Tag: Jewish Music

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?

Nurturing the Next Generation of Jewish Songleaders

Recently, Congregation Or Ami sponsored two teens – 10th graders Sophie Barnes and Josh Gellerman – to attend the NFTY NASHIR Songleading Weekend in Seattle, Washington. As Cantor Doug Cotler has made it a priority to nurture new Jewish songleaders, musicians, composers and singers, we were excited to send these musical teens for training. Both Josh and Sophie recently reflected on their experiences:

Sophie Barnes and Josh Gellerman Lead Jewish Songs

Sophie writes: In early January, I attended a NFTY NASHIR Song leading weekend with about 30 teenagers from all over the country and Canada. We learned all about being a song leader in a Jewish community and to lead services for the children in religious school. The convention was held at Temple Beth Am and was lead by many talented, professional song leaders. I have been singing my entire life and performing has always been a passion of mine, but I had never tried song leading before. I went into the weekend barely knowing anything about song leading and by the end I felt like a professional.

Josh writes: I flew to Seattle for the Nashir Songleaders Retreat, and after being picked up at the airport, I was driven to Temple Beth Am. Once I arrived, I went to the youth lounge and basically just hung out and jammed with about thirty other kids who were there for the program. The trip turned out to be a lot more Jewish than I had originally thought that it would be. Every day, we all gathered for services. One thing that I noticed and really liked about Beth Am is that – much like Congregation Or Ami – every service is more like a concert. While of course we still prayed with spoken words, the congregants seemed to really connect with the spirituality through music.

Josh: Both of the nights that we were in Seattle, we stayed with very nice families who attended Beth Am. It was very generous of them to let us into their homes, as they were very accommodating and pleasant.

Sophie: Over the weekend we learned multiple Jewish songs and many techniques on how to be a song leader. We also participated in a bunch of workshops that taught everything you could possibly need to know about song leading.

Josh: The next morning we had interactive services for two hours where we all sang and prayed with the cantor. The whole time that I was there, I was constantly learning new things.

Sophie: We helped lead Shabbat services, taught and lead a song to our peers, and then worked up to finally getting to lead the kids in the Temple Beth Am religious school.

Josh: After services, we split up into our home group to do a “teach,” where we demonstrated how we led songs. I played Cantor Doug Cotler’s, “Listen.” We then went to workshops where we learned better ways to song-lead. A notable addition to the staff was made when Alan Goodis joined the leadership crew. I suggest you check out some of his music.

Sophie: The fact that we were able to learn so much in one weekend was truly amazing. I absolutely loved leading the kids and it was something I will never forget. I came home from the weekend with a whole new outlook on song leading, and I also returned from the weekend with tons of new friends. I reconnected with old friends and made many new ones. When we weren’t practicing our song leading, we were in a circle jamming on our guitars and singing. It was so eye opening to see that there were so many Jewish teens that have the same exact interests as me. I got so much out of the weekend and it helped me realize how much I love being a part of the Jewish community. It was an overall amazing experience and I am so glad I was able to be a part of it.

Josh: All in all I am really glad that I went. I learned a lot of new things about songleading and service leading that I will bring back home with me, not only a song-leader but also as a musician. A bonus from the trip was finding an immediate connection to a greater Jewish youth community. I made new friends from not only our own San Fernando Valley, but from Canada as well.

Josh and Sophie: Thanks again, Congregation Or Ami, for recommending us and sponsoring us for this weekend. It was great! We look forward to doing songleading for the congregation and religious school.

God Told Moses to Sing a Song, and We Keep Following His Lead: Dispatch from Camp Newman

Josh Friedman sings along with Dan Nichols
Sitting Camp Newman’s Beit Tefilah (camp’s outdoor sanctuary), as singer/songwriter Dan Nichols concertizes with 600 young people, I realized yet again the power of a simple idea: that a song has a better chance of transmitting and preserving significant values than most speeches or sermons do.  Dan Nichols, Congregation Or Ami’s Cantor Doug Cotler, even my Bar Mitzvah student’s Torah portion all testify to this truth. 

Torah Reveals the Power of a Song
Eric Moraly and I sat in the Chadar Ochel (dining hall) after lunch, working on his Bar Mitzvah d’var Torah (speech).  [Eric is one of the 34 members of our Congregation Or Ami delegation to Camp Newman.] We read the translation of his parasha, stopping along the way to elucidate challenging words and ideas. A bright young man, Eric articulately summarized and interpreted his section: God knew that when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they would begin to follow false gods and forget Torah. So God instructed Moses to write a song – called Ha’azinu – which would remind the people of important Jewish values.

What a concept from Torah: the power of the song.

