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Family reunites at Hoboken synagogue grandfather helped build

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Joyce Levine, third from right, gathered with family members on Dec. 5 in Hoboken at Mulligan’s, formerly the site of her grandfather’s laundry store. Photos courtesy Joyce Levine

A Hoboken synagogue sparked a journey into the past for a woman who recently learned about the role her grandfather played in that city’s Jewish community.

Joyce Levine of Washington Township earlier this year learned from her uncle that the Star of Israel synagogue in Hoboken at one point had a plaque bearing the name of his father, Levine’s grandfather, William Ressler.

The Hoboken Jewish Center, founded in the 1920s as a Conservative synagogue, merged with Star of Israel, an Orthodox synagogue founded in 1910, to become in 1947 the United Synagogue of Hoboken, which now meets in the former Star of Israel building. William Ressler had been one of Star of Israel’s founders.

“I immediately wanted to find out more about it,” Levine said.

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This plaque honors the founding members of Star of Israel, including William Ressler.

Levine called United Synagogue’s Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, who found the plaque in the lobby and took a picture of it for her. Because of the synagogue’s long history, the office receives several questions a year about family members who had at one time been involved in synagogue life.

“It is always exciting for us to get this kind of inquiry,” Scheinberg said.

Levine sent the picture to her uncle, who died last year. A few months ago, Levine attended the Hoboken Music & Arts Festival, where members of the United Synagogue had a booth. She told them about her grandfather, the plaque, and the photo Scheinberg had sent, and they invited her to a rededication ceremony at the synagogue on Dec. 5. Levine accepted and excitedly called family members, who also wanted to attend.

Ressler had owned a laundromat in Hoboken. Not expecting much, Levine searched the Internet for the address and learned that it is now a sports bar called Mulligan’s. She telephoned the owner, Paul Mulligan, and explained that her grandfather had once owned that storefront. Mulligan told her that the storefront still had the original glass panels, and he invited Levine and her family to come by during their visit for round of drinks on him.

And so, on Dec. 5, Levine and 19 other members of her family, including her children, grandchildren, and cousins, gathered for lunch at Mulligan’s before heading to the rededication.

At the celebration, synagogue leaders showed “Our Miracle,” a 15-minute video about the revival of Hoboken’s Jewish community and the history of the United Synagogue, which included a clip of Levine’s grandfather and his store.

“The reaction was very audible,” Scheinberg said. “They were very excited to see their relatives on screen and it was great for us to meet family members of some of the people who made [the synagogue] possible.”

In the sanctuary, Levine found another plaque bearing her grandfather’s name, this one on one of the pews.

“We all sat in that for a few minutes,” she said. “It was really exciting to know that was his pew and he sat in it. It was an amazing thing.”

When the visitors wandered upstairs, to the area that had formerly been the women’s section when the synagogue was Orthodox, Levine discovered another pew with a plaque bearing her grandmother’s name, Bertha.

“It was so wonderful for the family to come in really large numbers,” Scheinberg said.

During the rededication, Levine and her family were asked to stand and be recognized.

“It was very moving and a great moment in our family history,” Levine said.

Watch “Our Miracle,” a short movie about the revival of the Hoboken Jewish community, at www.hobokensynagogue.org/OurMiracle.php.

 
 

Menendez meets with Conservative rabbis

Egypt is a topic of 90-minute conversation

Sen. Robert Menendez met with a dozen Conservative rabbis from across the state in his Newark office on Feb. 10. During the 90-minute meeting, the conversation ranged from international concerns, including the unfolding events in Egypt, to sanctions against Iran to such domestic issues as health-care reform and bullying.

“It was a positive exchange,” said Rabbi Benjamin Shull of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, in Woodcliff Lake. “There wasn’t much in the way of disagreement of any kind.”

The meeting was arranged by the senator’s office, as part of an ongoing outreach to hear concerns of members of the community. It was coordinated by the New Jersey region of The Rabbinical Assembly.

“It was interesting that the senator was interested in hearing the voice of the rabbis of the Conservative movement,” said Rabbi Joshua Cohen of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, in Franklin Lakes.

The rabbis coordinated beforehand what questions to ask the senator. “Especially on some of the specifics of the future of the Middle East, and on health care, there was some disagreement among the rabbis,” said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken.

