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entries tagged with: United Synagogue Of Hoboken


Community unites as ‘church’ pickets

Members of Westboro Baptist Church protested outside The Jewish Standard’s office in Teaneck on Wednesday. JOSH LIPOWSKY

A handful of members of the Westboro Baptist Church descended upon northern New Jersey Tuesday and Wednesday picketing Jewish organizations and some schools and other public buildings.

The openly anti-Jewish and anti-gay organization began its New Jersey tour on Tuesday with visits to the former office of the New Jersey Anti-Defamation League, the JCC of Metrowest in West Orange, and the United Synagogue of Hoboken. On Wednesday the group protested at Rutgers University Hillel, the Kosherfest showcase at the Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus, the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey in Paramus, and The Jewish Standard in Teaneck. The group had also scheduled stops at Elizabeth High School, New Brunswick High School, and Dickinson High School in Jersey City.

Fred Phelps created the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., in 1955. The organization is primarily made up of his children and grandchildren. It regularly stages protests around the country, appearing at military funerals and public events to promote its anti-homosexual agenda. Since April, the WBC has made Jewish organizations one of its main focuses.

Law enforcement groups as well as the Anti-Defamation League encouraged the targeted organizations not to counter-protest and to simply ignore WBC.

“It’s quite clear from Westboro Baptist Church — they don’t argue on this point — they simply seek publicity,” said Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s ADL. “Counter-protests generate more media interest and give the church more opportunities to have their activities broadcast to the larger public.”

United Synagogue of Hoboken agreed with the advice and decided not to respond, said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. Approximately 30 counter-protesters gathered across the street from the WBC picketers Tuesday evening, though the synagogue played no role in organizing them.

“We felt the proper response for our community — which was a decision many organizations have made — was not to counter-demonstrate,” he said. “It was a case where the head overruled the heart.”

Scheinberg praised local police for keeping the WBC and counter-protesters orderly. At no point did anyone inside the synagogue feel threatened, he said, nor were synagogue functions disrupted.

“I’m grateful to live in a country where there’s free speech,” Scheinberg said. “I’m happy to let the judicial system sort out where the line is between protected speech and incitement to violence.”

At Rutgers, students organized a massive counter-demonstration Wednesday morning that drew between 1,000 and 1,200 people, according to police estimates — far overshadowing the half-dozen WBC protesters. Initially, Hillel was going to take a hands-off approach, but after the protest received coverage in the student newspaper last week, students began organizing through Facebook. Hillel decided to take the lead and turn the rally into a show of unity at Rutgers, said Andrew Getraer, the organization’s executive director.

“The campus environment is very different from a local synagogue or JCC in that there are tens of thousands of people here who can do what they feel is necessary,” he said. “Once students spontaneously began to organize, the option of ignoring [WBC] and denying them publicity was no longer an option.”

The rally was more a display of unity among the school’s different religious and ethnic groups than a direct counter to WBC, said 19-year-old Sam Weiner, the son of Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the JCC of Paramus.

“It was amazing to see that many students from all different cultural, religious, and ethnic divisions come together in a Rutgers Hillel coalition to unite against the hatred that this group is espousing,” he said.

“We made this rally about Rutgers University,” he added. “This event was not about giving Westboro Baptist Church attention. This was about drawing attention to the fact that RU can stand united against hate.”

After about 20 minutes, WBC moved on to its next target, in Paramus. Instead of congregating across the street from UJA-NNJ’s building as originally planned, the organization moved to Century Road, closer to Yeshivat Noam.

WBC failed to disrupt daily business at the federation or the schools, and Joy Kurland, head of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council credited the policy of non-engagement and the support from local police.

“Their support and assistance in lending whatever they could to alleviate our fears … were clearly evident from the beginning of the process,” she said. “They were phenomenal as far as … keeping everything under control.”

Four protestors appeared early Wednesday afternoon on Teaneck Road, near the Standard’s office. A small group of reporters showed up as well, to interview WBC members. The Standard chose not to speak with any member of the WBC and issued a statement on how it balanced its duty to report the news with recommendations not to give the group publicity.

“It’s news when a Jewish institution is picketed,” the statement noted, “and this is a newspaper. We debated how to handle the situation and decided to give them the least coverage possible. Although they demonstrated near our building, we followed the ADL’s advice and did not engage with them. It was not easy to withhold our natural repugnance toward these people but we felt it was important not to give them a larger stage. We also wish the wider media would not give them a platform for their hate.”

Neuer praised the wider community — Jewish and non-Jewish — for uniting in the face of WBC. Paramus Mayor James Tedesco visited the JCC of Paramus during the protest Wednesday, and UJA-NNJ received a letter of support from the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.

