“Productive disruption” awaits the congregants of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation on Shabbat, according to Rachel Hersh, the Bethesda synagogue’s cantor.
For seven weeks, nine Adat Shalom members have been developing a collaborative dance to integrate into this week’s Saturday morning service.
“We don’t want prayer to become so rote that it loses its meaning,” Hersh says. “Having something really different like a dance in the service makes people take note … Let’s see what happens when we throw a curve ball.”
This particular curve ball has a long tradition at Adat Shalom. Since 1999, it has set aside one Shabbat a year for a “Prayer Through Movement” service.
“There are a lot of different ways that people engage with the world,” says Hersh, and the project’s adviser. “Nowadays, we talk about book-learners and kinesthetic-learners. I like the idea that we give a place to the kinesthetically inclined in our community.”
Participants prepare for their movement piece in two-hour weekly workshops led by dancer-choreographer Diane Defries. She guides them in exercises that encourages the group to shift “from the world of words to the physical world, the world of the body.”
Breathing and walking exercises evolve into gentle stretches and simple dance warm-ups that Defries uses to ignite the mind-body connection that will soon be used to create movement phrases that will become the synagogue service choreography.
“The people who show up to do this — they are coming to find a deeper connection, or a different kind of connection with whatever they consider prayer to be,” Defries says, noting that in a Reconstructionist synagogue, members have a wide range ideas about prayer, from atheistic to agnostic to traditional.
The inspiration and accompaniment to the movement sequence, is a verse from Shabbat’s Torah reading: “Adonai, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.”
In the workshop, using the words from the passage, the group chants, invents a movement expressing the words, then participants pair off and begin to shape larger movement phrases.
“When I’m here, I’m outside of my body, somewhere else,” says synagogue member Jackie Glass. Dancing on the bima with and for congregants, “It’s like you’re in a larger, bigger place. … You feel connected to everyone in the room and connected to everyone in the universe.”
Glass adds that she is a convert to Judaism from a tradition where there was more dance in worship services, and this service is a way to maintain her connection to dance and prayer.
Malka Kutnick joined Adat Shalom after hearing about the Prayer Through Movement group. The Kensington artist explains, “At our first meeting we do text study and delve into the words and the theme of the text … and the movement comes from that.”
All of the participants who were a part of previous Prayer Through Movement workshops note how their Shabbat prayer experience has been enhanced by seeking spirituality through movement. Kutnick says each time she comes to a passage in the prayer book that she previously danced to, it is as if she is still dancing and connecting more deeply. “It absolutely enriches the experience of the synagogue … It’s what we’re here to do: pray and study Torah,” she says.
Kensington nurse and administrator Ruth Poulin values both the tight-knit group and the spiritual dimension she discovers in both the workshops and the synagogue experience.
“For me, the holiness we receive in the prayer dance permeates everything,” she says. “I believe every time we call on Hashem [God], we receive her. When we sing ‘Adonai,’ we’re filling ourselves up and the movement is a prayer.”