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Lawrence to chant conservative Kol Nidre services

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Section: News

September 17, 2010

Frederick Lawrence won’t be starting his new job until January, but he is already raising the bar for Brandeis presidents.

The newly appointed next president of Brandeis will lead the university’s conservative Kol Nidre service on the Brandeis campus this evening, something no president of the university has done before.

Lawrence will lead the long, melodious service which begins Yom Kippur and which will be held at the Spingold Theater.

Lawrence approached Brandeis Rabbi Elyse Winnick last month about participating in High Holiday services. telling her he was up for anything.

“I’m a layman, I’m not trained,” Lawrence said, “but it is a very powerful experience leading that particular service. The room is usually filled, and it’s filled with people in the midst of very serious thoughts of their own. You, as the leader, get to help them through that.”

After first leading the service as a student at Williams College, Lawrence presided over Kol Nidre at synagogues in Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Lawrence also has a singing background. As a member of the New York Choral Society, he performed in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. That was during his stint as an assistant U.S. attorney.

Usually, student members take turns presiding over High Holiday services, “sharing the wealth, honor and responsibility,” Winnick said.

Lawrence did not want to “put any students out” of their leadership roles, “but the student who led Kol Nidre last year graduated in May,” the rabbi said. “The timing was meant to be.”

Winnick said that while previous presidents have participated at student-led services–current President Jehuda Reinharz has often said Kiddush at services on parents’ weekend–none has taken on such a major role as leading Kol Nidre. “We are grateful that [Lawrence] has the ability to share this gift with the community,” she said.

Lawrence is attending services for all denominations over the course of the High Holidays. Along with his wife, Kathy, and their son, Noah, Lawrence attended Brandeis’ conservative service for the first day of Rosh Hashanah and orthodox service on the second day. After the Kol Nidre service, which will be conservative, the Lawrences will attend a reform service Saturday.

“We really want to engage with the community and spend time with as many student groups as possible in this transition time,” Lawrence said, adding that on Sept. 5 he and his family attended Catholic Mass with Brandeis’s Father Walter Cuenin.

Lawrence said he does not subscribe to one particular denomination of Judaism. When he was growing up, his family belonged to a Reform congregation. In Washington, where Lawrence led the George Washington University Law School, his family belongs to an orthodox congregation.

When Lawrence was a professor at Boston University Law School, he and his family attended services at both Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Newton and Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline. Lawrence said his family would most likely join Kehillath Israel when they move back to the Bay State.

“We are fairly comfortable in all congregations,” Lawrence said, adding that his family is Kosher at home, with separate sets of dishes, and will not eat non-Kosher meat. “We exist in a fairly typical gray area of observance.”

Lawrence doesn’t know whether his leading the service will start a new Brandeis tradition, but he hopes it will be a sweet start to the new year.

“Each year is different, each year is special in its own way,” he said. “The fact that this is the first year at Brandeis makes it particularly special.”

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