Cultivating Confidence through the Shlichei Tzibur Prayer Leadership Program

A WRJ YES Fund Impact Story
May 31, 2023Cantor Sheila Nesis

On Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings, when members of the Shlichei Tzibur Prayer Leadership program meet for virtual classes, individuals get to practice leading a prayer, a song, a psalm, or a kavanah (intention) of their choice. For the more seasoned prayer leaders, this is an opportunity to try something different from what they normally do when they help with services at their local shul. It’s also an opportunity for people new to prayer leadership to practice things like welcoming people at the beginning of a service. We do this at the beginning and end of each class, and it’s one of the highlights. It forms a safe space where we hold each other with love and support, so cohort members can work on the skills and content they need to serve small communities in the New England region. Participants encourage each other to continue to do something that, although natural for some, is like climbing a mountain for others. 

During one recent class, it was Barbara’s turn to share. She chose to lead the liturgy for Kriat HaTorah, the prayers for the Reading of the Torah. Barbara sang Ein Kamocha, followed by Av Harachamim, Vay’hi Binsoa, Ki Mitzion, and Beih Ana Racheitz. Once she was done, her fellow cohort members showered her with loving words of support and validation for what she had just done. But one comment was eye-opening to me: Eve unmuted herself and said: “Wow! That was really good. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a woman lead that part of the service. Usually, if our prayer leader doesn’t do it, we have a core group of men that would take on the Torah service.” 

The Shlichei Tzibur Prayer Leader training is an initiative of The Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Supported by the YES Fund, the program empowers individuals to lead Friday evening and Shacharit services, song circles, and Shiva visits at their home congregations. The program engages lay leaders from Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire communities. Most of these communities have a single clergy serving their local synagogues, and some are without full-time clergy. The program’s success aligns with WRJ and WUPJ’s shared values of empowering women. While the class is open to all, in the two years this course has been offered, we’ve seen primarily women participating as they step up and are inspired to claim their own space and leadership positions in their communities.

The Shlichei Tzibur Prayer Leadership program began in 2021 as a one-cohort class for participants in Maine. The YES Fund grant from WRJ has been instrumental in allowing us to extend the program to other New England states, increasing enrollment and maximizing the impact of this experience. Thanks to our partners, we can continue offering this program in 2023, running two simultaneous cohorts that meet virtually and in person.

We align with the Movement’s fundamental values and goals: we work with progressive communities of all denominations and aim to understand who they are, empowering them to nurture their unique ecosystems. We celebrate their uniqueness and strive to offer cohort members the tools to create prayer experiences that suit their members and allow them to experiment together. 

This May, I traveled to Jerusalem to gather with hundreds of Jews, including WRJ members, at the WUPJ Connections conference. I was excited to engage in more conversations about ways to nurture and elevate the role of those who, by desire or out of need, step into serving their home communities. They do this not as professional clergy but out of a similar call: a deep love and commitment to keeping Jewish communities around the globe alive.

And from June 9-11, about 300 Jews statewide will gather for the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in Waterville, Maine. The conference is one of the highlights of Jewish life in Maine and a cornerstone program of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. There, Barbara, Eve, and many other members of the Shlichei Tzibur program will lead Friday evening and Shabbat services for this community-wide celebration. Women like Eve and Barbara are the backbone that allows Jewish life in small towns throughout the globe to continue not only to exist but to thrive. 

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