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Drumming our Way to a Spiritual Shabbat

Ken Meyer Leads the Drumming
(All Pictures by Michael Kaplan)

We learn in Torah that Miriam took a timbrel in her hand and led the Israelite women sing, as they, her brother Moses and the Israelite men crossed through Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. We regularly tout the spiritual uplift that comes from music of shofarot (rams’ horns) and of singing.

This timbreltof in Hebrew, a percussion instrument, part mini-cymbals, part drum – was new to the Israelite orchestra. If our ancestors added this instrument into the mix, shouldn’t we?

There is something about rhythm, about holding a beat, that is primal. Drumming brings people together; it forms disparate elements in a group. Drumming transforms individuals into a community.

In the Torah, no doubt the tambourines and drumming gave purpose and direction to the Israelite tribes as they walked through the sea. Just as the heartbeats of choir members beat in sync, so too the drumming might have kept the Israelites on the exodus on task.

Drumming can Greatly Enhance Jewish spirituality

Sheryl Braunstein Sings
While Aaron Meyer Plays Piano

On a recent Friday night, at a backyard Shabbat service at the home of Rabbi Wendy Spears and Eitan Ginsburg, Congregation Or Ami worshippers gathered for a musical drumming Shabbat. Playing a range of instruments – drums, tambourines, maracas, and sticks among others – worshippers explored the hypnotizing and meditative experience of praying with a beat. Soloist Sheryl Braunstein, pianist Aaron Meyer and drummer Ken Meyer led us through a rhythmic service. Same prayers, same tunes, but with an entrancing beat. Rabbinic intern Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch told a story about our responsibility to respond to the beat hat calls to us. Then Ken Meyer led us in a “call and response” drumming activity.

Drumming Leader Ken Meyer explained,

It was a meaningful service to me for several reasons. It is always great to be outdoors on a beautiful summer evening… I am so glad I came to help. I have been drumming for over 50 years. By giving each of the congregants an instrument of some kind to play, they were more active participants; no experience was needed and anyone of any age could join in. Since everyone can easily make a sound, we all played various beats to the songs. We even created another new version of Cantor Doug Cotler’s prayer-song, Listen.

Sometimes I think that non-musical congregants might feel awkward when asked to sing, especially if they think they might sing out of tune or off pitch. With percussion instruments, there is no such worry. 

When we did the drumming-only “call and response” section of the service, we kicked it to a higher level of participation. It was great for community building, group bonding, teamwork, cooperation, and stress relief. It was also a lot of fun. This all led to a higher degree of spirituality for me.

Following the service, we invited other worshippers to reflect upon the spiritual rhythmic experience. The discussion continued longer than expected because the experience was so meaningful. Their experiences varied.

An Intense Active Full Body Experience

A Few of the Drumming Participants

Steve Greenberg said, Drumming along with the group got my body to pray along with my brain. It brought us together so that it felt like I was praying with the whole of my being.

Rabbi Wendy Spears wrote, I loved the sense of connection that the drumming vibrations gave us. It felt like all of our hearts were beating in a synchronous rhythm. There was a different sense of active participation when we added our hands to our voices in song.

Kevin Palm explained, Friday night’s “out of the box” Shabbat service kept worship fresh and did two things for me: It made me an involved participant by having to match the beat and participate wholly in the songs and prayers. Simultaneously, it proved once again that we don’t need to be in a synagogue to create a holy place – we can create one anywhere including a backyard, a campfire, a park… anywhere…

A Sense of Communal Connectedness

Aaron Koch wrote, The experience of everyone joining together in the collective rhythm of prayer, created a feeling of connectedness, community and Shalom.

Dianne Gubin emailed, Friday night’s Drum service was a memorable and touchstone experience for me. It was really fun and creative to be so fully engaged in services. Soloist Sheryl Braunstein, pianist Aaron Meyer and drummer Ken Meyer were easy to follow and quickly had everyone drumming together… I love the variety of services we have at Or Ami!

Soloist Sheryl Braunstein noted, The rhythm connected us all to each other and to the prayers. I loved Jonathan’s story and story telling!

A Liberating Participatory Experience

The Lachers and the Koches

Ralph Lacher responded, A liberating environment seemed to grow as the evening of Shabbat drumming and humming matured into a communal singular voice. The experience was a very enjoyable stress reliever that had a child like quality of innocence.

Rabbinic Intern Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch texted, For someone who is not musical I looked forward to being able to play an instrument no matter how out of sync I was because I knew it was acceptable.

Of course, Congregation Or Ami will again hold a Shabbat Drumming Service again soon. Still, this experience leads me to wonder…

What are other ways that we might enhance (and change up) the communal prayer experience?

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