Synagogue Tries Out Slimmed-Down Services


(Thursday, February 1, 2007 5:49 AM EST)

Devoting three hours each week to a Saturday religious service might seem daunting to some practicing Jews.

So, in an effort to address this issue, Congregation Etz Hayim, a conservative Jewish congregation located on Arlington Boulevard, recently pared down its Saturday Shabbat services from around three hours to two.

“We wanted to make the service more accessible to everyone,” said Etz Hayim's rabbi, Lia Bass. “By having a more condensed service, people with little knowledge of Judaism have less to grapple with, and people with a lot of knowledge still will be doing everything they need to do.”

Shabbat is the weekly day of rest in the Jewish tradition, which starts before sundown on Friday and lasts until after nightfall on Saturday. It is observed differently according to followers' levels of involvement in Judaism.

The primary way Etz Hayim shortened its Saturday service was by cutting the repetition of a number of prayers and by urging service leaders to sing faster. Since fall last year, the service starts at 10 a.m., instead of 9 a.m., and lasts until noon.

Bass, who likes to hold dialogues with the congregation during the service, has limited discussion time to 10 to 15 minutes, sometimes omitting it if necessary. But she said she does not see this as a particularly negative change, because having a time limit focuses the discussion much more.

Etz Hayim's education director, Michelle Weiss has observed that the 4th- through 7th-grade students, who are in the synagogue's congregational school and are required to attend the Saturday service, have responded well to the change.

“On top of students who meet the attendance requirement, there are students who have surpassed it,” Weiss said. “They come with their parents and enjoy it. They get a Jewish experience they might not get in their everyday lives.”

So far, the congregational response also has been positive.

“The idea was to draw new bodies to the door but minimize the impact on those who were already coming,” said the synagogue's vice president of religious affairs, Mike Jacobs. “Most of the regulars have been happy with the changes.”

Currently, Etz Hayim is a congregation of about 180 families, and the Saturday service attracts about 30 followers. Bass is optimistic that the shortened service will result in more attendance. She also hopes the baby-sitting that is offered during the two hours of worship will bring more people into the synagogue.

“Truthfully, I think the services are more attractive,” Bass said. “I'm very happy and very excited about the possibilities that this change will bring to us.”

Rabbi Lia Bass of Congregation Etz Hayim.

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