The shuls are alive with the sound of music – at least that’s the case for several Toronto-area places of worship that say their musical services enhance the spiritual experience of congregants, bring them closer to God and attract people who might otherwise give prayer a pass.
Solel Congregation is an established fixture in Mississauga, Ont., that offers its members a musical experience that its rabbi, Audrey Pollack, believes helps elevate their spiritual connection to God.
The Song Shul and Shir Libeynu are two itinerant synagogues that have managed to attract hundreds of worshippers to their Shabbat and High Holiday services. They’ve done so by making music an important part of the service.
In the case of the Song Shul, worshippers are treated to the music of a professional choir led by Cantor Simon Spiro, who for years was chazzan at Beth Tzedec Congregation.
Shir Libeynu, which translates as “song of our hearts,” relies on volunteer singers for its choral input, and adds instrumental pieces at appropriate sections in the service.
Rabbi Pollack and Solel Congregation’s founder, Rabbi Larry Englander, play guitar during services and invite members of the congregation to participate musically and through song, Rabbi Pollack said.
While all three congregations have incorporated music to varying degrees in their services, the results have been increased interest in the services and greater participation.
Daniela Gesundheit, chazzan at Shir Libeynu, said the music is an important part of the synagogue’s appeal.
“It’s a big draw. It has a lot going for it. It’s a very inclusive environment and egalitarian. It seems to embrace all kinds of different people.
“It’s a huge part of the experience.”
The same can be said for the Song Shul, which was founded about a year ago by Cantor Spiro and his wife, Aliza. Shabbat services, held in the gym at Bialik Hebrew Day School on Bathurst Street, attract 350-450 people. Seating is arranged in a circular fashion, with the bimah in the centre, bringing worshippers closer to the action and making them feel part of the prayer, said Aliza Spiro, the shul’s creative director.
Shir Libeynu, which has been around for nearly 22 years, attracts around 80 people for once-a-month Saturday services. Participation swells during the High Holidays, when 320-340 people attend services in rented premises in the First Unitarian Congregation at St. Clair Avenue West and Avenue Road, said Rabbi Aviva Goldberg.
If you were to visit on Erev Yom Kippur, you’d hear a pianist and violinist play spiritual music before Cantor Gesundheit chants the Kol Nidrei prayer.
A flute accompanies the cantor as she sings traditional High Holiday prayers, while contemporary songs, such as Leonard Cohen’s psalm-like If It Be Your Will, are added to the traditional prayers, Rabbi Goldberg said.
Solel Congregation’s prayers include traditional songs and melodies, while some songs, like Adon Olam, are sung using contemporary melodies. During the High Holidays, congregation singers are accompanied by guitars at various parts of the services, Rabbi Pollack said.
“We strive to really make it a participatory musical service,” Rabbi Pollack said. “The more you can involve your whole self in prayer, the more you can connect with God.”
Cantor Spiro is quite familiar with traditional chazzanut and with contemporary music. In his younger days, he backed up Elton John, Faith Hill, Neil Sedaka and Marvin Hamlisch.
He brings that pop sensibility into some of the davening at the Song Shul, though traditional chazzanut remains. In December, “Sinatra Shabbat” is featured to honour the great American song stylist, while a “Pops Shabbat” coincides with Father’s Day weekend. Not only are untraditional melodies incorporated into the services, but unique musical arrangements are prepared for the choir, which numbers around 16 singers.
“It’s a synthesis of eclectic styles,” Cantor Spiro explained.
“It gives people what they’ve been craving for decades,” added Aliza.
The Song Shul strives to make the services uplifting, Cantor Spiro continued, adding that sitting for four or five hours during Shabbat services can get tedious. “We don’t want that. We want them to experience the fun and joy of synagogue.”
The Spiros believe they must be doing something right. Where other Conservative shuls are seeing stagnant or declining attendance, the Song Shul is bursting at the seams. Last year’s High Holiday services, held at the George Weston Recital Hall at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, attracted 800 people, a figure they expect to duplicate this year.
There is a demand for the type of services they offer, Cantor Spiro suggested. Backed by about a dozen “founding members” who wish to remain anonymous, the Song Shul offers a quicker Shabbat service that runs from 9:00-11:30 a.m., a bimah in the center of the action and a “bubble parade” in which youngsters march and blow bubbles during the Torah procession.
“We’re not afraid to try something new,” Aliza said. “Everything we do is out of the box.”
“The people who come say it’s a happy place. It’s positive. They feel completely uplifted,” she added.