Given the late hour and the lots I have to report, I will report on some details from Wednesday and Thursday, as well as a unique experience at the Conservative Yeshiva shabbaton in the near future, ב"ה. Tonight, however, I would like to share an experience that could easily be blown off for those who do not understand the experience.
Those of us who were on the shabbaton with the Conservative Yeshiva returned to Jerusalem at around 10 p.m. 10:30 was when Nativ left for s'lichot - enough time to shower!
At 10:30 (or 22:30 according to those who wish to confuse us Americans), the staff announced different options for s'lichot services and all that jazz. This announcement was more of a reminder of what had been said Thursday night, at which point I had decided that I was going to go to The Great Synagogue of Jerusalem. I was ready to be the only one from Nativ attending that service, given that I am a weird teenager for having an appreciation for chazzanut. But a few guys decided to come along, trusting the power of experience, and we even walked over with some girls, who of course would be headed for the ezrat nashim anyway once we would arrive.
I have already davened at the Great Synagogue once before, so nothing about the building and its vastness necessarily caught me by surprise. Rather, it was the scene inside the sanctuary that provoked my thoughts throughout my night there. We arrived just at the start of s'lichot, and there was standing room only. The few guys I was with and I were standing in a very congested back of the room, and at the sides towards the front of the room many men were standing as well. It was a good thing that I had brought my own seder s'lichot, which I had just purchased in Me'ah She'arim, as there were very few available. Chazzan Adler and the choir were standing on the bimah, adorned in talitot.
Take a look around the room. Over a thousand men must have been present, though my estimation of large group numbers is very rough. I am not sure if I have seen such a diverse group of K'lal Yisrael in one synagogue before, or even in any specific gathering before. Head coverings of course can often serve as an indication. A few men were wearing streimels, many with black hats, and a multitude in knitted kippot ("kippot srugot"). Some people were wearing traditional suits, yet I noticed people wearing jeans or even one guy near me in a t-shirt and shorts. All gathered tonight to inaugurate a season of communal repentance; it is well known that we confess in the plural, and s'lichot are rarely said without a minyan (the essential part of s'lichot, the 13 attributes, cannot be said without a minyan). Many faces representing different factions of K'lal Yisrael assembled in Jerusalem's high-profile synagogue joined together in asking forgiveness from Hashem.
Just as we walked in, the congregation began Ashrei, the beginning of s'lichot. Possibly the longest Ashrei you would ever hear. Of course, this would be true with many parts of s'lichot - I believe the words haneshama lach and everything in that neighborhood repeated for a good five minutes, and b'motza'ei menucha must have been a 15-20 minute piyyut. It was easier to be antsy during this service since we did not have seats. Given that we were standing in the back and the service carried on awhile, we left at midnight. Even in the half-hour time before we left, the back was less congested and people were moving into seats; many people left after we did. But the circumstances of the drawn out service barely took away from my experience. Though I didn't expect such a long service, I came to The Great Synagogue for the very reason that there would be something extremely holy in the way that a chazzan and his choir would conduct the service. Chazzan Adler's voice sang with total purity (I was confused for a while because while the voice sounded familiar, I did not realize it was Adler instead of Herstik), and the choir added not only flavor, but almost angelic accompaniment to the chazzan's heartfelt t'filot.
Though admittedly I am not sure I would be up for an entire Rosh Ha-Shannah or Yom Kippur service in such a setting, there is something irreplaceable about the combination of the jam-packed synagogue with the professional, true, and soul stirring interpretation of the s'lichot brought forth by the chazzan and choir. As much as one may appreciate t'filot led by lay people, it takes much more than just a good voice for a meaningful s'lichot service. It takes a certain environment and a certain tone set to find the kedusha of s'lichot. I have little doubt that the s'lichot service I experienced at the Great Synagogue could be replicated anywhere in the world. Not to say that s'lichot services in America or elsewhere carry little holiness or inspiration, but I know that of all the s'lichot I will experience in my lifetime, the one that took place right after my first Shabbat in Eretz Yisrael will be memorable for a lifetime.