In 22 years in the pulpit, Rabbi Jon Cutler has led scores of High Holiday services. He knows the look.
Glassy-eyed. Distracted. It says, "When will this be over?"
The holiest time on the Jewish calendar draws crowds like no other. Yet a prime opportunity to forge commitment, Cutler says, often yields anything but.
So the rabbi had an idea. How about some jazz?
He enlisted a quintet of musicians who play in hipster black, including their yarmulkes. Maybe the blue notes and improvisation of jazz would infuse something new into a traditional liturgy for the High Holidays, which end Monday.
The fresh approach is under way at Cutler's new Jewish prayer group, Darkaynu (Hebrew for "our path"). Starting with Selichot services last week, the liturgy has featured a drummer, electric guitarist, keyboard player, and sax man, with rabbi/cantor Joan Sacks on vocals.
"Y'did nefesh av harachaman," Sacks sang in Hebrew at services in Warrington. "Meshoch avdecha el retsonecha."
The words that mean "beloved of the soul, merciful God. Bring your servant close to your will" were wrapped in the plaintive sax stylings of musician Walt Beier.
"I like the idea of self-expression mixed with tradition," said Joanne Deutchman, whose husband, Len, plays keyboards in the combo. "We're putting our own stamp on it. It's very exciting."
Of the more than 3,000 synagogues in the United States, fewer than 1 percent would use jazz during the High Holidays, said Mark Kligman, professor of Jewish Musicology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Traditionally, High Holiday services feature a cantor singing a cappella or with an organ, guitar and/or choir, said Rabbi Vivie Mayer, a faculty member at the Rabbinical Reconstructionist College in Wyncote.
The kind of music that is featured and whether musical instruments are included depends on the synagogue's tradition and culture. Services at Orthodox congregations do not include musical instruments, she said. "An organ would be just as much an anathema as jazz music," Mayer said.
But some might say that jazz's free forms fit in with Jewish services, she said.
"In jazz, a musician unleashes the soul of the music in their own innovative way," Mayer said. "That is what a cantor is supposed to do, unleash the prayer in their own innovative way."
Cutler is seeking new ways to trigger spiritual commitment and fulfillment as he helps shape Darkaynu. The gathering, a small group known as a havurah, is celebrating its first High Holidays together. It meets at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Warrington.
The group's mission is tikkun olam ("to repair the world") through personal and community transformation while acknowledging that individuals may accomplish those goals in different ways. The group, founded in March, is the latest incarnation of Cutler's rabbinate, which has included military chaplaincy and leading a Warrington congregation.
Cutler, 53, of Flourtown, spent much of the last two years in Iraq. As the first full-time Jewish chaplain to be assigned in the western region, Cutler supervised 20 chaplains of various faiths.
He established the first Jewish chapel at Al-Asad air base, published a newsletter, trained Jewish lay leaders, and developed a Jewish movie night. A longtime captain in the Navy Reserve, he completed his most recent tour in February.
"It was hard to reconnect with family and friends," said Cutler, who oversaw counseling services in Iraq after four American troops committed suicide and a suicide bomber killed two people just outside an American base.
After his stint ended, Cutler told members of Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel, the Reconstructionist synagogue he led for eight years, that he needed a break from congregational duties to think about his future. The congregation and Cutler parted ways.
But soon, several former congregants contacted Cutler about starting an informal prayer group. The result is Darkaynu, which meets on alternate Fridays.
"We're not looking at being a synagogue," said Cutler, who also teaches at Gratz College in Melrose Park and is a hospice chaplain at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life in Horsham.
"We just want a real sense of community, where people understand that their obligation is beyond money. It's their time and participation and outreach."
The group's use of jazz is an unusual move that also reflects the evolution of the Jewish prayer book, Sacks said. The book includes contents that were radical and innovative for their time.
"Some of the melodies come from places you wouldn't believe," Sacks said. "Like a German drinking song."
Jazz is slated to continue through the rest of Darkaynu's High Holiday services Sunday and Monday.
"It dovetails nicely," said George Colton, who attends the prayer group. "It puts you in a mood and a state of mind to think about the past year and what you've done, and what you have to do coming up."