Greetings all! I’m Cantor Debbi Ballard and I created Shema Koleinu (with the help of my Dad, Rabbi Steve Spiegel.) Some of you have questions about my story and the story of Shema Koleinu – I am here to answer them. If there is something you want to know and don’t see the answer below, I’m just a phone call or email away.
What made you start Shema Koleinu?
Like many Jewish clergy, I grew up in a Conservative, traditional Jewish home. But my journey was very different from others. At age 25, I returned home to tell my parents that I had fallen in love and was getting married-to a Christian man. At first, they begged me to reconsider, but I was set on my decision, and eventually, my husband became part of the family. We eventually separated, but as my journey continued, our story remained part of who I was. I reconnected with my Jewish faith, and realized how dissatisfied I was with the way the local synagogues treated the interfaith community. I also felt there was more that Jewish leadership could be doing to engage today’s Jewish and Interfaith families. I eventually persuaded my father to channel his faith into becoming a Rabbi. Then, together, we started Shema Koleinu and welcomed all the beautiful people of South Florida to worship with us in harmony.
What does Shema Koleinu mean?
Shema Koleinu literally means “Hear Our Voices” in Hebrew. We chose this name because we wanted our audience to know that we have heard their needs and Shema Koleinu is here to provide them with the environment they want.
What makes Shema Koleinu different?
The Shema Koleinu community is unique in that the only criteria to belong is ACTION. We do not require you to be of a certain affiliation. We do not require membership dues or contributions. Shema Koleinu provides a place where Jews can embrace their faith, heritage and theology in ways that are meaningful and relevant to their modern day lives.
Our services combine the traditional melodies we heard and loved from our early connections, but also incorporate much of the music being composed today within the Reform movement of Judaism, by artists who compose music based on certain texts or biblical messages, but in language and tunes we can all understand and connect with. In addition, I love teaching, so when I approach a prayer, I first explain it to my congregants – what its meaning is, and how the words can enhance our experience in prayer and connection with God or our spirituality. Everyone who attends my services tells me how comfortable and meaningful they are. That’s because I know that we cannot pray without feeling a strong connection to our words. Lastly, our services are uplifting. They offer hope, they support our community, and they are created out of a love of Judaism. When we can have fun together in worship, people want to come back more often.
What do you mean by Interfaith families are welcome? Does this mean people who practice different forms of Judaism?
Yes, but not just that. Shema Koleinu is a place where all are welcome. Many of my families are not only of different faiths, but different cultures as well. Some of my non-Jewish parents are the ones who take on the responsibility of raising a Jewish family. I support them and help them in every way I can to find the positive connection for their families in Judaism. We invite any and all who wish to celebrate their Jewish connection with us.
So , are you a “Rent-a-Rabbi”?
No! We are much more interested in building a new type of Jewish community, not just “lifecycles for hire”. In my program, I have 92 children in my religious school. We meet in families homes or conference rooms around the county, in small groups, making our experiences together much more interesting and cohesive. I lead community Shabbat services, and we have smaller groups within our community that love to have private Shabbats in their homes. I teach my interfaith families how to raise Jewish children. Judaism and community are important to me. I just dream of a day that our communities are defined by the people who take part in them, not the dollars involved in building buildings. My families appreciate me as their Spiritual Leader because they feel I am a great role model for their children, and that I help them find meaning in Jewish connection. My families aren’t just looking for the easy way out; they’re looking for the easy way IN! It’s my dream and my vision to create communities like ours around the country, as we come together to worship, support one another, share in our Jewish educations together, and foster a love of Judaism rather than alienating one another with divisive “denominations”. My colleagues around the country encourage me by telling me that this is the future of Judaism, and I am a trailblazer. That’s what I love, and that’s what makes us different. We are creating a new way of being Jewish, together.
What does a High Holy Day Service look like?
Our services are short (2 hours, max!), and are nothing like you have ever seen! You will understand the meaning and relevance of every prayer we say or sing. My students are very involved in the services, making it even more enjoyable for their families. Our Torah reading is off the charts unique and creative and engaging. We do things very differently, but teach the same message – Connection to God, being the best person we can be, and finding hope in tomorrow are our main messages of our services. You will be amazed, we promise!
Will there be singing?
LOTS! We sing a lot, as that is the way to connect our audience to the prayers. Our music is modern, upbeat, and even entertaining. You might find yourself clapping your hands with a big smile on your face!
Can I bring my family to the services?
Of course! Children, husbands, wives, partners, friends… all are welcome!
When the High Holy Days are over, what other opportunities do I have to be part of the Shema Koleinu community?
There are plenty of ways to stay involved! We offer monthly Shabbats as a community, and private home Shabbats for a few families who just want to have a Shabbat dinner. We are launching “Mitzvah Makers”, a post B’Nai Mitzvah youth group for our children to earn service hours and feel a part of their community. We have many wonderful plans for book clubs, lunch and learns, and Torah study classes together. Just let us know what you would like to see, and will make it happen!
Like I said, feel free to contact me with any other questions you might have!