“The hateful words of the Westboro Baptist Church were met by a message of respect and tolerance and by opportunities to educate our community about this group,” Neuer said.

More than 1,000 students, led by Sam Weiner, son of Paramus’ Rabbi Arthur Weiner, rallied at Rutgers Wednesday morning in a show of unity against the Westboro Baptist Church. Courtesy of Sam Weiner

Hudson County: A federation no-man’s-land?

Moishe House in Hoboken holds meetings like this one to plan programming for Jewish young adults in the area. Courtesy of Moishe House

Jewish life in Hudson County, home to thousands of Jewish young adults, has been on an upward swing in recent years, with new Jewish organizations opening up and working together with the area’s synagogues.

One major Jewish institution has not come to southern Hudson County, however: A Jewish federation, a local chapter of the Jewish Federations of North America, to raise money for and coordinate social services.

Joshua Einstein, a Teaneck native who now lives in Moishe House Hoboken, decried the lack of federation presence in a letter to The Jewish Standard last week.

Moishe House is a national organization that subsidizes housing for groups of young adults in exchange for their holding programs for local young Jewish adults. Einstein and his two roommates regularly have some 30 to 50 people in their apartment for Shabbat meals, study sessions, and social programs.

Unlike other Moishe Houses, they’re doing it without funding from a local federation.

“I find it very frustrating that we’re engaged in not just building a Moishe House community, but im yiritz HaShem [with God’s will] building institutions of a larger Jewish community in Hudson County,” he said.

Hoboken and Jersey City are transitory communities, he said, filled with thousands of young Jews who will eventually move to the suburbs. That population, he said, is woefully underserved and that will hurt the Jewish community down the road.

“For those five to 10 years there’s nothing for them to plug into while they’re in their apartments,” Einstein said. “The community’s not making an investment.”

In 2007 Adam Weiss formed HudsonJewish, a central forum for efforts to revive the county’s Jewish presence. The group organizes and promotes community events on its Website, which acts as the Jewish directory for the county.

“Apart from HudsonJewish there’s no organized voice of the community,” Weiss said. “So the conversation would probably need to start between one of the federations and HudsonJewish” if a merger were to take place.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken has been in the city for 12 years. He praised HudsonJewish, but said it does not fill the gap of a fully functional federation.

“I can only imagine the ideal, which is that a federation exists to assess Jewish communal needs and then raise funds to address those needs,” he said. “It’d be very helpful if there were a Jewish communal entity that played that role in Hudson County.”

He pointed to aging communities in Jersey City and Bayonne and the Jewish responsibility to provide for the elderly. His synagogue also runs a host of singles programs and has worked with Moishe House.

“We are trying valiantly,” he said, “to provide all the services that a Jewish community should have and to engage young adults in Jewish life — even without a federation.”

Southern Hudson County is not totally devoid of a federation presence.

Bayonne, south of Hoboken in Hudson County, does have its own Jewish federation, but it is focused solely on that city. The Hoboken/Jersey City region is part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Network of Independent Communities, which only provides for volunteers to raise money for overseas projects. Jewish Family Service of UJC of MetroWest extended its services to the Hoboken/Jersey City area in 2003 ahead of what some thought would be an annexation of the area.

Federation leaders reportedly decided not to annex southern Hudson County because it is not contiguous with the federation’s catchment area. Calls to the MetroWest federation were not returned by press time.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, which includes all of Bergen County, part of Passaic County, and northern Hudson County in its catchment area, offers some of its services to the Hoboken/Jersey City area.

“We do have a relationship with those parts of Hudson County in an ongoing way,” said Miriam Allenson, UJA-NNJ’s marketing director. “Either they have come to us for help and we have provided it or we have included them in our programs that are available to people and institutions in the UJA-NNJ area.”

According to Allenson, UJA-NNJ’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative has included southern Hudson synagogues in its programming; scholarships to Jewish camps, 16 percent of the total, have been provided to six campers from that area; and students from the area participated in a UJA-NNJ-sponsored Birthright trip this past spring.

“We’re delighted to work with them,” Allenson said. “There’s never been to my knowledge a time we’ve said no to them.”

North Hudson County — North Bergen, Secaucus, Union City, Weehawken, and West New York — affiliated with the federation’s precursor in 1988.

Moishe House, Allenson said, has not approached UJA-NNJ for any assistance.

“They’re welcome to come to us at any time for the resources that we have that we are able to provide them,” she said.

Annexing the region into UJA-NNJ, however, has not come up in discussions with area leaders, she said.

