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Jewish Journal

C’mon Get Happy

Why the music-filled, Carlebach-inspired Happy Minyan draws standing-room-only crowds every Shabbat.

by Gaby Wenig

February 6, 2003 | 7:00 pm

On the left side of the mechitza at the Happy Minyan on Pico Boulevard, the men put their hands on each other's shoulders, Chasidic conga-line style, and start tramping around in a circle; on the other side, the women hold hands, but remain stationary, bobbing their knees to the tune and occasionally clapping. On this Shabbat morning, both sides are dancing in their own way until the wordless melody runs out -- and at the Happy Minyan, those "la la las" can go on for a very long time.

The dancing and singing are just two of the reasons why the Happy Minyan services finish at least an hour after every other Orthodox synagogue in the Pico- Robertson neighborhood, and it is also one of the reasons why this "untraditional traditional" minyan -- which draws its inspiration from the teachings and music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) -- regularly has standing-room only crowds that quickly fill up both the small chapel at Beth Jacob Synagogue, where the minyan is held, and the ante chamber outside.

As the first Carlebachian minyan outside of New York and Israel, the Happy Minyan reflects a trend of similar services sprouting up around the world -- the name itself has become a Jewish adjective to describe a certain type of prayer service.

Dubbed "the Pied Piper of Judaism," Carlebach inspired thousands all over the world to get in touch with their Judaism. The renegade Chasidic leader composed hundreds of Jewish melodies, which are sung in synagogues of all denominations, and are so integral to the Jewish experience that many people sing them without realizing they are his tunes.

"I think the reason why the Happy Minyan is so popular is because we serve God with joy," said music manager Stuie Wax, one of the founders of the Minyan in 1995. "For a lot of people, shul is great if it is finished by 11 a.m. But if that is what is great, then something is wrong. If you are looking at your watch while you are davening -- how do you think God feels? Prayer is really about connecting with Hashem, and at the Happy Minyan, it is all about the davening -- not to be yotzei [fulfill an obligation] but to connect and serve God."

Wax, who also speaks regularly at Happy Minyan services, was one of the catalysts for its formation. In 1995, Wax was regularly having between 60 and 100 people at his house for dinner every Friday night, and very often the group would hold spirited, Carlebach-style prayer services, similar to the ones held at the Happy Minyan. When Wax got married that same year, the group caught the eye of Rabbi Abner Weiss, then the rabbi of Beth Jacob, who said, "This is not a wedding, this is a congregation." He encouraged the group to hold weekly services and gave them free space at Beth Jacob to do so.

"With Rabbi Weiss' influence, we made this transition from a grass-roots spiritual happening to a formal minyan," said television producer David Sacks, another founder and teacher of the Happy Minyan.

But there really was nothing formal about the Happy Minyan. Once ensconced in Beth Jacob, the minyan started getting a reputation as an inspired alternative to the staid formality of many Orthodox synagogues. It started attracting both hippie holdovers and buttoned-down business types, and they became known for their singing, their dancing, their clapping and their spirit.

On this Shabbat morning, children run in and out of the curtained mechitza, twisting it around their little bodies, almost pulling it over, eliciting giggles from many of the congregants. Extended singing punctuates the prayers, though there is no set order as to when the group will start singing, and when they will stop. Impromptu speeches -- varying from better prayer tips to thoughts on finding God -- erupt at various points in the service, delivered both from the pulpit, and the main seats.

"There is a very spontaneous, anything-can-happen like atmosphere every Shabbos," Sacks said. "While our rabbi is Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob, there is no real central Happy Minyan rabbi, which allows for this holy anarchy to take place."

While Carlebach's teachings were infused with Chasidic fervor, for him, Judaism was not a strict set of laws, but an inspirational array of spiritual wisdom and stories. He was known for his love of all Jews, and for hugging everyone he came across. Yet, he distanced himself from traditional Judaism by objecting to Orthodoxy's strict separation of men and women, and he also gave private rabbinical ordination to women long before most mainstream Jewish organizations would.

The Happy Minyan follows "Reb Shlomo's" teachings, but they adhere to traditional halacha, maintaining a separation between the sexes. The group took offense at an article recently published in The Journal, which implied that prayers at the Happy Minyan did not follow a set order for prayer.

"We are very serious about the Torah," Sacks said. "Actually, we are seriously happy about keeping the Torah."

With more than 60 people attending each Shabbat, the Happy Minyan has practically outgrown its small space at Beth Jacob, and is now looking for its own building in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

The Happy Minyan does sell memberships, but does not insist that people buy them, because membership sales -- or any kind of synagogue enforced financial obligations -- run counter to the Happy Minyan's philosophy of giving every Jew a place to pray. Instead of memberships, the minyan relies on private donations to fund itself.

"People think that organized Judaism is an inherently unspiritual approach to life," Sacks said. "The beauty of the Happy Minyan is that we sing, dance and get excited about loving God and are able to have a Torah true service, that breaks all those stereotypes."  

Happy Minyan services are held Friday night and Saturday morning downstairs at Congregation Beth Jacob, 9030 West Olympic Blvd. For more information on The Happy Minyan, call (310) 285-7777; or visit www.happyminyan.org.

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