Shabbat and the Gospel Choir

There is exactly one day of the year when I make sure I get my ass to temple, and it’s not the day you’re thinking. Yom Kippur is too obvious and Rosh Hashanah is too mundane. But every year I go for the service commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr., the night where my synagogue acknowledges the fellowship between the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and the Jewish people that marched with them, and the parallel challenges that both groups have historically faced. That’s also the night when a gospel choir literally graces us with its presence, sending out the most gorgeous melodies I have ever heard into my prayer space, and a guest speaker, usually an African-American preacher, comes to restore my faith in humanity, pontificating and alliterating his way through touching words of partnership. And every single year, after sweating it out on the bima, I imagine the rabbis go home and review their resumes.

The comparison happening in the room is palpable. After a rousing gospel hymn led by the 70 exceptional singers from a local Baptist congregation and their worship band, you expect us to sing “L’cha Dodi” with a straight face? If this were a battle of the bands, we wouldn’t have a fighting chance. You know that scene from Keeping the Faith?

It’s a little like that. And after a sermon by a trained preacher—an incredibly talented Methodist bishop this year—you assume we would hang on the rabbi’s every word? If you were to listen between the lines, you would actually hear him saying, “This is me trying to bring my A-game. Please be kind.” It’s a night that keeps the synagogue in check.

This past Friday, as I sat in the pews with my heart practically soaring out of my chest in time with the choir, I found myself trying to put this all into perspective. I flinched at the first mention of Jesus in the music, and I knew that not all Christians are on board with the bishop’s hint that they will share their eschatological destination with us Jews. I knew exactly what was going on, I am satisfied with my religious preferences, and yet I was moved by the spirit in the room.

Jessica Miller graduated from Barnard College in 2009 with a BA in religion, and is psyched to finally have an answer to the question, “so what does one do with a religion major?” Her writing has appeared on Jewcy, Mashable, and the Huffington Post.  In her spare time she can be found sailing, playing music, and blogging about boomerangs.