“We commend the efforts of HudsonJewish to provide Jewish community services for the residents of that geographic area,” said Howard Charish, UJA-NNJ’s executive vice president. “We also are very pleased about the progress they’ve made toward those goals. We have been, along the way, responsive to their efforts when they’ve called us.”

“We feel that it is the responsibility of an organized federation to help a neighboring independent community,” Charish added.

Weiss offered three scenarios for the region: A continuation of the status quo, the creation of a new federation, or the annexation of the area into an existing federation. All of the options have pros and cons, he said.

“There’s a strong desire to have the conversation and ask what can you do for us, what can we do for you, and what’s the best solution,” Weiss said. “It could be the best solution is to do nothing and continue the way things are.”

“There’s no reason you need to start from scratch,” Einstein said, “but that’s what we’re forced to do because nobody’s showing us the blueprint for the wheel.”


Rabbis’ statement takes on Ovadia Yosef, calls for moderate jewish voice

Rabbi David Greenstein, top, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg and Rabbi Ovadua Yosef

Urging a return to “authentic Torah teachings,” Rabbis Robert Scheinberg and David Greenstein have drafted a statement calling for an “open-minded and pluralistic” religious vision.

“We’re critical when we don’t hear voices in other religions teaching inclusiveness, compassion, and tolerance,” said Greenstein. “We need to create a strong Jewish voice as well.”

The document — which emerged after a discussion on the Conservative movement’s rabbinic listserve and emphasizes “pleasantness and peace” — has drawn more than 200 signatories, including individuals from each major Jewish denomination.

Several weeks ago, with the approach of Rosh HaShanah and the Mideast peace talks, “David Greenstein posted something on an e-mail list of Conservative rabbis suggesting that this would be a good opportunity for such a statement,” said Scheinberg, religious leader of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. “It appears to have resonated with a number of people.”

“It was immediately after Yosef’s statement,” he added. In late August, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef denounced peace talks with the Palestinians, dubbing them “evil, bitter enemies of Israel,” and called for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “perish from this world.”

Still, said Scheinberg, the joint statement was not simply a reaction to Yosef’s comments — though it did condemn his words in strong language — but a wider call for Jews, especially Jewish religious leaders, to speak out against Jewish extremism.

“The [Anti-Defamation League] was quick to condemn Yosef’s statement,” he said. “But we thought there should be a specifically religious voice doing so. With the controversy over the Islamic center in Manhattan growing, [we thought] it was somewhat hypocritical for the Jewish community to get very upset when Muslim moderates do not regularly, quickly, and forcefully condemn incendiary statements,” without Jews’ doing the same thing. “We hope to get it on the record that when a statement like this gets made by someone as prominent as Yosef, rabbis react with disgust.”

That wasn’t happening, said Greenstein, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, who conceived the idea of posting a petition on the Conservative listserve and later of making it public.

“The question is, what kinds of religious voices are going to be out there,” he said, adding that Yosef and others who agree with him have made such statements before and are likely to do so again.

Scheinberg added that as a Conservative Jew who has studied Yosef’s responsa, “learning a tremendous amount from him,” he is especially bothered by the Israeli rabbi’s incendiary statements, “since he’s very much within the canon prized by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.”

The joint statement, he said, suggests criteria by which the teaching of Torah is measured — “such as, does it foster pleasantness and peace.” While the piece originally was targeted to Conservative rabbis, it later “got passed on to some other places on the Internet where interdenominational dialogue takes place,” he said, attracting signers from other denominations as well.

In addition, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has since drafted its own statement, incorporating some of Scheinberg and Greenstein’s wording.

Greenstein said he’s not sure how all the signers learned about the statement, since “people were signing it before we did the extra outreach. I’m very heartened that this has become a cross-denominational venture.”

While the document has not drawn many Orthodox signers, Scheinberg said he has no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Orthodox leaders condemn Yosef’s statements.

He attributed the small number of signers to “a general wariness of a completely grassroots statement, not attached to any organization.”

“Rabbi Yosef was only the jumping-off point” of the joint statement, said Greenstein. “The main point was the affirmation of a challenge and an opportunity to teach a different kind of Torah. We can all unite for that and must continue to work toward it.”

The rabbi said he hopes the petition will “push, promote, and inspire more rabbis to reconsider the priorities of how, when, and to whom we speak about Torah, creating a more vibrant and just religious culture.”

“This year, more than ever before, we have to focus on eradicating extremism,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, religious leader of The Temple in Atlanta and former rabbi of Temple Beth-Or in Washington Township. Berg, who is Reform, signed the statement.

While Judaism exists “in argument and tension and the Jewish tradition is that no one agrees on much of anything, so many in our troubled world believe that there’s only one singular right way,” he said. “That’s a short step from thinking of ourselves as morally entitled.”

