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Transforming a Synagogue into a Singing Community: Rabbi Bruce Dollin & Congregation Hebrew Educational Alliance of Denver
Mechon Hadar supports those working to enliven Jewish Prayer in their communities
Looking out at his congregation one Shabbat morning a few years ago, Rabbi Bruce Dollin realized the service needed to change. Shabbat service attendance at his 950-family synagogue was dwindling, the synagogue population was aging, and after many years of growth, overall membership was on the decline.
His experience was typical, as many contemporary rabbis struggle with how to reinvigorate their prayer services to appeal to a younger Jewish community with different needs and expectations than the communities that middle-aged rabbis were trained to lead. But his next step was unusual. Rabbi Dollin, 55, took a sabbatical from his job as rabbi of the Congregation Hebrew Educational Alliance, one of Denver’s largest Jewish congregations, and went on a self-directed Jewish prayer tour.
“In a traditional service, the rabbi and the cantor are at the front doing everything,” Rabbi Dollin explained. “I was looking for something where the congregants would be actively participating.”
He visited independent Jewish communities across the country, finding inspiration at Ikar in Los Angeles, and Romemu in New York. But it was at Kehilat Hadar that he pinned down what he was looking for. “The energy in the room was coming from those in the room, not from those on the bimah.”
The most appealing thing about that energy? The singing. Though impressed by the congregation’s youth and knowledge, the singing was the thing Rabbi Dollin knew he could import back to his home turf. His congregation didn’t have access to the lay leaders of Hadar, but, he explained, “what we did have access to is the style of singing.”
From his Shabbat experience at Kehilat Hadar, Rabbi Dollin was led to Mechon Hadar, where he took a Talmud class and read Hadar faculty member Joey Weisenberg’s book, Building Singing Communities.
Like the Hadar Shabbat service, the book made an impact. When he returned to Denver after his sabbatical, Rabbi Dollin used “Singing Communities” to remodel his congregation’s Shabbat offerings.
HEA launched a second Shabbat morning service, named Shir Hadash. The service takes place in the same building as the main service, at the same time, but is lay-led and emphasizes the musicality of the prayers. The service leaders use drums, sing niggunim, and focus more time on the parts of the service with the best songs.
To get the service going, Rabbi Dollin started small, as Building Singing Communities advises. He invited a small group of members to learn the tunes and commit to knowing and singing the prayers. This “davening team” has grown to 15-17 core minyan members, who sit in the front rows of the bimah-less room and do their best to rouse the crowds during the service. It doesn’t take much effort: the room is filled with “ecstatic energy,” Rabbi Dollin said, as opposed to the “contemplative energy” of a more typical Shabbat service.
The Shir Hadash service has gotten universally good feedback from participants. “They love it,” Rabbi Dollin said. When newcomers visit for the first time, they say, “I just found my service. They get connected to the shul almost immediately.”
Now between 150 to 250 members attend Shir Hadash each week, while about 150 members join the main sanctuary service.
While many Conservative synagogues are dealing with decreasing memberships from people moving, older members dying, or general attrition, HEA’s membership has remained stable, something Rabbi Dollin credits to the Shir Hadash services. Other rabbis from the Denver area have come to visit the Shir Hadash service, and many consider it a model for their congregations to emulate
“We had no idea that there was a need for this kind of singing community until we did it, and saw that people just kept coming and coming,” he said. “It has really revitalized the whole congregation,” Rabbi Dollin said
Find Out More About...
- Bringing Mechon Hadar teachers into your community;
- Our Singing Communities Intensive, a week long seminar of learning and practical prayer workshops;
- Joey Weisenberg's niggunim, available for download;
- Our May Tefillah Seminar, a week of study about prayer, supported by Camp Ramah;
- Joey's Niggunim: The Songbook, now available for purchase;
- Elie Kaunfer's seminal book Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities.
- Our daily minyan at the yeshiva.
Explore Our Online Tefillah and Music Library...
Looking for something from the old website, like Aryeh Bernstein's recordings of High Holiday services? You can find them in our archive.
Need some resources to help run a minyan? You can find our resources for prayer organizers here.