At Camp Newman, Music Sets the Stage for Everything Else
At Camp Newman, music sets the stage for and permeates everything. We sing at mifkad (morning exercizes), before and after we eat, in the middle of the day, and when it ends. Jewish songs mix with contemporary music which are combined with prayers and eidah (session) songs. It’s as if when we sing, we affirm that we are alive. It is how we express our love of life and it’s blessings.

At the Dan Nichols concert, 600 kids shined with inspired energy. It could have been a concert of any teen idol, except that our kids were jumping around to Jewish songs about tikun olam (fixing the world), tzedek (justice), Israel, and emunah (faith).

Come Quick… It’s Josh
Early in the concert, one of my kids ran up shrieking, “Come quick, it’s Josh!” As I ran down the steps, I caught a glimpse of our congregant Josh Friedman standing up on stage, right next to Dan Nichols. Apparently Dan invited Josh to help lead the community in singing the harmony.

Yup, this 10 1/2 year old kid was “living the dream.” He was up onstage with Dan Nichols – Jewish music idol –  helping him lead a full amphitheater of people in song. It was like being bat boy in the final game of the World Series, pressing the button in Times Square to lower the ball on New Year’s Eve, and starring in your own TV show, all rolled into one. As meaningfully, his bunkmates, rather than being jealous of Josh’s good fortune, joined in to celebrate this moment of simcha (joy). When the highlights of life involve music and singing, we all are that much more inspired!

We Sing Because our Hearts Need It
I thought about our own Congregation Or Ami, whose vision statement declares the centrality of music within its first sentences. Our Cantor Doug Cotler brings original music/lyrics as well as new and traditional Jewish music to our services and celebrations. Doug’s singing invites us into Jewish spirituality; it inspires us, and transforms us. We are regularly inspired to sing even more intensely by the participation regularly of our Or Ami Chorale and our Shabbat Band Jew-bacca.

At Or Ami, we sing because our hearts need it.  We sing because our faith demands it. We sing because we know that music can transmit connection to community and the Holy One, and we desperately desire those connections.

Singing Brings Forth the Best In Us
Like Josh did, like Cantor Doug does, like Dan Nichols is doing, like Moses was instructed to create, music and song so often brings out the best in us – of our values, of our energy and of our joy.  Thanks Camp Newman, Congregation Or Ami and Torah for bringing it all together.

When Music Brings Awe: Singing with the Or Ami Chorale

At its root, Or Ami is a musical community. Between the inspiring music of our Grammy award-winning Cantor Doug Cotler, the uplifting and engaging sound of our Or Ami chorale, and the envelopingly enticing tunes of our Shabbat band Jewbacca, we sing our way through joyous celebrations, moments of sadness and everything in between. This past Friday night provided yet another example of the powerful centrality of music in our congregation. [View Michael Kaplan’s pictures of the Chorale and Installation. View Michael Kaplan’s Chorale Installation Music Video]

We gathered to celebrate Shabbat, worship the Holy One, and install our new Board and Officers. We schlepped nachas (shared joy) as one of our students prepared to become a Bar Mitzvah, shed tears as we welcomed some families back into the embraced of the congregation as they mourned the deaths of loved ones, and said prayers of healing for our loved ones undergoing surgery or struggling with illness. And we did it all within the caress of song and musical prayer. 
The Or Ami Chorale hails from the earliest days of the Congregation. Founded and led by the late Judith Berman, and now conducted by the talented Bettie Ross Blumer, the Chorale is as far removed from the 1950’s Temple Choir as today’s approachable clergy are from the rabbis on high from days of old. Said differently, this Chorale invites us in, makes us want to sing/pray along, and rocks to a melody and beat that might make the early Reformers turn in their graves, but brings us to a place of spiritual wholeness. 
At one moment they are drawing us close into Kabbalat Shabbat with songs that make us dance in our seats.  The next, they are the surreptitious niggun (lai-lai-lai) singing under the creative words of the Maariv Aravim prayer. Before we know it, the Chorale is settling us down with a beautiful rendition of L’dor Vador, marking the unbroken transmission of Jewish truths: that there is a praiseworthy Holy One, that we too can live holy lives. The message is emphasized again as they (we!) sing K’doshim T’hiyu, a flowing melody, written by a congregant-composer, which urges us to strive for holiness by living ethically.

Before, after and in between, we become lost – in the most spiritually satisfying way – in the masterful musical selections, prayer settings and original music of our own Cantor Doug Cotler. Yes, soloists inspired awe in us; the instrumentalists brought us stirring music. Then, the Chorale closes the service first with a rendition of Oseh Shalom so reminiscent of the best of Baptist choirs that some do a double-take to ensure that these are Jews rocking Judaism, then bringing us to our feet, swaying and singing to Cantor Cotler’s Adonai Oz.

