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Creating Jewish Community Through Joyful Singing, led by Joey Weisenberg

Mechon Hadar
New York, New York United States
Leadership team

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Executive Director

Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Rabbi Avital Hochstein

Rabbi Shai Held

Organization website
Prize category
National/International
Operational
3 – 5 years
Target audience
20s & 30s, Adults, Baby Boomers, College Students, Educators, Families, Jewish Professionals, Unaffiliated, Women & Girls
Categories
Arts & Culture, Community Building, Experiential Learning, Jewish Education, Leadership Development, Media & Technology, Outreach & Engagement, Professional Development, Ritual, Spirituality

Jewish communities seeking to create meaning and connection through music are eager for practical resources, materials and learning opportunities. We educate and train communities – the members as a whole, as well as its leaders – to use music and song to cultivate spirituality, build a sense of belonging and group cohesion, and make communal prayer life more meaningful. We provide practical resources, training, and leadership development to facilitate engaged prayer life in Jewish communities around the country.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

What is it about music that can lift our spirits, and take us beyond ourselves? Why is it that a single tune can resonate within and inspire us for years? Why is it that music is so consistently mentioned as a catalyst for feelings of pleasure and joy, especially in a Jewish context? The Talmud tells us that King David’s daily routine was to wake up to the sound of his harp and thus begin every day with music. Next, he would study Torah, and only then attend to the practical details of managing his kingdom. It was a 3-part system wherein music opened the doorway to the intellect, which then led to practical action. In other words, music can transform our mindset, and that mindset can lead to increased Jewish learning and permeate everything we do.

Music is not something supplementary to Jewish life - rather, it creates a new dimension in every element of Jewish life, speaking to the soul and opening the heart. Often, music can express what words cannot, reaching beyond our conscious intellect, beyond the limits of reason, and touching the deepest parts of our lives. It can enhance communal prayer, unite people in joy or sorrow, and nurture each of us in our most private moments. It gives us pleasure, embodies the depth of Jewish wisdom, and opens the doors of a greater Jewish sensibility - making us want to learn more, connect more deeply, and transform our lives.

Jewish tradition has long recognized that there is a deep connection between music and the soul. Upon coming out of Egypt, crossing the Red Sea and realizing that they were truly free, the first action which the Israelites did together as a community was to sing, “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel.” (Exodus 15:1) We sing to express our emotions, or to evoke depths of feeling. Deborah sang to celebrate Israel’s victory over an invading army (Judges 5), Hannah sang out of gratitude for having a child (I Samuel 2), King David was referred to as the “sweet singer of Israel” (II Samuel 23:1), the Levites sang in the Temple, and the daily morning prayers include psalms which invite us to praise God with both musical instruments and the songs of the human voice (Psalm 150). The Jewish wisdom of song is as ancient as the Jewish people - but our generation needs to find its voice, to learn how to sing as joyously as our ancestors once did.

In their study of moderately affiliated Jews who maintain some formal synagogue attachment but are not engaged actively in Jewish life, Arnold M. Eisen and Steven M. Cohen found that “They … do not come to synagogue expecting to find God there … [t]he words in the prayer book do not particularly interest them.” According to Eisen and Cohen, the essence of the dilemma facing synagogues and their members is that while many Jews are yearning for spirituality and meaning, “a great many Jews have difficulty engaging in public prayer and finding it personally meaningful.” Thus, the challenge is to bridge the gap between a yearning for spirituality and a disconnection from traditional liturgy. Many people, including Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President Emeritus of the URJ, believe that a "prayer revolution" depends on the appropriate use of music during worship.

American Judaism desperately needs a large-scale project to provide tools and training to community members and lay leaders, which will enable them to use music to make communal prayer services more dynamic, more meaningful, and more compelling. We are working to fill that need; to seed a field in which engaged prayer life can take hold in Jewish institutions around the country.

Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Bloomington, Ind., 2000), pp. 155-56.
Ibid.
Yoffie, "The Worship Revolution," p. 26.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

Joey Weisenberg - a master musician, prayer leader, and up-and-coming Jewish leader - has taught at over 100 synagogues across America in the past 5 years – and what he teaches is how singing, in a community, can be a spiritual and religious Jewish experience. It is not a musical performance by Joey, nor is it a lecture or text study. Rather, he gathers an entire community together, teaches them a nigun (wordless melody), and has them sing it until they internalize it and flow with it as a group. Or, he guides them through a Shabbat prayer service as a musical and spiritual experience, with every group member singing along – regardless of musical ability.

For most participants, this is an entirely new experience, and a powerful taste of what synagogue life could be like. This experience is critical because it shifts the mindset of what is possible. Until one actually experiences the power of singing in a Jewish communal setting, one cannot possibly envision a world infused with that level of joy or connection. A vision of what is possible is the first step. But that remains locked as an experience frozen in time if there is no support and pathway to turn the vision into altered behavior.

We often meet people who experience one of Joey’s sessions, want to transform their communities, but are short on support and resources. In the past, Joey had little to offer beyond a weekend engagement – synagogue members passionately enjoyed his sessions and wanted to continue to learn. They are inevitably hungry for more, and they ask Joey to teach them how to transform themselves into a singing community. They want practical resources, as well as opportunities to learn more about Jewish music, Jewish spirituality and tradition. By creating additional support structures to move experience into action – instructional videos, original recorded music, hundreds of web-based recordings of worship services – as well as training additional leaders who can facilitate these experiences for their own communities – we are having a huge impact on this process.

As a test case in response to this demand, Mechon Hadar published a book by Joey, “Building Singing Communities”, to see if there was a market for such materials. The book sold out its first printing – proof that there is great demand, and our inboxes were flooded with people who read the book, were eager to transform their synagogues, and wanted a comprehensive set of resources. Now, we are creating and developing those much-needed resources and learning opportunities, including an annual week-long in-person training institute, and a rich library of online resources. Specifically, we have:

- Hosted an annual, week-long “Singing Communities” training program, a week-long program for prayer leaders (both lay leaders and Jewish professionals) and musicians. The intensive teaches the textual content and music of prayer, melodies, and the art of musical interaction. It fosters a “bottom up” community of participants eager to work with each other, and not simply rely on the “expert.” There were almost 100 participants from around the country at the most recent session.

- Hosted a 2-day immersive program for High Holiday prayer leaders, with about 70 participants from around the country at the most recent session.

- Recorded 5 CDs of original Jewish music, which communities around the country can incorporate into their lives.

- Led workshops in over 100 synagogues and Jewish communities around the country, teaching practical strategies for unlocking the musical potential of each community.

- Created comprehensive, high-quality online resources for learning the artistry of leading prayer and song. This includes video and audio recordings and instruction, with a variety of high quality approaches. They are readily accessible through Hadar’s website (as well as through iTunes and YouTube) and have been viewed or downloaded over 250,000 times.
Offered classes and mini-courses (both online and in person) to teach melodies, offer instruction about leading prayer, and cultivate leadership in both musical-spirituality and community building.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

An example of this innovation is Joey’s recent work with Shir Hadash, a synagogue in Denver – their membership was in decline and even those who did attend (including the rabbi himself) were not excited to be there. In search of assistance, they used the techniques outlined in Joey’s book to transform their prayer services into something compelling and meaningful. The rabbi launched his own “break-away” minyan, using the philosophy outlined by Joey. That minyan now attracts over 150 people to Shabbat services every week, and those people are excited to be there. The goal of this project is for synagogues around the country to be able to transform themselves in a similar manner, and to give them the tools and supports they need for such an undertaking.

In order to create an environment in which innovation can take root and thrive, communities need multiple “touch-points” with role models who can instruct them, as well as tools and resources that can support leaders within the community. In other words, we can best support community leaders in creating an innovative environment by offering instruction and inspiration to those leaders, and then offering resources they can use to take what they learned and implement it in their communities.

This best occurs by having a community leader attend an intensive program (such as the Singing Communities Initiative) at Mechon Hadar; by having Joey visit their community to lead workshops which show community members that another mode of Jewish community is possible, and then by giving them resources (books, CDs or online recordings) to help them replicate what they experienced in the workshop and enable them to educate themselves about how to create a more lively community.

