Sing and dance at high-energy, traveling Jewish worship service

Mishkan Chicago's high-energy brand of Jewish worship is aimed at making the connection to God seem more relevant to 21st-century teens and millennials. But the way it is organized hails back to the traveling tent-like "tabernacle" that the Hebrews of Moses' time used as they wandered in the desert on their way from slavery to the Promised Land.

The traveling worship service put on by that Chicago congregation will lead the Friday night service at Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20.

CKI Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein said the service will include "instrumental music, swaying and maybe even some dancing in the aisles," led by 36-year-old Mishkan Chicago rabbi Lizzi Heydemann.

"The style is participatory, with easy chants to learn, even if you are not familiar with Hebrew, with guitar, drum, and violin," the Elgin rabbi said.

"They are enthusiastic, warm and welcoming."

Mishkan Chicago spokeswoman Rachel Gray Alexander said the congregation, like that traveling tabernacle and exodus crowd in Old Testament times, is a group of people with no fixed building. In fact, the word "mishkan" means "tabernacle" in Hebrew.

"We don't have a building," Gray Alexander said. "We operate out of an office in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago and travel to different places in and around the city."

On two Friday nights and one Saturday morning a month, Mishkan Chicago rents space in a Unitarian church building and a larger congregation's synagogue on Chicago's North Side. On other weeks, the congregation and Heydemann are available to hold worship as guests in some other location. Some worshippers come from the location being visited and some are drawn from Mishkan's regular Chicago members.

Gray Alexander said typical Mishkan attendance is 100 to 150 at each regular Chicago service, though during last fall's High Holy Day services, Mishkan rented the Preston Bradley Center in Chicago's Uptown and drew a whopping 1,700 people.

"We do everything possible to make our services accessible to people, no matter what their background is or who their partner is," Gray Alexander said. "We meet people where they are. Plus our services are very musical."

Frisch Klein said she has been aware of Lizzi Heydemann and Mishkan Chicago for some time.

"The Forward, a national Jewish magazine, prints a list of 50 young rabbis to watch every year, and Lizzi is almost always on that list," she said. So is Rabbi Sharon Brous, with whom Heydemann interned in Los Angeles.

But Frisch Klein said the visit to Elgin was motivated and paid for by CKI members Mark and Robin Seigle.

"We attended a Mishkan Chicago service with our daughter last year and were captivated," Mark Seigle said. "We like the style. It's like a rock concert."

Frisch Klein and Gray-Alexander said that like most modern religious groups, Judaism and CKI are having trouble attracting younger people, but Mishkan's brand of energetic, upbeat service may be a key to solving that problem.

Frisch Klein said 120 families are members of CKI, but only 20 to 30 people typically attend each Friday and Saturday service. Asked how many of those are under age 30, she said, "Not enough." She said most of the members attend on the High Holy Days, "but the millennial families less so. It's been harder and harder for them to get out of school or work."

"We know we need to do something different to appeal to a younger group and this speaks to us," Seigle said. "I'd never seen anything like it."

Frisch Klein described Heydemann's approach to worship as "ecstatic prayer."

"Lizzi said that if she couldn't fulfill her vision and lead the kind of congregation she wanted, she would rather be a barista."

"It is important that lay leaders feel empowered to participate fully in worship, to be partners with their rabbi," Frisch Klein said. "The Psalms say, 'Make a joyful noise to the Lord.' They also talk about in every generation a new song will be sung. This approach is one of those new joyful songs. So as Lizzi says, 'Come get your prayer on.'"

Congregation Kneseth Israel is at 330 Division St. in downtown Elgin. For information, call (847) 741-5656 or visit

Rabbi Lauren Henderson, left, from Mishkan Chicago's Jewish Emergent Network and Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann right, founder and leading rabbi of Mishkan Chicago, lead services at "Get Higher," a celebration of the Jewish High Holidays. COURTESY OF MISHKAN CHICAGO
Members of the Mishkan Davening (praying) team and community members gather for prayer during a service in Chicago. On Friday, Jan. 20, members of Mishkan will lead a service at Elgin's Congregation Kneseth Israel. COURTESY OF MISHKAN CHICAGO

If you go

What: Mishkan Chicago, a "traveling tabernacle" featuring Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann's "inspired, down-to-earth musical shabbat"

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20

Where: Congregation Kneseth Israel, 330 Division, Elgin

Details: (847) 741-5656 or <a href=""></a>

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