Howl at the Moon. Boston. January 2013. It’s Rory Michelle Sullivan’s 26th birthday, and she’s the musical performer at this bar with a stage.
She’s singing three songs from her first album, “Turtledove.” Only she’s not performing them. As she tells the crowd, “This isn’t a concert. It’s a singalong.”
Even then, back when she was a singer-songwriter with a new album playing on a bar stage, Sullivan was a song leader at heart. Today, the 35-year-old Philadelphia resident and Tiferet Bet Israel member in Blue Bell leads singalongs in religious schools, summer camps and Jewish community centers.
Along with four studio albums, a musical called “Rising in Love” and a subscriber list with 654 fans, it is how she makes her living as a musician. Sullivan is the artist-in-residence and prayer leader at TBI. But she maintains the flexibility to record her music and do events outside of the Blue Bell synagogue.
“I call myself a musician because then people understand that I’m singing and playing guitar,” the East Kensington resident said. “But I view myself as a creative and an educator. It’s using the arts to get to something else.”
The educator likes to help kids and even adults embrace their spiritual journeys. The daughter of a Jewish mother and Catholic father begins each day by “meditating on the connectedness of it all,” she said.
“I’ve been given a new day, and this is a fresh start,” Sullivan added.
Growing up on Long Island, Sullivan came to believe that “God is at the top of the mountain,” as she put it. But there are many paths to get there. She thinks of Judaism as a method for accessing the kind of spirituality that can help you climb.
Hebrew schools, though, often focus on “holidays and the Holocaust,” as she explained. She knows how important those topics are, but she also tries to help young Jews go deeper into the religion’s spiritual side.
And the best way to access Jewish energy, according to Sullivan, is to sing. The singalong leader loves her job because she feels alive when people start singing with her. Her favorite moments are when she can belt out lyrics and then drop out as everyone else gets louder.
“And people are just singing,” she said.
Connecting with one’s spirituality has inherent value. But it also helps people figure out what they should do next in their lives, according to Sullivan. For her, adulthood has been a journey of the soul.
After graduating from Harvard University, she lived in Boston and wanted to be a singer-songwriter, so she recorded and released that first album. It had 14 tracks about falling in and out of love, finding an identity and clearing the mind.
Then she spent half a year living with a friend in Vienna and recording her second album, “Inner Child.” That one contained four songs, one called “It’s Time to Let Go.”
Finally, in the spring of 2014, she studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and connected on a deeper level with her religion. Sullivan read Jewish texts and wrote the songs that became her third album, “The God Album.” And during lunch one day, she got everyone to sing along to one of them.
A friend in her program, another musician named Max Jared Einsohn, said, “You should be a song leader.”
For the next several years, Sullivan worked as a song leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey. In 2018, she wrote “Rising in Love,” a story about an interracial Jewish couple “navigating love and relationships,” according to Sullivan. She also moved to Philadelphia and became part of Tribe 12’s fellowship program for Jews in their 20s and 30s who are trying to launch companies and other projects. “Rising in Love” has since been performed at theaters in New York City and Cincinnati.
Sullivan moved to Philly because she wanted a young Jewish community and a neighborhood vibe. She still likes those qualities and plans to stay. She is planning a year-long celebration in 2023 of her 10th year since breaking into the music profession with that Howl at the Moon show.
In January, the singer wants to do a similar show, featuring her secular songs, at the Howl at the Moon in Philadelphia. Then in the spring, she hopes to find a residency where she can fine-tune “Rising in Love.” And in the fall, she would like to do a series of artist-in-residencies at local Jewish communities.
Sullivan wants to ask deep spiritual questions around the High Holidays.
“Where have we come from? Where are we now? And where are we going?” she asked. JE