Update: This article previously stated that Elie Kaunfer was rosh yeshiva, in addition to CEO, and incorrectly stated that Rabbi Yosef Goldman was currently employed by Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel.
Joey Weisenberg invites you to sing along. That’s the idea, anyway, with the Rising Song Jewish Music Residency, which just welcomed its first full-time residency program at the Germantown Jewish Centre, the culmination of years of dedicated work.
Seven promising young Jewish spiritual leaders, all focused on music, will spend the next year honing their technical skills — as musicians, composers, singers — while learning how to use those skills to make a greater impact in their respective communities. In other words, they’re going to get a little louder.
“Imagine a world in which people were singing together, and that singing allowed people to hear the nuances of each other,” Weisenberg said. “That’s what we want to see in the world.”
Put another way: He wants to create ba’alei neginah, his play on ba’al tefillah. Meaning: “Folks who can instigate music and spiritual life in the Jewish world,” he said.
The Jewish Music Residency is a project of the Rising Song Institute, the musical wing of the Hadar Institute, an egalitarian yeshiva based in New York. Weisenberg, the institute’s founder and co-director, is a prolific musician and writer, deeply interested in the possibilities of communal music.
Along with co-director Rabbi Yosef Goldman, formerly of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, a musician as well, Weisenberg will guide the seven residents — Rena Branson, Rebekka Goldsmith, Eitan Kantor, Batya Levine, Gedalia Penner, Sam Tygiel and Rabbi Ariel Root Wolpe — who have moved from across the country for this residency, in their studies. It will be a year of intensive study.
“We take very seriously the idea that when we sing together, we are connecting to something greater than ourselves, that that’s a sacred, spiritual, prayerful function,” Goldman said.
The Rising Song Institute began as the Rising Song Fellowship, a series of retreats where 18 accomplished Jewish musicians came together in communities worldwide to make music with one another and with the people around them. Weisenberg’s goal was always to expand, and it’s grown into more; the fellowship still exists, and the institute, now more formalized and folded into Hadar, produces collaborative books and albums that seek to further their mission. Rising Song Records, they call it.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Hadar’s CEO, sees the institute, and the residency in particular, as another way of furthering the mission of creating “vibrant, egalitarian communities,” he said, where shul can become (or remain) “powerful and relevant” to the lives of 21st-century Jews. It’s not an easy task, but it’s not impossible. “I don’t think there’s a glass ceiling on prayer in the United States,” he laughed.
Philadelphia, according to Weisenberg and Goldman, was a natural choice for the residency. Besides its relative affordability, compared to New York, they also see “a lot of potential, culturally and Jewishly.”
“It’s beautiful and rare, the way that the musicians, prayer leaders and clergy in the Philadelphia area work together to build community and collaborate on musical projects,” Weisenberg said.
It is also a homecoming for Wolpe. She is the granddaughter of Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, the longtime Har Zion Temple leader who was an institution in his own right. Wolpe only attended Har Zion until she was 11, when the family moved to the Germantown Jewish Centre, where the residency is located.
“It’s amazing to get to come home to the place I grew up,” she said.
Even growing up in that milieu — two of her uncles are rabbis — it was not until after college that she took seriously the idea of becoming a rabbi. She’d played guitar, however, for some time before the rabbinate began to seem like a possibility.
Living in the Bay Area, Wolpe was exposed to alternative models of Jewish leading — and “a lot of alternative models of a lot of things,” she laughed. It was where she most fully experienced the idea of “Jewish music leadership as a tool for creative community and bringing communities together.”
Her experience in rabbinical school was “painfully unmusical,” she said, and she longed for Jewish education that could marry her communal interests with her musical ones. Cantorial schools, she believes, don’t really offer that kind of training.
“It’s what Jewish music needs to be right now, and there is no ordination track that offers it,” she said.
And that is why, long after she believed she was finished with education, she’s back for another year with the residency, which she’ll complete while she finishes a book she’s writing and serving as artist in residence at Adath Israel. It’s a special opportunity for her.
That is, as the saying goes, music to Weisenberg’s ears. “The music is only the first step,” he said. “It’s about the way that music brings us into relationship with each other and allows us to listen to each other, which is something that’s direly needed in the world.”
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