“If we believe that there is only one truth, then violence and death are sure to follow. In a democracy, we have to call upon religious leaders to come to the middle.”


Kirtan rabbi to bring blend of Judaism and Eastern spiritualism to Hoboken

Rabbi Andrew Hahn sets Hebrew prayer to Indian chants

Rabbi Andrew Hahn, second from left, brought his Kirtan Rabbi Band to Bhaktifest in Joshua Tree, Calif., in September. Hahn will perform his blend of Hebrew and Indian chants Saturday night in Hoboken. Courtesy Rabbi Andrew Hahn

A distinctly Indian melody flows from Rabbi Andrew Hahn’s harmonium. People rise from their seats, hips swaying, arms waving slowly through the air as they slowly repeat the Hebrew words Hahn is chanting.

This isn’t your abba’s Lecha Dodi.

Hahn, aka the Kirtan rabbi, will bring his unique blend of Indian and Hebrew chanting to the United Synagogue of Hoboken Saturday night. Kirtan is a call-and-response, participatory form of chanting that originated in the Hindu temples of India. Kirtan is also considered to be the highest form of yoga, bhakti or spiritual yoga.

“It’s a kind of street music for the masses,” Hahn told The Jewish Standard. “The idea is to have a lot of fun.”

Instead of the Hindu words of praise, though, Hahn uses short Hebrew phrases from the Jewish liturgy. He has Kirtan-ized the Sh’ma, Lecha Dodi, and even the Kaddish. Hahn now finds himself an ambassador, bringing yoga meditation to the Jewish world and Jewish wisdom and Torah to the yoga world.

“There is an initial hurdle as to what this is, but once it’s overcome people readily embrace it,” Hahn said. “For many people this is a way for them to connect with Judaism that they have not been able to before. The most common comment I get at a yoga studio is, ‘I haven’t touched Judaism in 20 years and this is the first time I get it.’ It’s very gratifying and quite unexpected.”

Hahn received his doctorate in Jewish thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary and he was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He didn’t want to be a pulpit rabbi, but he wasn’t sure what else to do. He went to Boulder, Colo., home of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, and took part in regular study groups with the rabbi. Hahn didn’t consider himself one of Schachter-Shalomi’s disciples, however, and he was still looking for how he fit into the Jewish world — and the job pickings were slim.

“I expected to maybe be a funky but regular Reform rabbi — wear a tie and give sermons,” he said. “I was ready to give back something and it wasn’t working out.”

Hahn fell into a depression, but in 2004 he received a CD of Sanskrit Kirtan from a friend. After listening to it, Hahn thought he could do the chants in Hebrew. He ordered a harmonium — a European keyboard instrument that became a staple in India after the British introduced it — and began setting Hebrew words to the chants.

Since then Hahn has brought his energetic chants to synagogues, conferences, and retreats. During his concerts — Hahn prefers to think his audiences are performing in concert with him rather than just listening — he typically gives a short explanation of the Hebrew words.

“Increasingly the way I’m teaching Torah is through this context,” Hahn said.

Hahn has performed for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform audiences, as well as yoga centers. He doesn’t push any particular view of Judaism with his music, he said. He wants it only to be a gateway to education.

“There’s no ‘ism’ in Kirtan,” he said. “It’s just let it be what it is, let people enjoy it for what it is, and allow people to trust their maturity and respect their spiritual decisions.”

Like Hahn, United Synagogue of Hoboken’s Rabbi Robert Scheinberg hopes people will look at Kirtan as a re-entry to Judaism.

“It’s always been very sad for me to see that for all of Judaism’s spiritual richness, there are some people who are never invited into Judaism’s spiritual doorways, and if the first time they’re invited into spiritual doorways it’s through another religious tradition, they just assume that tradition is spiritually richer than Judaism,” Scheinberg said.

There is a buzz in the synagogue about the program, the rabbi said, and he noted that some people who are planning to attend have looked outside of Judaism for spiritual fulfillment.

Hahn’s mix of Eastern chants and Judaism is “unambiguously Jewish,” Scheinberg continued.

“It’s Jewish, but in an art-form or an aesthetic form borrowed from another culture, and that’s something we’ve seen repeatedly in Jewish tradition,” Scheinberg said. “It is clearly in no way a religious or theological compromise.”

Hahn is known for his Kirtan and building a bridge between Judaism and Eastern philosophy, but the rabbi part of his title still outweighs the Kirtan side, he said.

“This is the way for me to be a rabbi,” he said. “This happens to be my rabbinate. The goal is to bring Torah or Jewish wisdom to the community, to both Jews and non-Jews.”

Josh Lipowsky can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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.”

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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