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entries tagged with: Neil Tow


Synagogues unite for Shabbat

Shabbat Across America celebrated March 4 locally and globally

It’s a weekly event that comes once a year. Shabbat Across America, now in its 15th year, puts Sabbath services and meals on the calendar for more than 600 synagogues of all denominations across the country and beyond.

The March 4 event is being celebrated in at least 10 area synagogues in a variety of ways, including a “Tot Shabbat” for children 5 and under (and their parents) at Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, a potluck dinner at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, and a catered dinner for 175 at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.

Shabbat Across America is project of the National Jewish Outreach Project, founded by Orthodox Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald in 1987.

“The first time we had 5,000 people participating in 50 locations. It’s grown by leaps and bounds. This year we expect 40,000 people to participate, in more than 40 states,” he said.

The program has spread to Canada, and this year to Liverpool, Germany, and even Cuba, where Drew University professor and Hillel adviser Jonathan Golden is taking 15 students to visit the Jewish community and celebrate Shabbat.

“Shabbat Across America underscores the importance of creating sacred time,” said Buchwald.

“We didn’t actually create Shabbat,” said Buchwald. “The Almighty created Shabbat. We’ve been proud to help market it for the Almighty.”

The Glen Rock Jewish Center will offer a special service starting at 6 p.m. for “people looking to learn a little about what goes on at a Shabbat evening service, with English, Hebrew, and transliteration,” said Rabbi Neil Tow. At 6:30 p.m., there will be a traditional Sabbath dinner, with more than 100 people expected to attend. Each table will hold materials for a discussion of teachings about Shabbat over the centuries. Full services will begin at 8 p.m., followed by an oneg and dessert.

“My hope is that this shorter service will give everyone a taste of what it’s like to be together in prayer on Shabbat, and hopefully people will choose to come back and be with us,” said Tow.

At Temple Sinai, Shabbat Across America coincides with the synagogue’s monthly Tot Shabbat program, which regularly features a Shabbat meal, a short service that includes songs and a story, and a craft project.

To mark Shabbat Across America, “We asked our families to invite a guest,” said Risa Tannenbaum, director of the synagogue’s early childhood center. The children will be making “Shabbat bags” to take home the texts of blessings for the candles, challah, and kiddush, as well as two candles and grape juice, “so they can celebrate Shabbat in their own home the following Shabbat.”

At the JCCP, Shabbat Across America “is more of an inreach event than an outreach event,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner. Most participants will be congregants, some regular Shabbat attendees, some not.

Weiner expects 175 people to attend the synagogue for the program, which begins with candlelighting at 5:30 p.m followed by services and then a catered dinner. The services “will have more of an emphasis on teaching as well as a big emphasis on participation” compared to the center’s standard Friday night services.

“Shabbat Across America is a very important program, one of the few outreach initiatives out there that really cuts across denominational lines,” said Weiner. “Every synagogue does it their own way, which is wonderful, but encouraging synagogues to do programming on such and such a date is tremendous,” he said.

Other participating synagogues in the area include Temple Emanu-El in Bayonne; Clifton Jewish Center; Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson; Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn; Temple Emanuel in Franklin Lakes; Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia; Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood; New Milford Jewish Center; Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood; Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge; and the Jewish Learning Experience in Teaneck. For an up-to-date list, go to


Setting the tone

David Bockman: Facilitating harmony

“I’ve always done a lot of musical things in whatever synagogue I work for,” said David Bockman, rabbi of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes. “It’s a part of how I am as a rabbi. Every rabbi is different in his job,” he added. Bockman, who has played trumpet since fourth grade, said he played in a number of bands at school — from marching bands to jazz ensembles to orchestras at school musicals.

“The high school had an orchestra,” he said. “A couple of us were music geeks. We didn’t sign up for the class, but we came in for the last rehearsal of the concert and they assumed we were good enough.”

To round out his musical endeavors, he also joined a medieval brass ensemble and a klezmer group.

As an adult, his musical interest has become more focused. Today, he mainly plays jazz, klezmer, and rhythm and blues.

“I don’t make a living as part of a band,” joked the rabbi. “I have this other job.”

Rabbi David Bockman jams at the Great Notch Inn in Little Falls. On the drums, owner Rich Hempel.

Still, the two parts of his life often intersect.

“Some people view [the rabbi] as the CEO of a synagogue, but every rabbinate is different, depending on the rabbi’s skills and strengths. Part of my rabbinate is music,” he said.

Bockman incorporates music into religious services, puts on performances in and out of synagogue, and has brought musicians into the congregation. He also participates frequently in jam sessions, “hosted by different people, different nights, in different places.”

