Encino’s Cantor Judy Greenfeld reaches out to the unaffiliated

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rachelhellerBY RACHEL HELLER

Of all the reasons why people lose their faith, there are few Cantor Judy Greenfeld doesn’t understand.

At age 16, Greenfeld’s father was held up outside a theater and shot to death. The youngest of five children growing up in suburban Ohio, Greenfeld said she was, for a long time, “angry with God.”

“Overnight, my life changed,” she recalled recently, lighting a candle in her home office in Encino. “It made me question everything; it turned my world upside-down.”

Cantor Judy Greenfield and Torah School students.

Cantor Judy Greenfield and Torah School students.

Greenfeld found little comfort at synagogue, where she found services “boring” and “a burden.” It would be decades before she decided to explore Judaism again, but this time, she approached her faith from a spiritual angle that sparked a fervor she’d never felt before. Greenfeld became ordained as a cantor and three years ago founded the Nachshon Minyan, an alternative religious community geared toward unaffiliated Jews who are — as Greenfeld was — for something more.

“My goal is to reach out to people who have been disillusioned — the unaffiliated, and the un’fulfill’iated,” she said. “I know that feeling of sitting in those giant rooms on the holidays and desperately looking in the prayer book for something to catch onto. A lot of Jews are turned off; they’re missing that sense of connection in these big congregations. When you don’t feel like you matter, the service just leaves you cold.”

Cantor Judy Greenfield

Cantor Judy Greenfield says her goal is to reach out to people who have been disillusioned — the unaffiliated, and the un’fulfill’iated.

Greenfeld, a former professional dancer, discards a surprising number of traditional synagogue trimmings. There’s no permanent building, no haftarah (meaning a much shorter service), and — oh yeah — no rabbi.

Instead of having one religious figure give the sermons at her monthly Shabbat services, held at the Baha’i Cultural Center in Encino, Greenfeld invites activists and community leaders to speak about faith and social justice. On Yom Kippur this year, for example, the Minyan will host teacher Erin Gruwell, leader of the Freedom Writers high school diary project, dramatized in the 2007 film of the same name. Past speakers have included educator Sandra Roberts of the “Paper Clips” Holocaust memorial project; Dr. Judea Pearl, father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl and head of the Daniel Pearl Foundation; and Rabbi Capers Funnye, an African American rabbi and first cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama.

In the Nachshon Minyan’s devoted community of 150 members, a sense of friendly informality pervades activities, which include holiday celebrations, a women’s Torah-study group, Torah school for grade-school kids, and life cycle services, such as weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Her services are filled with music as she leads on the guitar and often distributes various hand-held percussion instruments to those in attendance to participate.  Greenfeld said the Minyan has built a loyal following and inspired many participants to embrace Judaism for the first time.

Leading the Nachshon Minyan choir

Leading the Nachshon Minyan choir

That was the case for Tarzana resident Laura Drexler, who first heard about the Nachshon Minyan three years ago. Drexler, who never had a bat mitzvah and remembered synagogue services when she was young as “bland and meaningless,” initially rejected a friend’s offer to join Greenfeld’s Torah study group.

“I said, ‘No way, that’s not for me; I’m not a religious person, I’ve never been interested in that,’” Drexler, an educational therapist, recalled. But when she finally gave in and went to a class, she got hooked. “There was something about Judy and the way she presented the material that almost made me feel like I was hearing it for the first time. She breaks it down and makes it modern and relevant. Since I started I’ve been growing and learning and experiencing Jewish life in a completely different way.”

This year, Greenfeld will hold Friday night and Saturday morning services on alternating months, with all Friday night services planned by her Torah school students. Other events on the Nachshon Minyan schedule include a family retreat, a Tu B’shevat tree planting, a Passover cooking class and Shabbat under the stars.

At all services, participants follow along in an alternative prayer book Greenfeld compiled herself, with thorough English translations and transliterations. This way, newcomers don’t have to feel intimidated if they don’t know the Hebrew.

As Greenfeld says, “God knows all of these languages.”

Services are held at the Bahai Center, 4830 Genesta Avenue,  Encino, Ca. 91346. For more information about attending High Holiday services, visit www.nachshonminyan.org or call (818) 789-7314

High Holiday Calendar

Friday, September 18, 7:30 pm — Rosh Hashana Evening Service

Saturday, September 19, 9:30 am — Rosh Hashana Day Service; Taschlich at the Beach 5 pm

Sunday, September 27, 7:30 pm — Kol Nidre Service, Speaker Erin Gruwell,  Real Life Freedom Writer

Monday, September 28, 9:30 am — Yom Kippur Day Service; Yizkor, Neila  5 pm

Rachel Heller is a Sherman Oaks-based freelance writer and grammatical stickler whose work has appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, the Sun Community Newspapers and the Los Feliz Ledger. She is a graduate of Boston University and an incoming graduate student at USC. She shudders at misspellings of “then” and “than,” and can subsist for weeks at a time on Menchie’s frozen yogurt.

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About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.

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