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On Baalei Tefillah Europe 2021 - thoughts after the Graduation Ceremony

This year I have had the privilege to dream up and lead the Baalei Tefillah Europe 2021 programme, which taught participants about different aspects of prayer leadership in our European progressive communities. It’s been a lot of fun working with such a dedicated and talented bunch of students, who were split into two “joyful” classes, named “Sasson” and “Simcha”.

The idea came from a conversation with my friend and then director of the EUPJ Brussels office, Bill Echikson. In Summer 2020, when the pandemic was just beginning, he was telling me about an idea his wife, Anu Ristola, had mentioned to him, namely that more lay leaders needed training for their community, who would be capable of leading services in the absence of a rabbi.

Together we developed the idea and successfully applied for funding. And this past weekend saw the culmination of the programme with the graduation ceremony of twenty-six students, who came from fourteen different countries around the continent, and which can be viewed online here:

Around ninety percent of those who started studying together last April completed the eight-month programme, and those who did not, withdrew for very good reasons. 2021 has been a difficult year for everyone and the BTE participants have not been immune to the need to battle very serious illnesses, difficult family situations and employment-related issues. I wish them all well and acknowledge their dedication and commitment.

Classes with “Sasson” and “Simcha” were held on alternate weeks, and the curriculum was based around getting to grips with the Shabbat services. It was a pleasure to bring in a series of guest lecturers, who included prominent rabbis, cantors and educators in different fields from around Europe and beyond. They helped teach about both theoretical and practical topics, from understanding Nusach and the history of synagogal music in Europe, to voice-training and how to build choral groups and instrumentalists. The participants were challenged to understand who they are as a prayer leader and what they are doing when they pray, as well as consider how the role of progressive communities as both innovators and guardians of their local and national traditions.

A huge variety of topics were covered. For example, Torah cantillation was covered in just two sessions, and led to the majority of the group being able to leyn Torah successfully. Just one class was spent on homiletics, where the students were given some pointers on how to write engaging and energetic Divrei Torah. My own teaching focused on exposing the participants to a wide shelf of Jewish literature, and we together read sources from the Hebrew Bible, Sepatuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Piyyutim, Maimonides and the Shulhan Arukh, as they related to the development of Jewish liturgy and individual prayers. We took a structured approach to the learning of melodies and different musical traditions, underpinned by a treasury of Jewish music. And the participants were expected to read a wide-range of academic articles that related to different aspects of the material covered in class.

As I said, it has been a lot of fun for me, and I think the students enjoyed the classes as well. As one put it after the graduation ceremony,

“It was not only a pleasure but a privilege to go through all this program. I learned so much! It totally surpassed all my expectations. The amount of material given is so big that is a basis for several years work for continued improvement on how to better serve my community as a lay-leader!”

Or as another wrote to me this week,

“I learned so much and I met lovely people that I already miss. Thanks to you I already led one full shaharit service at my synagogue and the plan is to make it once a month. It is very important and moving for me. I appreciate what happened during the last eight months.”

I look forward to seeing how the students go and use what they have learnt now in their own communities, and whether or not some of them go on to be rabbis and cantors remains to be seen. But it’s my firm belief that they can have a big impact as knowledgeable and educated lay leaders as well, and that the Baalei Tefillah Europe 2021 programme has played a part in democratizing and demystifying prayer, opening up the bimah to them as new and educated leaders in their communities. This should have a big impact.

The programme also helped to digitalize prayer leadership for our new era, both in the ways we interacted (on zoom and through the systematic sharing of online resources) and in the formation of a monthly EUPJ minyan, which was held firstly on Friday nights and latterly on Saturday mornings. This gave the opportunity for each participant to lead prayers from the comfort of their own living room, and built an online following from across Europe and around the world. With all the uncertainties of our pandemic-ravaged age, it is good to know that we can come together to pray despite sporadic lockdowns and the inability to travel. However I would very much appreciate the opportunity to voyage to Brussels this coming Shavuot, and finally meet the stars of the Baalei Tefillah Europe 2021 programme face to face at last!

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