Spirituality, intimacy, and a shruti box

Spirituality, intimacy, and a shruti box

Wyckoff shul finds there's gravitational pull to meditative Shabbat service

Rabbi Ziona Zelaszo

Say that you are a rabbi, a newly fledged one at that, and not a twentysomething either, but with a lifetime of experience and knowledge behind you.

Say that you also happen to be an academic – a professor of anthropology, say, well schooled in understanding innate human urges and cultural responses to those urges.

Say, too (and we are almost finished pretending), that you have been asked to help create a service in your own shul that attracts people who otherwise would not be in shul at all. You want to find some way to attract seekers, people who might be looking for something, even if very tentatively, but cannot or do not think they can find it in regular shul services.

If you are Rabbi Ziona Zelaszo, an Israeli-born former adjunct professor at Montclair State University, now a hospital chaplain ordained in 2010 from the Academy of Jewish Religion in the Bronx, you put all your knowledge of the human condition, including many people’s instinctive although easily deflected tilt toward spirituality, into devising a service that is at once nonthreatening and enthralling.

If your shul is Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff – which, in this case, it is – you would find yourself starting monthly meditation services.

And that is what Zelaszo has done.

The alternative service Zelaszo runs is in Temple Beth Rishon’s library. It is aimed at “people who don’t have little kids any more, and don’t want to be in the main sanctuary, where there’s a bar mitzvah going on.” (Not, she adds, that she thinks there is anything wrong with a bar mitzvah celebration; it is just that even joyous lifecycle events can seem like so much noise to someone who is profoundly uninterested in them.)

Instead, “we make the library like a sanctuary. We cover the books, and we sit in a circle.” The windows are curtained in red, so the light that filters through it is dim and soothing.

“I’m in the room before people come in,” Zelaszo continued. She plays an ancient Indian musical instrument called a shruti box. It is not a drum; rather, it is a kind of bellows that “works on vibration.”

“I sound the instrument as people come into the room, and they already get the feeling that something special is coming,” she said. “I create an environment that is secure and serene. It does not encourage chitchat. People come in and sit down, and I start a niggun” – a wordless song that goes straight to Jews’ hearts. “They join me in the niggun, and we keep going until people stop coming in. When the room is full, I begin with words.”

Zelaszo uses the siddur, but she takes out sections “and I create my own template,” she said. “And then we focus on each prayer at a slow pace. I allow people to breathe in and breathe out the meaning of the prayer.

“That way, people get a sense of what they have done at other times in the main sanctuary. They get a new perspective.

“And you don’t have to know Hebrew to pray well. I am taking this stress away. I am allowing them to get in touch with what the prayer means to them on a personal level.

“I allow people to have time with the prayer,” she continued. “Like the Shema. It takes a long time. I create a kavanah before I actually start the prayer, so people have an introduction.”

Each service is built around a theme, but it’s not necessarily prepared in advance. She might center the service on the Amidah. “One time, I focused on the matriarchs and patriarchs. I talked about the meaning of our ancestors in our lives. Another time, I talked about mechayay hametim” – the restoring of life to the dead – “and I helped people to think that it doesn’t always mean the physical body. Sometimes, we are dead spiritually. We are numb. We need to peel off a lot of layers to revive ourselves on the physical, emotional level. So if anyone felt that, I invited them to close their eyes and meditate on that part of the Amidah. And then I create the mood with my shruti box.”

The mood is based on the people present. “If they’re really deep into it, I won’t take it away from them to move to something else. Sometimes less is more, and we can build on that.

“I hope that there will be more and more people who are interested in coming to shul,” Zelaszo said. Her service is a tool to draw people in. “It is not a New Age thing,” she added.

Kenneth Emert, Beth Rishon’s rabbi, is pleased with the service. “We want to invite people to experience Shabbat in many different ways,” he said. “Some people feel comfortable in a traditional service. Some come to our nosh-and-drash” – a Torah study class before Shabbat services. “This is a third option. It says to me that there is a spiritual hunger.”

Beth Rishon is fortunate; its problems are particular to a shul that is doing well. This year, Emert said, is “top heavy with bar and bat mitzvahs”; there are so many that almost every Shabbat sees not one but two, and often there are baby-namings, as well. (“It’s cyclical,” Emert said. “Some years are fat and some are lean.” This is a very fat year.)

Often, however, people who do not have children that age tire of the speeches, or long for more intimacy at shul. Zelaszo’s service is aimed squarely at them, as well as at people new to Shabbat services. In fact, Emert would like to try other kinds of programs, too. “I want to explore with other rabbis what works,” he said.

Louis Milowsky, a regular at the main service, saw the need for the meditative one a few years ago. “I had experienced a service at the Carlebach Shul” – a magnet for Orthodox participatory davening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – “and it had given me the idea of a meditative service. I explained my vision of it to Ziona, and she took it and did it in her way, which was much more than I had ever thought of.”

He overflows with testimonials. “Cantor Mamber’s father” – that’s Beth Rishon’s longtime cantor, Ilan Mamber – “said that he never knew that Judaism could be like this. Another older gentleman who is going through a hard time said that this was exactly what he needed.”

And then there is his own testimonial. “You come out of there so energized! The energy is phenomenal. And it lasts! It’s not something that you do and you feel okay and you’re on to something different. The energy lasts all week.”

Beth Rishon’s next meditative service is scheduled for Sept. 29.

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