For example, here is an email recently sent by Hillary Chorny, Cantor & Rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, CA:

"Dear Joey,

I wanted to take a few minutes to write you and thank you for the way in which your compositions are positively transforming our community’s Shabbat experiences. Some of your niggunim as well as melodies you composed to fit pieces of the Shabbat matbea have become beloved among regulars and are often noted and noticed by our guests. Your Nishmat Kol Chai finds its way regularly into our davening; “Lincoln’s Niggun” is often what we use to start off our Lecha Dodi singing. As a hazzan and rabbi, I feel really blessed to live in an era where your music has traveled to the lips of our Jewish communities. You have given me the tools to awaken an energy on Shabbat that would otherwise be untapped.

A few months ago, I initiated a new Friday night project at Temple Beth Am called “Shabbat Sovev” with the help of our rabbinic intern, Rebecca Schatz. It’s a very simple concept: very little changes from our standard Friday night service, except the few very critical pieces that shift the whole evening. Each 2nd and 4th Friday night of the month, we gather in the round. And the innermost circle of folks is built of community members, young and old, who gather earlier in the week to select melodies and rehearse rich, advanced harmonies. And instead of a standard d’var Torah, we offer a d’var tefillah. That’s it. Plain and simple. But, in part thanks to music like yours, we hear feedback after every single Shabbat Sovev that the service was magnificent. I humbly agree, just as a participant and a Jew in the pew. There is something undeniably moving about raw, layered harmonies overlapping in prayer. It makes me wish Shabbat came more often.

We were fortunate a couple months back to bring some of our dedicated “Sovevim” – those inner circle people – together for a recording session, both audio and video. As we’ve just relaunched the synagogue website, we plan to feature some of those recordings. Where your music is used, we’ll give you ample credit and thanks. The recordings are for the benefit of our community members who want to embrace the music of Shabbat Sovev in particular, and Shabbat at Beth Am in general. We want them to know who and what lies at the root of the music that so regularly moves them.

If you have any interest in creating intentional partnership around the use of “new” Shabbat music on Friday evenings, I would be honored to have a conversation with you about that. And, of course, if you have any questions about how we use your music (or just want to hear/see the recordings), I’d be glad to answer them.

With gratitude for the soul you put out into the world,

Hillary Chorny
Cantor & Rabbi
Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, CA
July 7, 2016"

Here is an excerpt from an email sent to Joey from Rabbi Noah Arnow, of Kol Rinah, a Conservative synagogue in St. Louis, MO, who had attended the High Holiday leaders’ training in August 2015:

“Just a quick note to say that I pulled together an impromptu spontaneous choir last week; we ‘practiced’ for about 25 minutes after kiddush yesterday, and then davened selichot last night. It made such a difference, and was great. Thanks for inspiring it, modeling it, and writing about it. Can't wait for your visit here! … PS the Kol Nidre niggun, the very simple one, is a super hit. Just to get it in people's ears I did it Friday night, and at the end of selichot... they love it. I'll have to be careful not to overdo it!”

In this case, Rabbi Arnow had attended one of Joey’s intensive programs, and brought the ethos and energy of that program back to his synagogue by using music and singing in a new way. He then arranged for Joey to visit his community, using Joey’s visit as a way to buttress the impact of the rabbi’s new use of melody during services. Rabbi Arnow is using Joey’s CDs and recordings (to learn new tunes from them himself), and is encouraging his congregants to listen to these CDs and recordings – in order to accustom them to Joey’s tunes and style, and to generally shift their mindset so they are more aware of and welcoming toward music as a spiritual tool in Jewish life and prayer.

Similarly, here is an excerpt from what Cantor Rachel Rhodes, of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, VA, put on her Facebook page in advance of Joey’s workshop at her synagogue:

“Hi everyone, Cantor Rachel Rhodes here. . . I am so incredibly excited that Joey Weisenberg, a dear friend of mine and amazing musician and scholar, is joining us this coming Shabbat!

