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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

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Joey Weisenberg, center, leads singing at a wedding on April 28, 2013. (Marta Fodor)
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Even as the center gets up and running, estimated to take two years, Weisenberg continues to spread his gospel. This past week, he taught at Hava Nashira, a massive music workshop that draws 300 song-leaders from the Reform movement each year in Wisconsin. He’ll co-teach a four-day workshop in mid-June in Berkeley, Calif., that focuses on creating singing communities. And in July, he’ll lead workshops at the North American Jewish Choral Festival in New York’s Hudson Valley, which draws more than 500 singers yearly.

That itinerary comes on the heels of Weisenberg’s latest recording in May, Joey’s Nigunim Vol. III, Live in the Choir Loft—his third album—featuring his eight-member band, Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble, with original compositions of Jewish spiritual music that includes elements of jazz, Balkan, soul, flamenco, bluegrass, and blues styles. It will be released later this year. The recording session, done in the choir loft of the Kane Street shul, where the band performed Tuesday nights for months, was classic Weisenberg: A crowd of about 30 friends packed into the loft. Three vocalists, including a Hasidic cantor and two women, added harmonies that floated over melodies. A klezmer violin master, a percussionist, and jazz lap-steel virtuoso rounded out the band, as Weisenberg led, sang, and played mandolin or guitar.

What Weisenberg teaches is easily accessible in his how-to book Building Singing Communities, A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Power of Music in Jewish Prayer. It covers such issues as the architecture of singing: using small rooms if possible; and leading from the center, not from the front, which breaks down barriers between performer and audience. He says you can create “communal intimacy” by bringing people closer together physically “to create a sense of connection and shared experience.” Employ rhythm, a lost art in the Jewish world, he says, to enhance Jewish singing, using the instruments of the synagogue, like the wood top of the amud or reading table to beat on, or the floor to tap on.

To see what’s possible, and what challenges Weisenberg faces, there’s no better place to observe than at Kane Street. Last year, he got the shul to move its shtender, or lectern, off the bima and onto the floor so the ba’al tefila can be closer to congregants. “It was a big decision,” Bernhardt said.

On a recent Shabbat morning, despite the sanctuary’s cavernous Romanesque interior, the scene could have been anywhere in suburban Jewish America, as family and friends of a bar mitzvah boy filled the pews, though few sang the prayers. As more regulars showed up, Weisenberg took over during musaf, the last section of the morning service, and a noticeable shift in energy filled the room of about 300 people. A small cadre of men and women stood close to him, providing harmonies to his soaring, warm prayer voice. (“He’s like an old soul in a young body,” said Bernhardt.) They tapped out rhythms, too, with their hands, or stomped their feet on the floor in syncopated beats. Afterward at the kiddush over bagels and tuna fish, Weisenberg admitted that it’s still an effort to get people singing, and other members say not everyone is sold on the change he’s bringing. He admits that when he leads workshops elsewhere, as an outsider, he doesn’t have to worry about shul politics and stepping on toes.

Last summer at Shir Tikvah , a Reform congregation in Minneapolis, for example, Weisenberg flatly told members that just as many Americans, raised on TV, use musical cues from shows to tell them how to feel, too many Jews use decorum to trump their emotions, the temple’s music director Wendy Goldberg said. Since his workshop, she said, more members are standing to dance or clap when prayers move them.

Change has also come to Congregation Beth El, an 1,100-member Conservative synagogue in Bethesda, Md., where once a month Friday night services are done in the round and every second Shabbat morning is led from the middle, all since Weisenberg spent a weekend there last fall. Beth El’s Hazzan, Matt Klein, who invited him, said about the Shabbaton: “I was dancing on this wave of kavanah and davening energy—the most I had ever experienced in my two years here.”

On any given week, Weisenberg tries to re-create similar waves during a varied and busy schedule. One week in April, for example, he taught cantorial students at JTS, the Conservative seminary. He led his band on Tuesday night in a performance, preparing for the May recording. He taught rabbinical and cantorial students at HUC, the Reform seminary, on Wednesday, then led a children’s choir. On Thursday, he did a recording session with Noah Aronson, a rising star of Reform liturgical music. He led Shabbat services Friday night and Saturday morning at Kane Street and finished the week at a Spontaneous Jewish Choir workshop in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.

His mentor, Kaunfer, said about his student’s work: “It actually could make a significant change in the way that American Jews experience davening.”

Weisenberg said that much of what he’s teaching he’s learned as a musician playing in bands: “You got to be right next to each other to feel their notes, feel their energy. And that’s what we need in shuls across America.”

“Music teaches us how to listen,” he added. “It awakens us to the connections that we can foster in every moment. As we say on Rosh Hashana, ‘The great shofar is sounded, and the still small voice is heard.’ Let music teach us to be more sensitive to each other and to the world around us.”

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harrietg says:

Really interesting article. But I’m surprised there’s no mention of the music- and congregational-singing-filled services at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, which began this particular revolution in the 80s by encouraging people to join in and sing with kavannah. BJ services, which draw many hundreds of people weekly, are a blend of musical traditions (Carlebach, contemporary Israeli melodies, and piyutim, to name a few), and are highly participatory and deeply spiritual. Weisenberg’s work is important and wonderful, but this article makes it sound like he’s the first and only trailblazer.

Most people go nuts if you use a diminutive form of their name but this guy calls himself Joey. I wonder if it means he doesn’t have any status issues or if he is being cute or if that’s what his family always called him and he doesn’t think about at all.

disqus_cAG9Iukq5J says:

In response to the “Joey” issue, Joey has always been called Joey by everyone. He was named after his deceased grandfather with the same surname.
Signed, His Mother

the staged singing at Bnai Jeshurun has the authenticity of a lobster knish and the spontaneity of a presidential election debate.

the author was describing a small group without the structure and institutional overbearance that is antithetical to “speaking in tongues” or niggunim (even if the two have no connection to one another)

copying the most base features of the low-brow evangelicals is a cop-out on the part of a clergy that has no sense of tradition or even an understanding of the purpose of prayer

thewisebard says:

As one totally bereft of musical talent who has had the extreme good fortune to study a bit with Joey, i can only join the chorus in praise of his extraordinary gifts and devotion to enriching the range of Jewish musical, liturgical and spiritual experience. I am gratified that his talents, as well as his mentschlikayt, are increasingly being recognized across the spectrum of Jewish life.

Alan Jay Weisbard, Madison, WI (not Joey’s mother,although I hope this makes her proud!)

I’ve heard “reb Joey”; he couldn’t shine Shlomo Carlebach’s shoes

danman says:

Shlomo Carlebach was a letch who liked to show the shoes of pretty young women. Joey is an outstanding musician who is a much better example for young jews than the “heiliger” Reb Shlomo

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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

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