The European Academy for Jewish Liturgy (EAJL) European T’Filla Leaders Retreat – The Sh’liach Tsibbur as a Gatherer of Jewish Spirituality
By Chazan Jaclyn Chernett
EAJL was founded in 2007 with the purpose of helping to sustain communities, particularly in Europe – the UK being the central base – by inspiring and teaching sh’lichei tsibbur, leaders of Jewish prayer (t’filla). Most communities do not have the benefit of professional chazanim. Rabbis and chazanim are dedicated k’lei kodesh or vessels of holiness who serve Jewish communities as extensions of the sacred.
Over the past thirty years or so, communities have, for various reasons, used the leadership of lay members for inspiring people to engage in their own t’filla, with different levels of efficacy. What many lay leaders do not have is grounding and knowledge of nusach hat’filla, the time-honoured sacred chants of our people that carry the texts on its wings. These days, mostly through lack of awareness, people unwittingly introduce inappropriate melodies that interrupt the textual flow rather than enhance and lift it.
Over the past years, EAJL’s work has borne much fruit as more satisfying services are being led with knowledge and understanding.
But it isn’t only the knowledge of the text and music that is important. Just as vital is the need for the leaders to have the confidence and expertise to establish an almost unquantifiable connection with their people, to enable each person in the room to enter their own t’filla and engage as community. One of our teachers says that it is important for t’filla leaders to metaphorically ‘grow angel wings’ to extend and wrap around the people as they draw them near to God. This isn’t something you can learn in a class or even in one-to-one mentoring!!
Why is this important? In the diaspora the shul is the centre of Jewish life even if people are not engaged in services. When people enter a shul there is usually a service going on. It is the window of the Jewish soul. When someone enters and finds an engaged group of people who are singing their hearts out there is obviously something meaningful going on! The visitor will feel warm and included even if they don’t read Hebrew or know the melodies. They may find themselves closing their eyes and letting the sound waft around them and even humming along. They will go away feeling held, valued and included. The experience is transformative.
For the sh’liach tsibbur it isn’t a matter of “how does it go?”. I often have people ask me for websites, books, MP3s etc to learn and then they can “sing it”. They can deliver. No. It isn’t about that. It is not a matter of delivery or, worse, performance! It is a matter of “how can I best engage my people in the holiness of t’filla through the nusach?” For this we have to open ourselves to our deepest humility in service of God, to grow and expand our ‘angel wings’ to wrap and nurture our people in their joys and sorrow, anxieties and elations. It is about our deepest connection with humanity and the Jewish soul.
With the help of talented chazanim and rabbis we have devised a Retreat where all the participants lead parts of the thrice-daily services. In encouraging each other during this three-day period, we become the best congregation we could wish for! It is safe space where we can really learn what it means to engage in our own t’filla more deeply and thus draw others near.
This year our guiding team includes Rabbi James Jacobson Maisels from Israel (Founder and Director of Or Halev, the Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation), Joey Weisenberg (Creative Director of Mechon Hadar, the flagship of independent minyanim in New York and the author of Building Singing Communities), Chazan Jalda Rebling, (Founder of Ohel Hachidusch, Berlin, a wonderful teacher and counsellor whose work is in the tradition of the maggidim – chassidic story tellers). I am there also to teach and encourage immersion in and knowledge of nusach hat’filla.
The Retreat is for everyone who wants to engage in it. We encourage all leaders and aspiring leaders of prayer as well as rabbis and chazanim who wish to take time out to immerse themselves in it. There is no judgment or competition – just the openness of heart and soul required to share what it offers in its experience.
None of us ever stops learning. As Masorti communities we recognise the necessity for study. EAJL provides study of Siddur texts with their musical carriers and much more. We pride ourselves in Masorti communities that we provide a platform for people in a traditional and continually meaningful way. Therefore, we are constantly seeking new meaning within ancient traditions to keep those traditions alive, nurture their growth and feed our spiritual health.
Interested? Come and join the Retreat. This year it is at Charney Manor in Oxford from 7 – 10 July. Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org or our Director of Course Administration, Stephen Griffiths email@example.com. Places are limited so don’t leave it too late!
Jaclyn Chernett is a founder member of, and Chazan at Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue, founder and director of the European Academy for Jewish Liturgy and Vice President of Masorti Judaism.