Being a rabbi, however, is never far from his mind, even when he’s jamming.

On Wednesday nights, he teaches Israeli folk dancing, “then I go out and hit a jam session. There’s jazz in Butler, rock in Oakland, and R&B in Linden.”

“It feeds back into my rabbinate — it would have to,” he said. “I get sermon ideas from playing. Most years on the High Holidays I devote one of my sermons to something I got out of music or trumpet playing. It’s an easy connection with the shofar.”

To Bockman, however, making music is not just a personal experience. Rather, “Music has always been part of the Jewish experience,” he said, although he is quick to add that “we don’t know what it sounded like in the Temple. We don’t know what the experience was like.”

While working in New Orleans, Bockman said, he was part of the local music community, inviting area musicians to his synagogue for jam sessions on such occasions as Purim. “It meant something to the musicians,” he said. “They asked about it every year” in anticipation of the event.

After his mother died, he invited fellow musicians to join him in a “jazz sh’loshim” program to honor her memory. Sh’loshim is Hebrew for 30 and is the name given to the month following a person’s death. Memorial services held at the end of that time are also called sh’loshim. It was “a beautiful musical experience in her memory,” he said. “It was unique, but it also felt like it grew organically from the Jewish tradition.”

After Hurricane Katrina, Bockman led a “New Orleans style” jazz funeral at Cooper’s Pond in Bergenfield before Selichot.

“It paved the way for the determination to change and better ourselves and the world, which are the core themes of Selichot,” he said.

“Music is an important part of my life,” noted Bockman. “It’s a way I can contribute to the Jewish community and the world. Sometimes we get too staid and insular and don’t reach out. My way is to be traditionally Jewish, but to bring this aspect into it.”

Bockman said that playing the trumpet, specifically, has affected his davening.

“Some of my congregants have commented to me that they’ve never seen someone as happy when they’re davening as I am, that I really ‘get into the experience.’”

In addition, Bockman said, “I can help knit together a group of people harmonically when everyone is playing or singing together.

“My contribution never works as well with me as the only or featured soloist, but rather as a facilitator of harmony, of enhancing a shared musical experience.

“I excel at playing with other musicians and helping them find music within them that they didn’t know they had. I feel I function in much the same way in prayer. That’s why the traditional prayer structure is preferable for me. As a skeletal structure, it can facilitate the flow of rich music that I can help the participants to weave as an ensemble. That’s how I approach Kabbalat Shabbat. “I don’t perform it so much as facilitate the weaving together of a community that invites and embraces Shabbat together.”


Setting the tone

Neil Tow: Connecting and creating

Rabbi Neil Tow teaches school children songs using his guitar.

Several years ago, Neil Tow began to play the guitar.

“It’s something I thought about a lot over the years,” said Tow, rabbi of the Glen Rock Jewish Center. “I grew up playing the piano. I wanted something to sing with, share, and carry with me.”

Tow said that on June 11, a member of his community organized “a really wonderful social night of music at the synagogue. It’s the first time I played with a group and it was very positive experience. I had a lot of fun doing it.”

The congregational musicians all played at different levels, “some beginners like me and some of professional grade,” Tow said. Instruments included keyboard, bass drums, and electric and acoustic guitars.

“There were a number of musical acts that night,” he said. “We invited anyone who wanted to share a talent or musical offering.”

Tow said the evening “bonded him closer to congregants” as they shared in performing and singing mostly rock and roll classics. “We had a member who is a professional stage singer, the synagogue choir, a house band, and an a capella group. There was such a positive response. More than 100 people participated.”

He hopes to make the evening an annual event.

Tow said that in taking up the guitar, he wanted to learn to play the kind of Jewish songs he had learned at United Synagogue Youth groups and had sung at Hillel in college after dinner on Friday evenings.

“I always felt that I had the ability to sing the songs but not generate the music,” he said. “To strum and sing is a real gift. It’s a lot of fun and has helped build nice connections with [people] from the youngest kids through adults.”

Tow also brings out his guitar when Shabbat starts late, gathering congregants before sundown to sing Jewish songs. “I hand out song sheets,” he said, noting that the services attract members of various ages.

“I really feel it enhances the Shabbat experience,” he said. “It’s kind of a warm-up, [lifting] your voice and spirit before getting into the davening. It’s been a very positive thing.”

Integrating music into his religious life has been positive for Tow and the congregation.

“I’ve brought my guitar to small havdalah gatherings in private homes the past couple of years, and after a spirit-filled service we continue with Jewish, Israeli, and American songs,” he said. Such opportunities “offer additional venues to make positive relationships.”