“Egypt visually and verbally dominated the discussion,” said Shull. “He spoke favorably about the desire of the Egyptian people for a more democratic government.”

“As we were speaking with him, we were watching the developments on the television right behind him. It was breaking news,” said Cohen.

On other international matters, “he spoke in favor of strengthening the relationships between Israel and the United States,” said Shull. Shull said he brought up the issue of “the Jewish people’s historical right to a country. I thanked him for the fact that he had spoken on the Senate floor after President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, noting that the president had omitted the link of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and that the Jewish connection to the land was not just due to the Holocaust.

“I asked him if this point would be brought up with the Palestinians, pushing them to publicly acknowledge that the Jewish people have a connection to the land. His response was rather evasive,” said Shull. “He said he would continue to make the point that needs to be made about the historical connection.”

The rabbis raised the issue of Iran, and Menendez stressed the importance of stopping Iran’s nuclear efforts, they reported.

On domestic issues, the rabbis raised the issue of bullying. “He emphasized that while the government can do certain things, lots has to be done at home. Parents have to teach our children not to bully and how to stand up against bullying,” said Shull.

Also on the agenda was Obama’s health-care reform. “It affects small businesses, which include many members of our congregations,” explained Cohen.

Menendez said that legislation isn’t always perfect, said Scheinberg. “He said that doesn’t mean you throw out the legislation, it means you improve the imperfections.”

The group also discussed immigration.

“I was remarkably impressed with his total command of the details of every issue,” said Scheinberg. “I appreciated his directness and passion.”

Also at the meeting from this area were Rabbis Fred Elias of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, David Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, and Neil Tow of the Glen Rock Jewish Center.

 
 

Hudson County’s Jewish community enjoys a growth spurt

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Cong. Mt. Sinai in Jersey City serves both “a start-up community and an older community,” its rabbi says.

If you live in Hudson County and are looking for a Jewish connection, HudsonJewish wants to hear from you. That’s the short name for Hudson Jewish Community, an umbrella group promoting Jewish life in the county.

Jewish life, which in the earlier decades of the last century flourished in Hudson, is seeing an infusion of new blood in the Hoboken and Jersey City area, said Adam Weiss, HudsonJewish chairman. At the same time, once-thriving Jewish communities on the edges of he county are in decline.

“Hudson County is undergoing a very significant change,” Weiss said, speaking of demographic shifts, and the area’s Jewish population reflects that.

As recently as the 1960s there were as many as 40,000 Jews in Hudson County, and at one time there were 50 synagogues. Now there are perhaps a dozen, Weiss said. Things changed. Younger people went away to college and never returned. Older people moved away or died, and the Jewish population dwindled. Weiss said it numbers about 12,000 now, citing the American Jewish Year Book.

But then things changed again. Younger people, some with young children, settled in the Hoboken-Jersey City area, to be near New York but at a more affordable price, Weiss said. Older people, “empty-nesters” whose children have grown and left their suburban homes, moved to the area, also to enjoy urban life and proximity to Manhattan.

To address the needs and preferences of the resurgent community, HudsonJewish has sent a survey to the some 1,700 people on its e-mail list. The questions involve secular activities — book clubs, discussion groups, outings to sites of Jewish interest, volunteer work, for example.

“We’re trying to give Jews a place to connect,” said Raylie Dunkel, HudsonJewish program director. Many are looking for a Jewish experience, maybe religious, maybe secular, she said. “People want to identify as Jews” and are looking for ways to do so.

The survey results will be presented and discussed Sunday at a bagels and lox brunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Stevens Cooperative School, 100 River Road in the Newport section of Jersey City. (For information go to hudsonjewish.org.)

“We’re an idea whose time has come,” said Rabbi Shlomo Marks of Cong. Mt. Sinai in Jersey City Heights, which overlooks Hoboken. “This area has a lot to offer,” he said, noting, as did others, the proximity to New York.

Rabbi Kenneth Brickman of Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, who is retiring this year, said that his congregation is a very different place now than when it was when he came to it 22 years ago. Most of the congregants were older, there was no religious school, nor were there bar and bat mitzvahs.

