For their last time, after 16 years of collaboration, Rabbi David Wolpe and singer/songwriter Craig Taubman led the lively musical Shabbat service at Sinai Temple known as Friday Night Live to a packed sanctuary on the evening of June 13.
They did not go out quietly.
“This is our farewell tour,” Wolpe announced with a smile during his sermon, and the rock-and-roll-themed allusion seemed more than appropriate, given Taubman’s band of multiple guitarists and a drummer, which was surrounded by clusters of candles lighting up the bimah in a reddish glow, enlivening Taubman’s liturgical songs with soloists’ heroics.
The high-energy music is, of course, what the Ted and Hedy Orden and Family Friday Night Live (FNL) service is all about.
Sixteen years ago, Wolpe and Taubman envisioned the service as a shorter, edgier, more entertaining presentation of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, hoping to attract more young professionals.
And while the popularity of the service has grown, so, too, has the range of ages attending, accounting for the many older folks in the audience for the finale. Nevertheless, the rock format has endured.
This was their 205th Friday Night Live, Taubman said, and Wolpe and Taubman turned it up, to quote the heavy-metal mockumentary “Spinal Tap,” to eleven. The service included rap, poetry (see Rick Lupert’s “The End of An Era,” which was read at the service) and humor throughout.
It was a joyful and bittersweet evening.
Midway through the service, local Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz appeared on the bimah, joining Taubman’s band, as well as Sinai Temple Cantor Marcus Feldman and others.
Throughout the night, the audience repeatedly rose to its feet — and not just for prayer — often bursting into applause and clapping to the music. The tone was playful, and at one point, Taubman teased attendees, incredulous at how even after all of these years, they still could not keep the beat.
Just as the music has been essential to the success of FNL, so, too, was the relationship between Wolpe and Taubman. The pair did not know each other well prior to working on FNL, but today they are friends, Wolpe told the Journal in an interview.
Indeed, the relationship has not been without its strains, Wolpe also acknowledged during his sermon, yet he said his partnership with Taubman has taught him how working with someone with whom you sometimes disagree is a “really good thing.”
“Friday Night Live is a result of that,” he said.
At the outset, Wolpe was focused on young professionals. When he and Taubman held a lunch meeting more than 15 years ago, Taubman, then a writer of children’s music at Disney, suggested that the service should be for kids.
Taubman also wanted to write all new music. Wolpe wasn’t sure about that idea.
Wolpe got his way on the first. He relented on the latter, which is a good thing. Anyone who’s been to FNL knows how much the service’s broad appeal owes to Taubman’s accessible melodies. Just ask the other synagogues and summer camps around the world that have adopted his music for their own worship.
FNL may have reached its audience peak around 2007. At that time, more than 1,000 people were showing up for the service, which, every month, has preceded a singles’ party organized by Sinai’s young professionals group ATID.
Some highlights over the years have included special guests, including author Eli Wiesel, Pastor Rick Warren and even pop impresario Ryan Seacrest.
In recent years, attendance has dropped off. Approximately 300 people attended the April and May FNL services this year.
The service had also veered from its original mission of serving and building Jewish identity in 20- and 30-somethings: All ages are welcome in the pews at FNL.
The tradition will continue under new leadership, refocusing on engaging young adults. The mantle has been passed to Sinai Temple Rabbis Nicole Guzik and Jason Fruithandler; as well as Rabbi Erez Sherman, Guzik’s husband, who joins Sinai Temple as a clergy member in July. Feldman and Sinai millennial director Matt Baram also will be part of the team leading the services.
They say it will be an entirely new incarnation of FNL, to be unveiled at Sinai in October. It will be, Guzik said in an interview, “for millennials, by millennials and about millennials.”
Last Friday, despite the importance that the organized Jewish community often places on looking forward, Wolpe and Taubman were openly nostalgic and sentimental.
And if anyone has earned the right, it’s these two.
They thanked family and friends for their support over the years and gave a shout-out to those who have funded the service from the beginning. They also spotlighted groups such as Judaism by Choice, whose members occupied several rows in the sanctuary and who have regularly attended FNL services.
As any bandleader should, Taubman thanked each of his musicians. At one point, he ventured into the crowd and walked toward his wife. She responded by blowing kisses at him. He also asked his son, Noah, to stand and to wave to everyone.
The community thanked Wolpe and Taubman in return. Late in the evening, Guzik, Fruithandler and Sherman presented the FNL co-creators each with an inscribed stool, representing the informal seating used for the occasions.
Meanwhile, Wolpe’s art of connecting biblical text with the concerns of the day — in this case, bidding farewell to something that has been a regular part of his life for so long — shone through. During his sermon, he likened himself to the aged Esau, who was stunned to tears upon being reunited with his twin, Jacob, after so many years.
Seeing Jacob’s face was a reminder of how many years had passed.
Wolpe compared Esau’s reaction to how he, himself, felt at seeing the faces of people — those who have been supporting the FNL dream since its beginning — in the crowd. Their faces illustrate how many years have passed since FNL began.
Those years, Wolpe said from the bimah, have been good.