Music, he said, helps make sacred texts more accessible. The words and ideas “come to life.” Chanting the Torah, for example, “brings out the meaning and helps you get to know the material. Music is a tool for memory. When you combine words and melody, it creates a stronger memory.”

Tow would like to connect with other rabbis who use music in their congregations. “How meaningful and helpful it would be if all Jewish professionals would share their musical best practices, melodies, and ideas,” he said. “There’s so much great material; it would be great to access it.”

Tow’s congregation has a part-time cantor and often relies on the musical ability of its members.

“I’m amazed at the amount of musical talent and knowledge among people in the community,” he said.

“Sharing music together is a way of creating something together,” he said. “Those connections can happen through regular teaching, talking, and dialogue. But an extra energy comes through when you share music together.”

Tow at times has played his guitar for others in the community, such as seniors groups.

It is a way to get to know people better, he said. “Music breaks the ice.”


Setting the tone

Robert Scheinberg: Sustenance for the soul

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg has loved music all his life.

“I play guitar and piano,” said the rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken.

“I started playing guitar at age 9 and piano at age 13. In college, I minored in theory and music history.”

Scheinberg is not a professional musician, he says, but music plays an important part in his rabbinate. “It’s kind of funny that these days I do more music in my career than many people I studied music with in college,” he said.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg playing at a wedding reception.

Scheinberg is one of the founders of the Columbia University a capella group Pizmon and was its first musical director. He uses his experience conducting to broaden the Jewish music scene in Hoboken. A capella is singing unaccompanied by any instruments, the use of which is forbidden on Shabbatot and other sacred days, according to traditional interpretations of Jewish law, as is the case in the Hoboken synagogue.

“The purpose of our shul choir is not to sing to accompany the prayer service, but to provide Jewish a cappella music at community events,” he said.

A composer as well as choir leader, Scheinberg (whose synagogue has no cantor) said the majority of musical things he does are connected to his synagogue, such as teaching Jewish music to the children in his preschool.

Scheinberg said his knowledge and love of music influence his approach to prayer.

“I encourage laypeople who lead synagogue services to be thoughtful about their use of melodies, balancing old with new,” he said. “Music enhances the prayer experience,” especially for those not fluent in Hebrew.

On Fridays when sundown is somewhat later than 7 p.m. — the time when Kabbalat Shabbat services begin at the Hoboken synagogue, but Shabbat is still a half-hour or an hour away — he uses his guitar to usher in the sacred day.

Scheinberg said that music helps him create deeper bonds with congregants, “especially those who are musical. We do a number of musical events every year.

“Music provides a tremendous wealth of useful metaphors for understanding various things about Jewish tradition,” he said. “Being a choral director and conductor is a favorite metaphor for being a communal leader. Everyone is doing something different, but hopefully in a coordinated way. The conductor can’t possibly do everything at the same time, but he helps people use their greatest skill in a coordinated manner so that no one overshadows anyone else. It’s a metaphor for that dimension of being a rabbi — communal leadership.”

The rabbi said that one of his favorite d’rashot, or interpretations of a religious text, centers on the section in Exodus 15, in which Miriam “took her drum in her hand” following the miraculous splitting of the sea, and led Israel’s women in singing and dancing.

When you consider how quickly the Jews left Egypt and how little capacity they had to carry things, he said, “How bizarre was it that she brought her musical instruments?” And yet, Scheinberg said, citing a tribute he wrote in February to the late songwriter Debbie Friedman, doing so led to one of Miriam’s “stand-out moments” in the Bible.

“When the Israelites did not even bring all of their necessities, the decision by Miriam and the other women to bring luxury items, like musical instruments, appears to have been a foolish, reckless decision,” he said. “But our tradition describes it as a prophetic decision. Miriam, in this episode, is described as ‘Miriam ha-n’viah, Miriam the prophet,’ and some commentaries specify that her act of prophecy was specifically that she encouraged the women to bring musical instruments with them out of Egypt. She knew that music is no luxury item; music provides sustenance for the soul of a people just as food provides sustenance for the body.”

“There’s no question,” said Scheinberg. “My congregants benefit from my love of music.”

“I love to jam,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. At my 40th birthday party, the shul asked what kind of event I wanted. I said a musical event, an open jam.” The jammers — playing folk, rock, and klezmer — included members of a band composed largely of congregants.

One “professional” whom he greatly admires is David Bockman (the second rabbi profiled here). “David is a musician of the highest quality,” Scheinberg said.

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