Chavurah Zohar Yisrael: Reaching Out to Jews in the 21st Century

A recent report by the Pew Research Center on the spiritual health of Jews in America confirmed a very troubling reality in the world of Conservative Judaism. While it once claimed the affiliation of nearly half of all Jews in the United States, only 18% of Jews today identify themselves as Conservative. In the midst of the frenzy to find ways to explain and rectify the problem, many synagogues are looking at alternative ways of keeping and drawing in Jews to their services.

For a small, but growing Jewish community in the eastern suburbs of Dallas, the news was not surprising. For Chavurah Zohar Yisrael, a traditionally oriented mix of Jews from various ethnic backgrounds serving Jews in Rockwall, Greenville, Richardson, and other Dallas suburbs, the question of how to engage Jews in the 21st century has long been a serious discussion. The Chavurah unlike many chavurot and independent minyanim throughout the United States doesn’t see diminishing Jewish observance or introducing contemporary music into its services as the solution. Zohar Yisrael has found another approach to engage Jews. Rabbi Bejarano-Gutierrez states, “The spiritual richness that many Jews often seek, and apparently feel is lacking in many synagogues today actually resides in the depth of Jewish tradition.”

A key example is the extensive use of zemirot (i.e. traditional songs) for Shabbat. The importance of music is clear in the chavurah’s services. “Before davening mincha on Shabbat, we sing zemirot with a variety of tunes drawn from all over the world. We alternate the tunes every few weeks and select those that are stirring, motivating, and even fun,” says David Ben Yosef. The variation is clear as the zemirot are sung to sounds which vary from Hungarian Chassidic melodies, tunes from Morocco, songs from Yemen, Spain, Holland, Iraq, and beyond.   

Yadid Zamir, another member, states that it is important for people to understand the words that are being sung and to combine this with a melody that stirs the soul. The goal is for people to learn the fundamental aspects of Judaism, why they are important and relevant, and how they can shape are lives on a daily basis. “After singing zemirot for Shabbat, I am not only ready but excited to daven.”

While music is a key component, the Chavurah does stress education and a fidelity to halakhah in the vein of the Union for Traditional Judaism. “Everyone is at different levels, but we are committed to doing our best to familiarize everyone with the classical Jewish tradition embodied in Talmudic and Halakhic works,”notes another member. The environment is unique as can be seen during a break between singing and davening.  One can find a member discussing the laws of cooking on Shabbat, while another member relates the highlights of an article on the Kabbalah center. 

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