“Our lives are on a scale – except this scale has three parts to it,” said Rabbi Richard Steinberg of Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’a lot in his Yom Kippur sermon. “One on base plate lies our mind, on another our body and on the third our soul. The question is: are those three parts of us in balance? For redemption to come to our lives, this scale must be in balance, and it is important not tip too far to one side or the other.”
After conducting a focus group to determine what people were feeling in their lives at this particular time, the congregation decided on the L’Chaim Project: Balance of Mind, Body, and Soul as its programmatic thrust this year. According to Steinberg, who has served the congregation for 10 years, “Judaism implores us to focus our energy on each aspect of mind, body, and soul individually and then together as a collective.”
In Steinberg’s words, “A balanced person is one who uses his mind to expand his knowledge of the world in which he lives. Secondly, a balanced person is one who treats his or her body as the house of God which gives home to the mind and soul. And finally, a well balanced individual has a spiritual depth by which he is true to his best self.”
The programs include support groups, classes, lectures, retreats, and projects that help to create a balance of mind, body, and soul. For instance, Debbie Friedman, the renowned recording artist of spiritual Jewish family music, will lead a Shabbat service along with the rabbis (Steinberg and Rabbi Craig Lewis) and cantor (Arie Shikler) at Shir Ha-Ma’a lot on Friday, November 12, at 7:30 p.m. Sponsored and underwritten by the Roslyn and Joseph Baim Foundation, the service features Friedman’s prayerful melodies and songs.
“Debbie Friedman’s body of work is based on how Judaism can help you heal and how powerful Judaism can be in our lives,” Steinberg explained. “It is said that you gain your second soul on Shabbat, and who can demonstrate that better than Debbie Friedman?”
During her career, Friedman, a composer, singer, and recording artist, has released more than 20 albums and performed in concerts at Carnegie Hall and around the world. Credited with creating a whole new genre of contemporary, accessible Jewish music, Friedman now teaches at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. She has taken the prayers, teachings, and melodies of the ancient Jewish texts and set them to contemporary music.
Throughout the year the congregation will have programs about emotional, physical, and spiritual health. In terms of emotional health there will be six support groups run by licensed therapists who are volunteering their time: bereavement, chronic illness, women’s support group, men’s spirituality workshop, teen support group, and parenting. There is also the ongoing Brit Tikvah support group for parents of children with special needs. Groups are open to all congregants, and people can join more than one.
“These groups are powerful for people,” Steinberg said. “The congregation should be the home where you can talk about the issues that affect your life and talk to others to help you.”
Shir Ha-Ma’a lot will approach physical health by means of a lecture series on shalom in the home, heart health, memory, genetics, and laughter. On November 9 parents and teens will get together at an evening with Beit T’shuvah of Los Angeles, a residential treatment center for addiction and a full-service congregation, to enjoy a performance by the group and engage in a discussion about addiction and its effect on everyone in the family.
Members of the congregation and other experts will conduct a workshop series. It will include a weekly meditation workshop, a soul food workshop with Rabbi Ze’ev Harari, a health fair workshop, a yoga flow workshop, and a couple’s retreat.
“Judaism has to be compelling,” Steinberg said. “There has to be a reason why Judaism brings your life together. You have to feel better when you leave the synagogue than when you walked in. This programming is designed to show the impact that Judaism can have on your daily life.”
Part of that impact comes through music, and Cantor Arie Shikler is incorporating the power of healing into Friday Night Live services throughout the year. Themes include “Body and Soul” on November 26, “Positive Attitude” on January 28, “Kindness Heals” on February 25, “the Soul Is Yours” on March 25, “Songs of Praise, Halleluyah” on May 27, and “Doctor God” on June 24. A special cantor’s concert in support of Friday Night Live on May 7 will also commemorate Shikler’s 36 years as cantor at Shir Ha-Ma’a lot.
“He is an institution here, but at the same time, he’s always developing and changing,” Steinberg said of Shikler. “There’s always something new, interesting, and uplifting. He sings with his voice and guitar but also with his heart and smile.”
Not only does Shikler do research and learn and perform music; he runs a comprehensive music program that includes a youth choir, an adult choir, a teen band of 15 musicians, and a band of congregational musicians. In addition, he does Bar and Bat Mitzvah training. Friday Night Live, and an annual concert.
In assessing the L’Chaim Project thus far and the congregation as a whole, Steinberg said, “The community has become rich in spirit and activity. Judaism is relevant to the lives of the congregants.”