Every so often, Reform congregations in the Baltimore area will come together for a joint Shabbat service in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism.
On Jan. 28, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation hosted Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Bolton Street Synagogue for one of these joint Shabbat services. The clergy from the three congregations shared a bima and led a joint congregation in worship. Attendees participated in person and through Zoom.
“Every Friday night we host worship services,” said Cantor Alexandra Fox, who joined Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation in July of last year. “It’s my understanding that the joint service happens once or twice a year … in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism. And it was all three Reform congregations in the greater Baltimore area.
“We worked together, joined together and led a service for all three of our congregations,” Fox continued. “It was six clergy on the bima together.”
The responsibility of hosting the joint service typically rotates between the participating synagogues, Fox explained. As HSOSC is still a relatively new synagogue, following the 2019 merger of Har Sinai Congregation and Temple Oheb Shalom, this was the first time HSOSC had hosted the joint service. It was also the first time she or Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi had personally experienced the joint service.
Planning for the joint service began around late November of last year, Fox said. The early discussions focused heavily on what the three congregations wished to ultimately achieve through the joint service, namely building bridges and joining together as one.
Customarily, these events are attended by a guest from the URJ, Fox said, and the URJ’s Cantor Rosalie Will joined the service this year, delivering the sermon as a guest speaker. As the visiting guest was a cantor, a special emphasis was placed on the service’s musical component. This involved Fox, Will and BHC’s Cantor Ben Ellerin meeting several times to discuss their goals for the service.
“Because our visiting guest was a cantor, we really played up the music a lot,” Fox said. “One of the biggest differences is that there were so many voices on the bima … it allowed the three cantors to really harmonize and sing a lot of beautiful things that are not possible to execute in the same way with just one singer, one cantor.”
Fox also credited HSOSC’s accompanist, Paul Binko, who plays the piano and organ, for his contributions to the service.
“We have a beautiful pipe organ in our sanctuary, and it was really important to Cantor Will and Cantor Ellerin and I to include the organ in the service, as well as piano,” Fox said. “So we gave Paul a big task, and we were all really grateful for his partnership in helping to bring the music to life.”
Online attendance of the service was particularly good, Fox said. She estimated that as many as 300 people joined over Zoom. She also noted that about 40 people joined in person, which was particularly high considering the ongoing pandemic and the fact that a snowstorm was rolling through on that evening. Around 75% of the in-person audience was made up of HSOSC members, Fox estimated.
Social distancing measures for the in-person service included blocking off every other row and having at least three empty seats between each pod, Fox said. Additionally, all attendees had to be fully vaccinated.
“As Jews, we are a minority, and as Reform Jews we’re an even smaller group,” Fox said. “And we share something really unique as Jews. We share not only our language, and our liturgy, and our Bible, our Torah, but we also share a common companionship and a common desire to want to surround ourselves with other Jews when times are appropriate.”