A Brooklyn-Based Prayer Leader Heralds a Revolution in Jewish Music
Joey Weisenberg’s music workshops—blending a democratic approach with a range of traditions—aim to boost engagement
On a recent Saturday evening, as Shabbat began to fade, two dozen men and women, most in their 20s and early 30s, were slowly belting out a long niggun, a wordless melody, sitting in a close circle in the chapel of a Brooklyn synagogue. When their eyes weren’t closed in this meditative chant, they were watching Joey Weisenberg. He was leading a discussion on effective prayer leadership skills, but for the moment, Weisenberg wanted them simply to feel the mystical power of singing together. One melody, over and over and over. “Instead of changing melodies,” he said, “let it change our selves.”
Weisenberg, 31, is on a mission. A ba’al tefilah, or prayer leader, as well as a musician and teacher, he wants to reinvigorate Jewish life through song. He believes it can be done through what he calls Spontaneous Jewish Choir workshops, like this one in Brooklyn: normal people singing together, imperfectly perhaps, but making beautiful music—at synagogue and at home.
Despite a humble demeanor and a disarming smile, Weisenberg—or Joey, as everyone calls him— has the chutzpah to claim his work is “laying the groundwork for a revolution in American Jewish musical culture.” Many Jewish leaders who work with him believe that, too, and they’ve seen the evidence.
“People desperately want to come out of hibernation,” said Weisenberg, referring to what he sees and hears in so many American shuls. “You feel this deep sleepiness,” he said of those communities.
What’s unique about Weisenberg is that he’s working on so many different levels. He’s weaving back together strands of Jewish music that have grown apart, articulating a vision to foster communal engagement and unity through music, playing his part to transform Jewish culture into one that listens more carefully. Unlike most talented musicians or cantors who want to be at the center without involving amateurs in creating music, Weisenberg takes a democratic approach to his work, inviting people of all skills to contribute, teaching them how to be better and modeling what could be.
The recent niggun workshop in Brooklyn showcased that approach. Singing niggunim isn’t new; Hasidim have been doing it for generations. But Weisenberg brings an aesthetic to the effort rarely heard elsewhere, focusing on the quality of the effort, the rhythm, the possibility of movement and dance, the space, even the chair setup. Every melody, he believes, has the potential to be incredible, a revolutionary approach that shifts the conversation away from the tune and toward how participants bring themselves to the melody, an approach he says he tries to bring to life.
Weisenberg is also striving to use music to bridge divides between Jewish denominations and subcultures. Non-Orthodox Jewish communities, he says, often have a lot of musical experience, but they don’t know Jewish music in particular. Conversely, the Hasidic world knows a lot of traditional Jewish music but lacks musical training, technique, and, to some extent, creativity. “What I’m trying to do,” he said, “is break down some of the walls between different disciplines in Jewish life, because you find lots of talented people in the Jewish world, and we need to be able to learn from all different types of people.”
Weisenberg’s ambitions reach far beyond Brooklyn. This spring he recorded a new CD of original Jewish music and created a new national organization to help congregations actualize his philosophy. In short, in terms of potential impact, he may be the next Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman.
To read his biography, you would think Weisenberg was always destined to assume the role he’s playing in the Jewish world. He’s a sixth-generation Milwaukeean, son of two accomplished musicians, whose maternal grandfather’s great-grandfather moved there from Germany in 1856. He adored his maternal grandfather, Milton Ettenheim, a music lover who was a classic Reform German Jew and follower of the Milwaukee Rebbe, Rabbi Michel Twerski, a famous Torah teacher and composer of Hasidic melodies. Weisenberg says his visits to the Twerski shul, experiencing the power of the niggun, had a lasting effect on him: In his 20s, he began tracking down as many old Jewish melodies as he could, notating and memorizing them, from New York to Transylvania. That upbringing also came to define his Judaism, a trans-denominational one, comfortable in vastly different Jewish worlds.
At Columbia University, where he majored in music theory and composition, he started the Columbia Klezmer Band. By the time he graduated he was developing a reputation as a mandolin and guitar virtuoso. He played and recorded with dozens of bands and master musicians, including several klezmer revival groups, relishing the creative energy among young Jewish musicians in downtown New York. But he also noticed that they wanted nothing to do with what he called “the shul world.” Any why would they? To Weisenberg and his fellow musicians, the mainstream religious world was “just re-hashing the same thing over and over again,” he said, not just in the way it prayed, but also in its overall attitude about synagogue life, lacking a creative spirit or curiosity about the ever unfolding moment.
It was around then, in 2005, that the trajectory of Weisenberg’s life changed when he met Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar, a New York institution with a traditional egalitarian yeshiva and a mission to empower Jewish communities nationally. Kaunfer knew that on the side Weisenberg was interested in teaching people how to sing. It was Shavuot, and at Hadar’s annual retreat in upstate New York, where participants stay up all night learning, Kaunfer asked Weisenberg to take the 4 a.m. slot just before a sunrise service.
“I figured we’d sing a bunch of songs, trying to keep our eyes open until sunrise,” Kaunfer recalled. “But Joey said, ‘We’re going to learn just one melody tonight.’ A two- to three-minute melody for an hour meant singing it 20 times,” Kaunfer recalled calculating. “We clapped out the beat. I thought, if he can keep people awake at 4 in the morning, teaching them one niggun, this guy has a lot of talent.” People were enthralled, Kaunfer said: “I think he is the greatest Jewish music educator on the planet.”
Three years later, Weisenberg was a faculty member of Hadar’s yeshiva, teaching. He now teaches at seminaries, too, including Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
He never went to one of the professional seminary cantorial schools; instead he’s learned nusach the old-world way, under the tutelage of another hazzan, in his case Cantor Noah Schall of Queens. In 2007, Weisenberg was hired as music director at Kane Street Synagogue, which in many ways is a typical Conservative synagogue. It dubs itself the oldest Jewish congregation that still serves the Brooklyn neighborhood in which it was founded.
“He’s made a huge impact [at the synagogue],” said Elise Bernhardt, a Kane Street member and president and CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Culture. Soon after he came on board, Weisenberg’s Friday night services were often jammed. His alternative High Holiday services always sell out. Last Yom Kippur’s alternative service, said Bernhardt, was so moving that “the day went by in 20 minutes. I didn’t know I was fasting.” He also produced a book, or songster, of more than 100 melodies he collected from Kane Street members.
His impact could start to ripple across the country. This spring, he and Mechon Hadar created the Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music, the vehicle that could propel Weisenberg’s vision forward.
Weisenberg is the center’s founder and creative director. By the end of the year, a new website under construction will feature hundreds of niggunim and the different nusach, or melodies, of hundreds of prayers, which Weisenberg and other cantors or prayer leaders will record. The center also will produce a CD of Weisenberg-original melodies, adding to the lexicon of prayer music. And it will organize weekend workshops across the country, including weeklong intensives in New York and on the West Coast, which Weisenberg and other Hadar fellows trained in his mold will lead.
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