June 28, 2011
Friday Night Live’s Road to the Ford
A bona fide institution in Los Angeles’ Jewish community, Friday Night Live is one of the biggest Shabbat celebrations in town. Blending the religious with the musical and offering an environment conducive to socializing, Sinai Temple’s monthly service regularly attracts up to 1,000 people.
This month, Friday Night Live celebrates its 13th birthday — its “bar mitzvah” — with an already sold-out Shabbat service July 8 at the Ford Amphitheatre, the first time Friday Night Live will be held outside Sinai Temple.
The open-air Ford, located in the Hollywood Hills’ Cahuenga Pass, just north of and across the 101 Freeway from the Hollywood Bowl, is an unusual location for a Shabbat service: It was once the site of passion plays and nowadays is known for rock concerts, dance performances and other secular entertainment.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing that we’re able to do something significant to celebrate the anniversary of Friday Night Live,” said Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, who co-created the service with musician Craig Taubman. “I think it will be a tremendous experience.” It was Taubman who, because of his love of the outdoors, came up with the idea to celebrate the anniversary at the Ford.
“We’ve got to be outside to see the stars to welcome Shabbat,” Taubman said.
The evening, like all Shabbat services, was offered free to all who wish to attend, though reservations were required and went quickly because of limited space. As with all Friday Night Live services, you don’t have to be a member of Sinai to attend — everyone is encouraged to join a synagogue, but not required to join Sinai. The services also have a history of prominent guest speakers — from Elie Wiesel to the Rev. Rick Warren to Hollywood producers — and offer diverse musicians, with everything from hip-hop to folk to gospel-leaning sounds. And, perhaps what makes the experience most distinctive — it lasts for only one hour.
Friday Night Live, in short, helped changed the rules of what Shabbat worship can be.
In the tradition of the late Debbie Friedman, who got her start at Jewish summer camps by incorporating contemporary melodies into Jewish prayers, as well as Shlomo Carlebach, who sang and composed soulful renditions of prayers, Friday Night Live is centered on the idea that a Shabbat service can be musical and modern, Taubman said.
It got its start when Wolpe approached Taubman, who at the time made children’s music, and asked him to help create a musical Shabbat service that could attract young professionals.
“He thought that it was an incredibly underserved population,” Taubman said, “and back then, it really was.”
Taubman said he wanted the service to be open to all ages, but Wolpe insisted, so they set out to create a service that would be more concise — to this day, Wolpe limits his sermons to approximately six to seven minutes — and more contemporary than other services offered at that time, while staying true to liturgy of a Conservative Shabbat service. The idea was that it would also be a place for people to meet and — hopefully — date.
It was an immediate hit.
“The expectations were nonexistent, and we had 300 people” at the first service, Taubman said.
“The second time, there [were] 600,” Wolpe recalled.
Ted and Hedy Orden, Holocaust survivors, offered financial support, and their names continue to appear wherever Friday Night Live is advertised, which enabled Friday Night Live to pay guest musicians.
The Ordens, who live in West Los Angeles and are members of Sinai Temple, “believe in the program, and they like the audience it was targeting,” said the Ordens’ son-in-law, Tom Flesh.
During its early years, age restrictions weren’t absolute but were understood; about six years ago, the decision was made to open it up to other ages.
“I was, essentially, not even invited to my own party,” said Taubman, 53. “I could lead the party, but I wasn’t invited to the party. I didn’t feel comfortable. So we opened it up.”
To fill the gap, Sinai created ATID, a young- professionals-only organization, which has grown steadily over the years and holds events following services, with cocktails and performances by bands.
At its peak, around four years ago, Friday Night Live at Sinai drew 1,500 people.
Taubman believes the decrease in attendance to the current 1,000 is actually a sign of the concept’s success. He points to other area synagogues, including Temple Emanuel, IKAR and Valley Beth Shalom, as having created similar musical Shabbat services.
“It’s the highest form of flattery,” Taubman said.
Nevertheless, there are critics.
“A lot of people object to the idea that you play musical instruments on Shabbat, that you make the service so that it intertwines popular music with traditional melodies,” Wolpe said, adding that some think of it “as a corruption of what is traditional, of what is Shabbat.”
But, he added, “I would say the people who don’t like it by now, they stopped telling us they don’t like it.”
Rick Lupert, a graphics and Web designer and a music instructor at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, has gone to Friday Night Live for 10 years. He said Taubman makes sure that everyone participates, so that it is more a religious service than it is a performance.
Jewish musicians Michelle Citrin, Saul Kaye and Noa Dori will participate in the service at the Ford, joining Wolpe, Taubman and Taubman’s band, and performing their original songs prior to the service.
Birthright NEXT and the Jewish Community Foundation are sponsors, and ATID will offer a wine garden for young professionals at the venue before the evening begins. Plus, people can bring their own food — food will also be for sale at the event— and have picnics.
“I didn’t imagine, when we first started this, that it would still be going strong after 13 years,” Wolpe said. “Craig and I are always thinking about it, trying to renew and reinvent it. Part of where it’s going from here … my sense is, the core of it, the music and the message, is that won’t change any more than traditional services change. Until the personnel change.”
Wolpe and Taubman both agree that they can’t lead the service forever and are considering successors. “I don’t want to be the 80-year-old Friday Night Live rabbi, walking around with the ear trumpet, trying to hear what people are saying,” Wolpe said. “I’m not sure that’s a fetching image.”
But whatever the transition, Taubman said, “I think it would still be Friday Night Live.”
To reserve tickets to the July 8 service, visit http://craignco.com or http://fordtheatres.org.