Rabbi Chai Levy, who leads the monthly Kol Neshama minyan, during an event at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon
Rabbi Chai Levy, who leads the monthly Kol Neshama minyan, during an event at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon

Rabbi as gentle guide at contemplative Marin service

I arrived at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon around 9:30 a.m. The earlier portions of a typical Conservative Shabbat morning service were in progress. I sat in the main sanctuary for about half an hour while a congregant led a fairly humdrum, if comfortable, pesukei dezimra (a section of psalms at the beginning of the service).

But that’s not what I’d come for. At 10 a.m., something very different began elsewhere in the shul’s ample building. Once a month (except for September), Rabbi Chai Levy leads the Kol Neshama Minyan, a guided, somewhat meditative service (kol neshama means “voice of the soul”) that typically draws around three dozen or more people to the Kol Shofar library, where the service is held.

I do love a good library minyan. In many synagogues, the library is the default setting for alternative services. It is comforting to pray as a Jew surrounded by books, and, in this case, natural ambient light coming through several windows.

Before the service began, Levy wondered to me whether the crowd would be smaller than normal. But there was no reason to fear; 40 showed up, mostly late middle age and up. Twice, more chairs had to be put out. A family with younger kids was there as well as one older regular who showed up with generations of his progeny in honor of his birthday.

Levy plays guitar and sings, a gentle, guiding presence throughout the service. The music is largely from what I’ll call the Renewal/alt-service canon, with music from the likes of Shefa Gold, the New Mexico-based mother of Jewish Renewal chanting.

Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon

At one point, some guy decided he’d play a song he’d written about peace in the Middle East, which Levy gamely went with. A few times, two or three people would dance together, sedately, in the middle of the circle of chairs. This is a service where earnest people feel free simply to do whatever the moment moves them to.

The Kol Neshama Minyan was started years ago by former Kol Shofar Rabbi Lavey Derby (now at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City). Today, it is a program of Kol Shofar’s Center for Jewish Spirituality, which is run by Levy.

Other Center programs have included meditative High Holy Day services, concerts from the likes of Rabbi Andrew Hahn (aka “Kirtan Rabbi” who weaves traditional Jewish music with Kirtan, a call-and-response devotional music style from India) and Darshan (a band/project that melds Jewish prayer and melodies with rap and poetry), a “contemplative” Passover seder, workshops on the spirituality of parenting, etc.

Musical highlights on the day I attended the Kol Neshama minyan included Modeh/ah Ani by Gold, a version of the traditional prayer upon waking that calls God “ruach chai v’kayam/living and eternal spirit” rather than the traditional “melech chai v’kayam/living and eternal king”; and a version of Hareini Mekabel Alai, a kavanah (intention) to be said before prayer that has become particularly common in Renewal circles.

Though I was happy to find that we were davening from Siddur Eit Ratzon, a longtime personal favorite of mine, it was probably overkill. Eit Ratzon, a common sight at synagogue alternative services, is a pretty hefty book, while much of what we sang was on a photocopied handout.

We sang an English version of Barchu that came with some swaying/arm-waving movements that many seemed to know:

Barchu, Dear One, Shechinah, Holy Name
When I call on the light of my soul, I come home.

Then, to my mild surprise, we did Barchu again, this time with the traditional call-and-response Hebrew with bowing. I asked Levy if this was the result of doing a service with a Renewal flavor within the confines of a Conservative synagogue, in which the basic halachic requirements of prayer carry more weight than they might in a fully Renewal setting.

“At the same time that it’s a creative service, I try to fulfill the basic requirement of structure of a service,” she said. “So we did Barchu because I know there are people who will feel like they haven’t done Barchu unless we do it [the traditional] way.”

On behalf of those people: Thanks, Rabbi.

Like many left-of-Orthodox rabbis, Levy is wont to talk a little in between prayers. With many rabbis, it’s a compulsion that results in rambling, jokey word salad about this prayer or that. But with Levy, I sensed something a little more intentional.

Indeed, after speaking with Levy, I learned that her goal is to offer an experience somewhere between prayer service and guided meditation. The target audience, she told me, is “people for whom traditional davening doesn’t speak to them, or people that want to be guided in a more contemplative experience.” For example: Before Ahavah Rabbah (great love), a prayer about God’s love for the Jewish people, she invites congregants to “remember a time when they felt fully loved.”

Levy’s goal is not to narrate or offer what she terms an “intellectual exploration” but “guiding [attendees] in a body-mind-spirit way — to feel love.” I know many prayer leaders who would do well to take Levy’s approach to heart.

Levy has a great metaphor for her role in the service: She thinks of herself as a museum docent.

“When you go to a museum, you may need someone to tell you what each piece of art is about. I feel like a docent to the siddur for people who need help accessing the language and ideas in it.”

Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send tips about religious, ritual and spiritual goings-on to [email protected].

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is on the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].