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How to Craft a New Worship Style in Brazil

How to Craft a New Worship Style in Brazil

The familiar refrain of the Hashkiveinu prayer, with music composed by Craig Taubman, surprised me, coming as it did in the midst of the traditional mincha/ma’ariv (afternoon/evening) service at Congregacao Israelita Paulista (CIP) – called “Tzipi” by the locals – in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Hashkiveinu, Adonai Eloheinu, l’shalom
Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace…

Only after more chanting did we sing the rest of the melody:

Ushmor tzeiteinu uvo-einu
Guard our going and our return…

The daily mincha/ma’ariv service at CIP was being led by the congregation’s cantor, Alexandre Edelstein, who also was my host and colleague during my four-day visit in June to Brazil as part of LaShir B’Nefesh, a program that brings together soloists, musicians, and cantors of Brazilian, and occasionally Argentinian, Reform communities to share repertoire, network, and support one another in their work. I was in Sao Paulo to present a master class on strategies to engage the congregational voice – something the Latin American communities, both leaders and worshipers, are interested in developing.

Much about Jewish life was familiar to me in Sao Paulo. As in North America, there are challenges around diverse communities that want different things from prayer, complicated relationships between professional and lay leaders, and small, nimble minyanim competing with larger, more traditional congregations.

The key difference I observed is one I have seen elsewhere: Progressive communities are a minority within a minority everywhere but in North America. In other words, progressive or Reform Jews in Brazil are not only part of a Jewish minority, but also a minority within the Jewish world, which is dominated by Orthodox sects, including Chabad. As a result, issues of conversion and marriage are controlled by the traditional communities and their rabbis, making creativity and being “Reform” a significant challenge. The progressive community does not have the autonomy over Jewish ritual that we take for granted in North America; it is a luxury in Brazil.

Oren Boljover, a Latin American cantor, ethnomusicologist, and scholar at LaShir B’Nefesh, in his session about the challenge of the liberal music and worship culture, reminded participants that the Jews who immigrated to Brazil in the 19th and 20th centuries were predominantly Sephardic (from the Middle East and Iberia), including large waves of North African Jews in the 1950s. Eastern European Jews who came to Brazil and other South American countries were fleeing pogroms and World War II. For the most part, these immigrants simply tried to recreate their home cultures and worship styles in their new country.

Challenging the group, he said, “We must better ourselves. We must know Judaism, and know t’filah (prayer),” urging participants to do more than mirror the local Brazilian/Argentinian sound. Boljover appealed to the group to be open to new composers and new rhythms, and to create a uniquely Brazilian Jewish music and worship style. Rather than throwing out the “old” songs, he suggests balancing them with sounds that belong to the people, ensuring the community’s members still recognize themselves within the service. He is hopeful that Brazil’s liberal Jewish community will, like a seed, begin to grow – and “grow up.” 

These questions of change, or what we might lose in order to gain, were evident throughout my time with the Brazilian progressive community in Sao Paulo. Using worship and music as a bridge, the lay and professional leaders I met are committed to connecting their communities with a rich Jewish life beyond what they already know. They are creating a Latin American progressive Judaism that has roots in our tradition and their own immigrant past, as well as a foot in the future. I look forward to continuing to bear witness to the amazing, ongoing work within this extraordinary community.

Cantor Rosalie Will is the URJ’s director of worship. She previously served as the cantor at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD.

Cantor Rosalie Will
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