Who would have thought that the Jewish values my wife and I hold most dear, and the texts from which they arise, were embedded in our hearts at those Jewish summer camps?
|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 timbrel – tof 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?
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.
|Josh Friedman sings along with Dan Nichols|
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.
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]
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 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.
Music speaks louder than words. Make sure your kids and their friends are at Or Ami for this Jewish Rock Concert.