A half-hour before services were scheduled to begin, the lobby of Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch was packed with eager worshipers, with as many as 1,400 expected. The 30-plus member Unity Choir of First African Methodist Episcopal Church rehearsed inside, and CDs by the congregation's music director sold briskly. A gospel choir, a large church, a packed house -- nothing unusual, perhaps, except these congregants are Jews. It's Friday night, and everyone is here for a Shabbat service.
Now in its 10th year, Valley Outreach Synagogue's (VOS) Sabbath service with gospel music attracts a larger crowd every time, and this night not a seat was empty. Between traditional Shabbat prayers and compositions by renowned VOS musical director Jack Bielan, the First A.M.E. Unity Choir stood and sang its joyous music, starting with a rousing rendition of "The Lord Is My Shepherd."
Candles were lit, the wine was blessed and Rabbi Jerry Fisher delivered a brief sermon. By the end of the evening, the innovative service had a packed house clapping, singing, and dancing in the aisles. Following a stirring gospel number called "Blessed," Bielan stood smiling with First A.M.E. choir director Barbara Allen and said, "There's nothing like the joy of a traditional Shabbat."