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Where Jewish professionals & laypeople meet: Am Hayam – The People of the Sea

Saybrook Breakwater Light

By Cindy Mindell ~

OLD SAYBROOK – When Jewish communal professionals summer in the same community, chances are that they may eventually find one another.
That is the story behind Am HaYam, a fledgling warm-weather congregation in Old Saybrook, whose members began gathering five summers ago at a private home.
Participants come from the surrounding communities and from Boston and Manhattan, says member Rabbi Danny Price. Those early meetings were mostly used to exchange ideas and decompress from High Holiday preparations back home.
“Over the course of our meetings, we discovered that we had a spirited group steeped in wonderful music and a desire to share tefilla, Jewish education, and stories with one another,” says Price. As more friends and family members attended the meetings, the group realized that they had created an ideal place to share this professional “ruach,” or spirit, with laypeople.
A year later, Am Hayam – The People of the Sea – had found a name and a direction.
“We see it as a great way to both educate and learn and get feedback, as well as provide a service to an area not served locally by a synagogue,” Price says. “Our congregation is unorthodox, as it is not lay-led, but professionally led, yet no one is paid. It is a sort of Summer Stock of shuls or workshops where professionals can work on their craft, share with one another in order to broaden each other’s horizons, all the while sharing with laypeople the fruits of their work. We offer a rare insight into the workings of Jewish professionals with the intention of never making our guests feel uncomfortable. In fact, it is just the opposite: we hope that participation in our group will encourage people to get involved in synagogue life in their own communities.”
Lay people benefit from this intimate access to clergy and teachers in a setting where they have an equal voice, Price says. “The idea is to cut down the barriers that set apart leaders and congregation.”
Am HaYam’s worship resembles a kumzitz or communal bonfire led by professionals and laypeople alike, characterized by a lot of singing. They meet in a private home, up to 12 professionals – some from as far away as Manhattan and Boston — and five lay people at any given time.
Price is familiar with the concept of a summer shul. His grandfather, a pharmacist by profession, was also a cantor and kol bo – one who leads both the speaking and singing prtions of the service – who led summer services through the ‘60s at a summer synagogue in Pine Lake Park, now in Cortland Manor in northern Westchester County, N.Y.
Am HaYam is pluralistic by nature, unaffiliated with any denomination, and, says Price, “I would consider us liberal in practice with deep respect for Jewish tradition.  I would not call it Jewish Renewal, although some professionals may bring certain renewal aspects to their teachings. It has a much longer back story and it is still very much a work in progress.”
Price says that Am HaYam is not out to siphon members from the closest synagogues in Madison and Deep River-Chester, each of which is at least 20 minutes away from Old Saybrook. Rather, Am HaYam seeks to provide a resource for people temporarily summering in the area, or to attract those who otherwise would not join a synagogue. The congregation meets at its summer home and is in the process of creating a regular schedule; regular Friday-night services should be offered by summer 2013.

For more information: Rabbi Daniel Price, amhayamOS@aol.com.

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