I first met Joey a few years back at Hava Nashira, the song leading workshop. I went to his first session and was hooked! After that, I attended every workshop he offered and learned such a great deal from him. Beyond being an incredibly smart and inspiring teacher, Joey is also a caring, deeply relatable person who truly wants to get to know us. He is one of those extraordinary people who really listens and cares about others. I promise that you will be transported by his music and also comforted and inspired by his presence.

Please take the time to experience one (or more!) of Joey's sessions over this special weekend. It will nourish your soul for many weeks to come! Check out everything here: http://www.templerodefshalom.org/joey-weisenberg”

Cantor Rhodes then brought Joey to her Temple, and is working to change the culture there by using Joey’s tunes to create a new mode of communal prayer, and is encouraging congregants to listen to and learn from Joey’s CDs and recordings, so they can better participate in these musical prayer sessions. She has had so much success at her own Temple, that she brought Joey’s tunes to the national convention of Reform Cantors when she led services there – she then handed out sheet music of Joey’s tunes, and encouraged all the attendees to buy Joey’s books of sheet music and other resources.

It seems that music can bring us beyond the limits of our rational selves, and enable us to engage with the world in new ways – which often opens us up to new experiences. For example, here is an excerpt from an email Joey received from Jeff Schwartz, Reform Engagement Associate for Cornell Hillel:

“… Something which is really important to me is to bring all of Cornell’s Jewish circles together, regardless of their observance. Music in general and your music and your style in particular are really transcendent. I’ve used your music in the Reform minyan, the Conservative minyan, and also with my Orthodox friends at a tisch and everybody loves it. … While these different denominational groups do not pray together in the same services, we do eat together – but it used to be that people don’t really interact or get to know each other that well. So I started to use your tunes at Shabbat meals, and everyone gets into it. Your music makes us into one community, in a way that not much else really does. I would really love to sing with you again, and bring you out to Cornell if we can….”

While it is probably too early for us to talk about any lasting impact, it does seem that the culture of Cornell Hillel (at least the culture of its Shabbat meals) is changing, thanks to the use of music. Jeff Schwartz met Joey at Hava Nashira when Joey was on faculty. Jeff then used the YouTube videos and CDs to learn Joey’s songs well, and then brought them to his Hillel as a way to make Shabbat meals more spiritual, and as a way to unite denominational groups that were not otherwise interacting with each other. Students are participating in the singing because it is pleasurable and fun. We are very pleased that this change is happening, and will have to report back to you about the extent to which it is permeating other areas of students’ lives or having a long-term impact.

We suspect that sensibilities are learned and internalized through repeated exposure over time. At first, it’s about shifting one’s sense of what is possible, and offering them a new vision. Then, it is about offering the resources and support to enable people to do it for themselves. This happens on both an individual level, and with communities in general. For example, we received this email from Renna Khuner-Haber, who lives in the Bay Area:

“I heard Joey lead a workshop once, and thought it was great. I wanted more. So I came to the Singing Communities Intensive in December, and it blew my mind. I went back home with new tunes, new energy, and was eager to teach all my friends. I’m part of an informal minyan community here in the Bay Area [the Mission Minyan] and they figured I was really into music and davening, so they offered me the chance to lead High Holiday services.

I wanted to do it, and offer a woman’s voice up there, but I felt terrified because I didn’t really know the prayers or tunes that well. I downloaded Joey’s recordings from the Hadar web page and listened to them over and over, wherever I went … on my way to school, on my bike, I had those earbuds in all the time. Then I went to Joey’s High Holiday intensive in August 2015, and it was amazing – really got me ready and prepared. When I led those services, I was confident, ready, and did a great job. Now I want to learn even more – new parts of the prayer services, new tunes, and to teach it to my friends and community back home.”

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

We have learned that many people are eager to transform their communities through music - and seek instruction, resources and support to make it happen. There are many synagogues with professional cantors who are essentially performing for passive congregational audiences. Likewise, there are many professional musicians who happen to be Jewish, but are not bringing their talent to the service of Jewish communities. This project is innovative because it brings traditional Jewish music to people as a spiritual process, teaching them to sing as a prayer community, and empowering them to change their synagogues.