The Jewish rebirth began in Hoboken, Brickman said, and spread to Jersey City. Riding that crest, Brickman said, “We’re an active and involved congregaion” of 115 families, man of them younger but a substantial number of empty-nesters.

They offer “outreach” to interfaith couples and welcome gays and lesbians, Brickman said. After his retirement, Brickman said, he’ll be rabbi emeritus at this “wonderful congregation.”

The synagogues have a rich history. Beth-El, which is Reform, was founded in 1864, and its current site was built in 1926. United Synagogue of Hoboken, which is Conservative, was founded in 1905 and its building built in 1915 to serve its then immigrant community.

United Synagogue counts a membership of 315 families, on all life steps — singles, couples with young children, and older people, said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg..

Discussing the area’s ebb and flow of Jewish life, Scheinberg said the synagogue membership peaked in the 1920s, bottomed out in the 1970s, then began to grow, along with the larger community, in the 1980s and 1990s. Membership tripled in the last 15 years.

“The future is bright, we are delighted with a steady stream of new people,” Scheinberg said. He noted that the number of people moving away is matched with newcomers, and people are staying longer than they used to.

At Mt. Sinai in Jersey City Heights, Rabbi Marks said, “We are a mechitza” shul, and the area has an eruv, but he cited an openness to other traditions. “Our vision for the shul is an open-minded modern Orthodox community. We don’t judge. We are different. You have to come and sample us,” he said.

Marks, who came to Jersey City five years ago from the Washington, D.C., area, spoke of its history. “We are both a start-up community and an older community,” he said. “When the synagogue was built there were hundreds of Jewish families around here.”

Now, “we are managing,” he said, noting the neighborhood is a pleasing blend of working-class families and professional people living in condos. “It’s nice, it’s different, it’s changing,” he said.

There is a strong international flavor. Marks said a recent seder included speakers of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew, in addition to English.

The membership is not huge, with perhaps 60 to 70, or maybe 100 turning out on Rosh HaShanah, with about 30 on Shabbat, Marks said.

Joshua Bernstein, a resident of Jersey City Heights and a congregant at Mt. Sinai, said Jewish life is a necessity for him and his wife, Rachel. He is in the office furniture business and proximity to North Jersey is important, while his wife works in New York, so Jersey City is ideal.

“We are so happy with the community,” said Bernstein, who describes himself as traditional. “It couldn’t have worked out better. Our shul is a hidden gem.”

For the Orthodox, Cong. Sons of Israel has regular services, sometimes drawing newcomers, said Rabbi Nota Kuperman. The congregation is 100 years old, and the current building is 50 years old, the rabbi said.

The intergenerational character of the area was stressed by Cantor Marsha Dubrow, religious leader of Cong. B’nai Jacob in Jersey City. She said the 150 member-families included older members who are “aging in place” and younger singles and families.

The Jersey City area is s “community in transition, with significant gentrification.” She described the congregation as contemporary, egalitarian, and Conservative. There is an emphasis on programs in music and the arts, Dubrow said.

Dunkel, the HudsonJewish program director, is one of the empty-nesters. She and her husband, David, wanted an urban lifestyle and moved from Freehold to the Paulus Hook section of Jersey City, which she described as an “old historic district that has gentrified nicely.”

She doesn’t belong to a synagogue, but finds her Jewish connection nonetheless. Among HudsonJewish activities, she cited discussion sessions on “anything Jewish, from food to holidays,” as well as film screenings, wine tastings, and programs on interfaith marriage.

She cited a Tu B’Shevat seder and charoset tasting. A chavurah meets every six weeks, she said, mostly social but with some religious content. Upcoming is a Lag B’Omer celebration.

HudsonJewish helps fund a Holocaust studies program at Hoboken High School, which includes a trip to Holocaust sites in Europe. The students involved are mostly not Jewish, she said.

Moishe House, a program that seems tailor-made for a community like Hoboken, provides a “home” based focal point for those aged 22 to 30 who are past college but do not yet have families of their own, said Jeremy Moskowitz. He is the eastern regional director for the worldwide program.

“Our generation is waiting longer to get married,” said Moskowitz, and Moishe House provides a “vibrant home-based experience.” Moishe House works by training hosts and helping with their expenses. The hosts then use their own homes for the program.

