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Addendum to Symposium on Music in Jewish Life After the First-Ever Harmoniyah Music Retreat

This article appears in a slightly different form in the December issue of the RRA Connections, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

Music is flowing in the Reconstructionist movement! Voices raised with kavvanah, moving renditions of favorite classics, and brilliant interpretations of liturgy seamlessly intermingle with fresh explorations of the meaning of God, Torah and Israel in their broadest sense.

The November, 2007 retreat of Harmoniyah: The Reconstructionist Music Network brought together more than 40 music-lovers from 20 congregations in the US and Canada. During three days of davenning, singing, jamming, and workshops, we shared new ideas and practical tools for enriching congregational worship with music from a wide variety of genres. We opened up the conversation about where our music comes from and where we think it is going. We talked about core texts and prayers, about choirs and communal music making, about the role of traditional nusah (HWD) and bold new melodies, about chanting and about electronic instruments, about Shabbat and healing services. (For Harmoniyah, visit:

At the Saturday night kumsitz, a full array of musical styles was on display, from chant, blues and folk-rock to Ladino, Yiddish and klezmer offerings. And at the Sunday night panel discussion, which I had the privilege of moderating, we explored such issues as:

Can the Ashkenazic modes and melodies of many a childhood comfortably share space with Sephardic and Yemenite rhythms? Rachel Hersh Epstein’s Psalm 150 experiments with this question, producing a difficult (for us Westerners) but exquisite take on the popular sing-along psalm. As to the future, her prediction: funky fusion sounds.

Liz Bolton treated us to 8 or 9 different melodies for the Reader’s Kaddish. Many of them were easily recognized by the participants (High Holiday evening, Shabbat and so on). We did get stumped, though, on the particular nusah (HWD) for shelosh regalim between maftir and haftarah!

By being intensely personal, Shefa Gold hopes to be simultaneously universal. She spends a great deal of time with a single phrase, seeking its deeper meaning so that she can come into relationship with it before setting it to music.

Shawn Zevit believes that the leader who wishes to bring musical change must appreciate who we already are musically. Our grandparents and our childhoods are powerful influences on us all, and Shawn treated us to some of his family’s unique melodies.

What’s clear is that having a nice voice and enjoying leading congregational singing doesn’t itself prepare you for spiritual leadership and pastoral caregiving. In MIRAJ’s workshop on healing services, one of my goals was to teach laypeople who sing to also lead, because the role will often be thrust upon them by virtue of their musical talent. What’s more, healing services and bedside rituals are powerful, private moments of spiritual transition that can profoundly benefit from a compassionate musical presence. Just as in other aspects of our rabbinates, the “conscious use of self” is essential. MIRAJ “consciously uses” itself in a model of shared spiritual leadership. We assert comfortably, yet yield effortlessly, whether teaching, leading joyous musical services, or giving a concert. There’s a dynamic flow among our voices. Harmony down below, in the service of creating harmony up above. Ken yehi ratzon!
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