Music speaks louder than words, I remember singing with other Jewish youth in the 1970’s and ’80’s. This past Shabbat evening at Or Ami, listening to and singing along with the Or Ami Chorale conducted by Bettiee and with our Cantor Doug Cotler, once again reinforced this universal truth.
Thank you to all who sang. You touched my soul; you lifted us up spiritually.  Thank you. 

Bruce Springsteen, Dan Nichols and Electrifying Music





Music is like that. Electrifying, exhilarating, intoxicating. Music can transport us to higher planes of existence. I notice it whenever we go to a concert. Or go dancing. When just sitting in the sanctuary listening to Cantor Cotler when he is in the groove.


Connecting Teens Thru Music
If you want your kids to connect Jewishly, bring them to a Jewish Rock Concert. Watch them interact with their peers, even those they don’t know, as the music transforms them and transports them.


Watch Dan Nichols singing Redemption.]

A Mosh Pit in the Sanctuary
So we invite you to connect or reconnect your kid to Judaism and Or Ami in a uniquely energetic way. Bring them (yes, you should attend but like me will sit toward the back and sides, while the kids are in a mosh pit in the center of the sanctuary). The concert is appropriate for all ages, but every 6th-12th grader should be at or Ami for that 1+ hour experience. Adults should come too.

Tickets are only $10.00 ahead of time (reserve yours online here) or $15.00 at the door. Seats will sell out, so reserve yours now. Reserve your tickets here.

Music speaks louder than words. Make sure your kids and their friends are at Or Ami for this Jewish Rock Concert. 

Redemption Comes Thru Singing

For me, Congregation Or Ami is most compelling when we are singing together. Music uplifts, inspires, teaches, transmits values, is joyous, is fun, can be transformational. Our Cantor Doug Cotler encourages and invites others to sing with, play with, and create the music that celebrates holiness and the Holy One.

Our Vision and Values place “musical” within the first lines of self-description:

At Or Ami, people matter. Congregation Or Ami is home to a warm and welcoming, innovative, musical Jewish community. We deepen relationships with each other, while immersing in Torah, Israel and the Source of All Life. We travel together down Jewish paths which inspire our hearts and souls, and transform us to seek justice and nurture compassion in the world.

Our High Holy Day services were once referred to as “Yom Kippur, the Musical”, in recognition of how central a part music – traditional, innovative, contemporary – plays in these Days of Awe.

Thus I was particularly grabbed by a South Jerusalem posting about a Midrash (rabbinic story) which suggests, according to Haim Watzman, that singing the Song of the Sea (Mi Chamocha) was not a reaction to redemption, but part of its cause:

…at the end of the midrash, God says that he has been waiting for someone to sing to him. That seems to imply that, in some sense, the Song at the Sea was not a reaction to redemption, but part of its cause. In other words, the physical redemption from slavery could become the spiritual redemption from slavery only when the Children of Israel found a way to use language not to complain, not as an instrument for achieving some practical result, but in order to express gratitude, wonder, and joy. In turning everyday language into poetry, they completed the circle that connected them to their God. In singing, they raised themselves toward heaven.

No doubt that singing at Or Ami – with Cantor Doug Cotler, with our Or Ami chorale, with our band (currently Blue Suede Jews), with our many lay-led shlichay tzibur (worship leaders) – is the reason that so many feel so spiritual when we are together. Redemption comes through singing. Redemption comes FROM singing!

#7: Candle of Cool Music

With just two more days left until Chanukah concludes, its time to jazz up your celebration. We all have old favorite Chanukah music and songs. Like our Cantor Doug Cotler does regularly, a group of Jewish musicians have taken old Chanukah songs and put them in exciting new musical vessels. Here are five newish songs.

Listen to them with your loved ones and then vote on your favorite on the top right of the blog.

Hip Country Western Dreidel by Julie Silver, It’s Chanukah Time
She’s Cantor Doug’s Friend.
Listen here.

Upbeat Dreidel by Sacha Baron Cohen, Songs in the Key of Hanukkah
Watch a Video of the song Dreidel
Listen to National Public Radio’s interview with the singer.

Swingin’ Dreidel by Kenny Ellis, Hanukkah Swings!
Listen here.
Watch a video of Kenny’s Dreidel

Reggae Chanukah: Nes Gadol by Reggae Chanukah

Jazz Piano Dreidel by Jon Simon, Hanukkah and All That Jazz

Don’t forget to vote for your favorite on the top right side of the blog.

Blog Tzedakah: Thanks to the three of you who left comments, I donated $9 to the Madraygot 12 Step Addiction Education and Prevention Fund. Through your comments, I have donated a total $162.00 to tzedakah.

I gave my blog Tzedakah today by donating blood to the American Red Cross. They took a lot of it. The experience was wonderful, except for the part where they pricked my finger (that’s always the worst part).

Chag Chanukah Samayach – Happy Chanukah