Moishe House Hoboken has a core of some 50 participants, and a total of some 300, including Facebook and e-mail connections, said Josh Einstein, one of the three hosts for the Hoboken group. The others are Shira Huberman and David Rosen.

Participants come from surrounding towns and even suburbia, Einstein said, and run a range of religious observance. Among activities are Shabbat dinners twice a month, with typically 25 people taking part. They alternate cooking and ordering out, Einstein said.

Moishe House works with other Jewish organizations to “grow the boundaries of the community,” Einstein said.

The issue of education was raised. Bernstein, the Mt. Sinai congregant, sees that as a challenge for the community.

Right now, much of the population consists of couples without children or young families with toddlers. What happens when the children reach first grade? “We’re going to have to address this for the long-term community,” he said.

Marks, the Mt. Sinai rabbi, said preschools can be started in storefronts, for example. Car-pooling is an option, he said, and noted that Jersey City is less than a half-hour from yeshivas in Passaic and Teaneck, for example.

Over in Hoboken, Rabbi Scheinberg noted the United Synagogue preschool program, where Judaism is an important part of the curriculum. Parents send their kids, and then realize how much they themselves want Judaism to be part of their lives, he said.

While the main population growth appears to be in Jersey City and Hoboken, other Hudson County municipalities have Jewish populations. Bayonne at the southern end of the county is one. Ohav Tzedek is 75 years old, said Joel Shulman, president of the Orthodox congregation.

The shul’s heyday was the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, Shulman said. Over the years the number of older congregants has dwindled, but some younger people have joined.

“These things go in cycles,” Shulman said. “We are always looking for new members.” Bayonne is also home to Temple Beth Am, Reform, and Temple Emanu-El, Conservative. (See related story.)

Weiss, the HudsonJewish chairman, explained that Bayonne does not have the same transit links and proximity to New York and so has not drawn many new residents, but that could change, he said.

In the northern part of the county, a more discouraging picture emerges.

Cong. Shaare Zedek in West New York was founded in 1912, and through the following decades was a thriving Orthodox congregation with up to 500 member-families, said Dan Kaminsky, vice president of the congregation. His great-grandfather, Hanoch Richman, was the founder, he said.

The congregation served as a Jewish community center, with its basketball court a popular attraction. “This was the place to be,” he said.

Then, in the1970s, Jews started to move away and the Jewish population steeply declined, Kaminsky said. He was proud to note that the shul has a minyan every Saturday and that High Holiday services still draw about 20 worshippers.

Kaminsky said he, his brother Alan, and his father, Bernard, regularly attend services at Shaare Zekek “so we can keep our great-grandfather’s dream alive.”

“We can’t let the synagogue die,” he said.

Kaminsky said they hope for a turnaround, believing there are many Jewish families in the nearby Galaxy Towers condominiums in Guttenberg, and perhaps demographics will shift again and more Jewish families will move into the area.

In North Bergen, Temple Abraham would draw “hundreds” of congregants for Shabbat services beginning at its creation in the 1940s, said Presidium Jeffrey Bernstein. Then, over the years, members just moved away, many to more spacious Bergen County to the north. Now there are just a handful of regular congregants, he said,

A more positive picture emerges at the Conservative Temple Beth El, also in North Bergen, where Rabbi Ilan Glazer said the membership is growing. He said there is a core membership of some 60 families, and there is an outreach effort to connect with Jewish residents of the new housing in the area.

“We’ve turned the corner,” Glazer said, and programs and holiday events have succeeded in bringing participants to the synagogue.

Weiss said the Jewish population in North Hudson — Union City, Weehawken, Guttenberg, West New York — is likely growing, but many of the newcomers are not affiliated with Jewish institutions, and it’s hard to know how many there are.

Growth is evident in different ways. Speaking of Jewish sustenance, Scheinberg in Hoboken noted another kind — for the first time in a long time, there are two kosher restaurants serving the Hoboken-Jersey City area.

“It’s great to be here,” he said. “With each passing month it’s becoming easier to live a vibrant Jewish life.”

