Video by Nick Clemens.
As students and members of the surrounding Charlotte area slowly filed into the Multipurpose Room of the Student Union, they sat in the seats farthest away from the husband and wife, UNC Charlotte faculty duo. As the front remains empty, Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede beckons to those on the outskirts, urging them into the front seats, asking them to join in the community.
And so began the Love Song Shabbat Service, an event co-sponsored by the Multiculutral Resource Center, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Hillel and Temple Or Olam, on Friday, Sept. 5, meant to embrace different cultures and celebrate the Jewish Shabbat.
The blended congregation of students, parents, university staff and members of Thiede’s temple filled the room, ultimately taking most of the seats. At the front of the room, Rabbi Thiede, professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies, and her husband Ralf Thiede, who also teaches at the university as an associate professor of English, warm up on guitar and drums, respectively.
Rabbi Thiede starts the service, as the last of the guests trickle in and fill the remaining seats. Throughout the event, Rabbi Thiede leads the congregation through seven stages of the traditional Jewish Shabbat, substituting the prayers for classic songs whose meanings matched the prayer, ranging from “Feeling Groovy” by Simon and Garfunkel to “Love is All You Need” by The Beatles.
Throughout the hour and a half service peppered with jokes and love for humankind, Rabbi Thiede encouraged the congregants to sing along, dance, clap, laugh, interact with one another and embrace the love and sense of unity that had brought them all together that evening regardless of their religious or spiritual beliefs. The service ended with a blessing over bread and grape juice to symbolize wine, and a blessing over the children in attendance.
“Mostly I think my vision was for participation, for people to engage and to feel like they were a part of the service and not simply observing. I wanted people to have on some level some sense of spiritual presence and to feel that they were welcomed into the space and not watching the performance,” said Rabbi Thiede after the event. “Saint Augustine, if I can quote a good Christian, said, ‘To sing is to pray twice,’ and I’ve always loved that idea. With your voice and with your words you manage to pray, and so people were singing with me. Somebody was praying with me, so I wasn’t alone, and that was great.”
Jonathan Upham, Hillel president and a senior accounting and finance double major at the university, hopes the event will become an annual event that Hillel will collaborate on.
“As a Jew, this was very different from any other Jewish service I’ve been to, but I think it did a really good job of explaining to a person who’s probably not familiar with Jewish prayer the intent behind Jewish prayer,” said Upham. “The main focus and motivation behind a lot of those songs really did correlate with the motivation and intent behind many Jewish prayers.”
The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, which falls under the Multicultural Resource Center, jumped into the event with open arms, looking for an event that would allow them to connect with students and start the semester off strong.
“We felt that this would be a great way to start the fall semester and give students an opportunity to go to a service that they may not have gone to in the past,” said Kimberly Turner, director of the Multicultural Resource Center. “When Rabbi Thiede talked in between the different areas and was able to explain what it was, what it meant and was able to explain that back to how it related on our spiritual journey, I was able to see the overlap with my beliefs.”
Throughout the event, through the laughs, the love, the unrelenting acceptance of other faiths and the understanding that not everyone in attendance was familiar with traditional Shabbat services, Rabbi Thiede and all who partnered on the event created a welcoming atmosphere. The blended congregation, who represented an eclectic mix of various ages, races and religious persuasions, came together for that short time as a unified group.
“Can you imagine what would happen, just imagine for a second, if the entire world took a Shabbat?” asks Rabbi Thiede rhetorically during the service. “Twenty-four hours of peace, 24 hours of love, 24 hours of connectivity to the human beings that surround us.”
Photos by Chris Crews.