Minyan fuses tradition, soul for experimental davening

Congregants often tell Lavey Derby that they cannot pray as deeply as they would like — a common complaint for a rabbi to hear.

"In our day and age, the idea of prayer is not understood," Derby said. "People find it weird, or the notion of God is difficult."

And often services can be inaccessible to many, since so much of them at Conservative synagogues like his, are conducted in Hebrew.

So the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon created an alternative service, called the Neshama Minyan.

Meeting twice a month — once on a Friday evening and once on a Shabbat morning — Derby often leads it himself, but sometimes there are guests who lead it.

"I started Neshama Minyan because I felt that people in the congregation needed to have a venue outside regular services to deepen their understanding of what prayer is about," he said.

This was about seven years ago, and the minyan now has become an integral part of the congregation.

"I started to discover that a lot of us really wanted a place where we could pray traditionally but differently, and where we could experiment with different spiritual tools and techniques to deepen our connectedness to prayer and the divine."

So Derby began experimenting, drawing from different sources and backgrounds. The first was Chassidism.

"I am an eighth-generation direct descendant of a famous well-known Chassidic master, and I am named for him," Derby said. "Therefore I've always felt very attached to the world out of which this man emerged."

Derby was referring to Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, a small city in southern Ukraine that Derby considers his spiritual center, even though he has never been there.

It was there that Derby's namesake would jump and gyrate during prayer just from the sheer joy of being in God's presence, he said.

Derby wanted to pass some of that joy onto his congregants. He began with meditation, some guided, some not, but all from the Jewish tradition.

Then he added some chanting. And some dancing. And working in pairs, with congregants talking to each other, "to bring expression to the relationship aspect of prayer."

"The thing I wanted the most was to provide the deepest possible context for prayer that would at the same time be traditional," he said.

Sometimes there is laughter, and if someone feels the impulse, tears or even anger.

"It's very important for me to provide a spiritual context where real emotion is felt and where there are moments of emotional release," he said.

But even with all his experimentation, he said, the minyan is still steeped in the Jewish tradition.

And it has attracted both those who come to the regular services and those who don't.

For those who don't come to the regular services, Derby said, "This speaks to the thirst and hunger in their soul, it speaks to the desire to have tools that allow them to reach out to the deepest part of themselves."

And then for those such as Nana Meyer, a San Francisco resident who attends both, "The Neshama Minyan opens different doors. It offers different ways to connect."

Enthralled from the beginning, Meyer said the minyan "gives me tools for feeling a different connection, meditation and chanting, all of it steeped in normative Judaism."

Meyer's father was a Conservative rabbi, so she grew up very much a part of that world. While meditation and chanting appeals to her, the services at some congregations veer too far from the traditions she is used to.

"What is special about the minyan is that when I'm at the end of it, I feel an incredible high that comes from having achieved a wonderful spiritual connection, yet I feel I've davened the traditional prayers. It's very satisfying."

Furthermore, she said, Derby has a real gift.

"He infuses everything with spirituality and it enables the rest of us davening with him to open ourselves up more and have a deeper and more spiritual connection."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."