect their craft.

The students at Vassar Temple now benefit from learning the songs that will be tomorrow’s mainstream melodies, just as they experience the joy of Jewish music that only an experienced teacher an bring. Just about two years after a musically inclined 10th grader first walked through our doors, we have an engaged high-school student, a top-notch music program, and joyous musical worship.

The words and values of our tradition rise in song from the mouths of the next generation of Jews.

What we have even extends beyond the individual successes and achieves the broader goal of bringing members of our community together to celebrate Judaism as part of a holy community and to continue the 3,000-year-old tradition of working in unison to create a glorious Jewish future.

Hanukkah Contest!

The talented folks at Key Tov have put together a spectacular Hanukkah dance and song mash up:

So here at Vassar Temple, we’re running a contest, with prizes for the first three people to correctly identify all of the songs in the mash up.

Even if someone beats you to an answer, you can move yourself up in the ranking by offering more information: Who wrote the songs? Where do they come from? What do the Hebrew words mean?

Put your answers in the comments — which will remain hidden until Friday, December 19, when we’ll announce the winners. The contest is open to students affiliated with Vassar Temple.


An Exciting Start to Sukkot at Vassar Temple

Vassar Temple Seventh Graders Accept TorahThree dinners. A youth group meeting. A beautiful Sukkot service. Seventh graders accepting Torah. Dessert under the sukkah.

All of this was part of Vassar Temple’s celebration of Sukkot.

The evening began with three dinners. The 5th-7th grade Hebrew School students
met in one classroom for pizza. The post-bar/bat mitzvah students enjoyed Chinese food in the sukkah. The parents had pizza and salad (and some purloined Chinese, too).

Over dinner, the 8th-12th graders met to organize their youth group, electing peer leaders and starting to plan their year.

Then with sundown everyone came together for a celebratory service, during which the 7th graders received their own copies of the Plaut Commentary, a book they will use to prepare for bar and bat mitzvah.

Afterward we moved outside to break bread together under the sukkah.

As I said during the service, I love Sukkot.

Vassar Temple Gathers Under the Sukkah

Vassar Temple Gathers Under the Sukkah

Sukkot is in the Air at Vassar Temple!

Making an edible sukkah

Making an edible sukkah

With Yom Kippur behind us, Vassar Temple students turned their attention to Sukkot on Sunday. Each student in grade K-3 made an edible sukkah. Older students focused on Hebrew vocabulary and helped decorate the Temple’s main sukkah.

This Wednesday evening, the entire community gathers to usher in the festival.

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A Special Thank-You to Our Teachers

A beautiful early summer evening provided the backdrop for our annual picnic and outdoor service. As an added treat, religious-school director Dr. Joel Hoffman offered a few words of thanks to the teachers whom he supervises.

He started with Argentina’s northern Patagonia region, of all places, recalling when he had traveled there to lecture some years ago. His hotel room there faced an inner courtyard, which is why he had no way of knowing what exactly was happened when his sleep was interrupted first by someone shouting “no, NO, NOOO!” and then by the sounds of gunfire.

Next came the emergency vehicles, more shouting, and more gunfire. But he had no visuals, because he couldn’t see the street. He did know that Argentina hadn’t always been the most stable of countries, so he was doubly worried.

After a fitful sleep marked by nightmares, he learned the next morning that the shouting had been at the television in response to a tense last-minute soccer play, and the gunfire had been in celebration after a dramatic end to the game.

He was relieved, but hardly relaxed.

Fortunately, Dr. Hoffman told us Friday evening, he had been invited to a Shabbat service that evening in a nearby town. The host congregation turned out to be a small, entirely lay-led group. But at the service, with its recorded music and informal atmosphere, Dr. Hoffman found a community and a respite from a difficult week. “A base of spirituality,” he told us.

Then he asked us if the teachers of those Argentine lay-leaders had any way of knowing what affect their teaching would someday have, how their teaching had so positively influenced a weary traveler.

So too, the lessons our teachers teach here reach beyond the students as we see them now, like ripples on a pond that extends behind the horizon. We never get to see the full benefit of teaching.

Passover is in the Air at Vassar Temple’s Religious School

Grades 4 and 7 Engage in an Enthusiastic Passover Competition

Grades 4 and 7 Go Head to Head in an Enthusiastic Passover Competition

The students and faculty at Vassar Temple’s religious school prepared for Passover with reviews, food-tastings, games, stories, projects, and even a friendly class-to-class competition, all in honor of the yearly celebration that combines themes of freedom and spring in addition to the better-known prohibition on leavened bread.

Students Stay After School to Set up for the Congregational Seder

Students Stay After School to Set up for Vassar Temple’s Community Seder

Happy Purim

Dr. Joel "Hoffmantaschen."  Costume by Zoe  Peritz Greenman.  Photo courtesy of Brianna Erlebacher.

Dr. Joel “Hoffmantaschen.” Glasses by Zoe Peritz Greenman. Photo courtesy of Brianna Erlebacher.

Inspired by a couple of 4th graders who invented a Yoshi-taschen and a Hamario to help spread Purim beyond the walls of the synagogue, we invited other students to create their own Purim amalgams.

The one judged most creative (over my vehement objections) was Dr. Joel Hoffmantashen, seen to the right.

Happy Purim.

Vassar Temple Students Prepare for Purim

Sixth and Seventh Graders Paint Paper-Mache Haman Dolls.

Sixth and Seventh Graders Paint Paper-Mache Haman Dolls.

From paper-mache Haman dolls to home-made groggers, students at the Seth A. Erlebacher Religious School have been busy getting ready for the upcoming community-wide Purim carnival and Vassar Temple’s own Purim spiel.

Student in Grades 1-3 Create (and Oversee) Haman Cutouts.

Student in Grades 1-3 Create (and Oversee) Haman Cutouts.

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Vassar Temple Religious-School Students Celebrate Sukkot Under the Sukkah

Vassar Temple religious-school student Cameron J., right, shakes the lulav under the sukkah.

Vassar Temple religious-school student Cameron J., right, shakes the lulav under the sukkah.

Vassar Temple religious-school students took their usual weekly worship service outdoors in celebration of Sukkot. In spite of heavy overnight rain, the weather cooperated beautifully, creating the perfect opportunity to appreciate the first day of fall in the sukkah.

Each student also had the opportunity to shake the lulav and recite the traditional blessing.

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