 
 

In economic slump, congregations aid unemployed

Synagogues and their rabbis have been taking on extra roles as congregants have lost jobs in the Great Recession.

They have offered employment-networking programs and informal job banks.

They have offered dues-reductions for people struggling.

And they have been counseling members stressed by economic problems.

Congregational support programs for members who lost their jobs have been both formal and informal.

Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes helped establish an employment-networking program with fellow Reform synagogues Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Ramapo and Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, said the congregation’s Rabbi Elyse Frishman.

At the peak of the crisis, “We had a networking group and also a group focusing on job search skills,” said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken.

With their change in economic circumstances, “People who never thought they would be in the position of asking for a reduction of dues or tuitions from a Jewish institution — who saw themselves as the benefactors — were now in that position,” said Scheinberg.

“We’ve had a greater number of people who need financial assistance,” said Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter. “Anywhere from someone saying, I can’t afford the whole nut, can you take 10 percent off, to people saying, I can only pay 10 percent.”

Kirshner said that his congregation has successfully encouraged congregants to join as “patron members,” paying extra dues to help make up for those who can’t pay.

“We hope that people who are able to make a difference for those who can’t will make that difference,” he said.

At Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, in Ridgewood, Rabbi David Fine said that “even though we’ve had a number of families who have not been able to pay their dues because of their employment situation, the membership as a whole has increased its giving.”

Fine said that synagogues can “take a leading role in reaching out and giving community to people in need of it, as the community of the work place becomes more transient. That’s very important in trying economic times.”

Barnert Temple created a community support fund “to offer dues relief, in essence,” asking families who were able to support to help the families who were thinking of leaving the synagogue for financial reasons.

“We raised enough money to carry forth for three years,” said Frishman. “It was very helpful for people.”

The first year of the economic crisis had a direct impact on Frishman: The synagogue’s staff was asked to take a salary cut.

The following year, the pay cuts were restored, but on the whole, the synagogue’s budget “is growing tighter.”

At Temple Beth Sholom of Pascack Valley in Park Ridge, Rabbi Gerald Friedman has reached into his discretionary fund for synagogue programs that no longer fit into the budget.

Financially, “we’re down. We’re carrying a number of additional families on either partial or more complete scholarships. People can’t shoulder the burdens they used to be able to shoulder,” he said.

With the real estate market still frozen, new families aren’t moving in to the community, he said.

“I’ve heard from some of my grandparenty types that young people can’t move to Bergen County; it’s too expensive still,” he said. “That affects people, when you don’t get feeder families.”

Kirshner said that some congregants have pulled their children out from Jewish day schools.

“Not many. Some. It’s painful. In some cases, they pull their kids out because tuition goes up six percent and they got a 10 percent pay decrease. That 16 percent is tough to make up when you have three or four kids. We do what we can to help them.”

Friedman said that in addition to the financial crisis, members of his congregation lost money in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. All of this added up to what he sees as “a sense of uncertainty, a lack of confidence.”

“Real estate was so sure in America. When the stuff is so shifted around, what do you count on? What’s the rock?” asked Friedman.

Is it religion?

Friedman paused before answering.

“I don’t see a more varied chromatic, more in-depth absorption in Judaism. People who are on that path are doing it. I don’t see a greater proportion of my congregants reciting tehillim, psalms, or suddenly discovering the depth of Shlomo Carlebach’s songs. I don’t know what fills or solaces these terrible doubts. I try to speak the language of the spirit, that life is not only bank accounts and this and that, but if they don’t have this sense of it’s going to be OK, it’s very hard.”

Scheinberg said that he has counseled congregants going through “various kinds of personal financial crises, whether job loss or people who are underemployed or people who are now overworked because they’re expected to do what was previously the work of more than one employee.

“Sometimes I’m able to help them to have the courage to think creatively about new ways to approach their situation. Sometimes it’s helping them to face their fear.

“Often it’s helping them to realize that our lives are so much more than our work, even though we sometimes lose sight of that.

“Hopefully people can remember all the parts of their lives that go beyond career. There’s family and personal relationships, the role that one plays in one’s community, the role that an individual plays vis-à-vis the Jewish people and God. There’s our intellectual lives, our cultural lives, our spiritual lives.”

 
 

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.”

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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

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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.

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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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