With Synagogue Membership Dwindling, Musician Looks to Show Meaning with Music
Joey Weisenberg may not look like a rock star. But staring at the crowd of more than 700 people on their feet at his recent weeknight concert at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, it became clear that he is one.
In the stunning sanctuary, some audience members stood on chairs, some sang along, and some even cried. Weisenberg is a virtuoso and the vanguard of a movement whose mission is to engage Jewish audiences with music to foster spiritual connections. He authored The Torah of Music: Reflections on a Tradition of Singing and Song, which won a National Jewish Book Award.
Weisenberg, the creative director of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute, has produced, performed, and taught songs that are being spread to congregations across the country. On this night, Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble provided some unforgettable tunes with tight harmonies and musicians at the top of their game.
His song “Shokhein Ad” boasted an infectious chorus with a verse that built up perfectly; it’s a song that should be sung in every synagogue. Rabbi Yosef Goldman delivered the vocals with a driving intensity.
“We’re on a stage praying together, and I feel a sacred responsibility,” Goldman said after the show.
Deborah Sacks Mintz showcased her angelic voice on “Lincoln’s Nigun-Yamin U’Smol.” The song features the words of the Friday night prayer, “Lecha Dodi.” Mintz, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said she was moved by the power of the crowd. Cantor George Mordechai, formerly of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, took the stage and brought the energy with “Suri Goali-Yah.” And “Bina’s Nigun” helped to provide one of the evening’s most powerful moments.
Shortly before the end of the concert, Weisenberg told the crowd that it’s not enough to have beautiful music.
“It has to be that our music makes us sensitive to the world around us,” Weisenberg said.
“Mimamakim” was a hauntingly beautiful niggun that Weisenberg later said was a way of channeling the Twerski Hasidim — his grandfather’s rebbes, from his hometown of Milwaukee.
Many in attendance said they were moved by what they witnessed.
Basya Schechter, founder of “Pharoah’s Daughter” and the chazanit at Romemu, said she was blown away by the performance.
“The ability for new melodies to catch fire, be lifted up in a scared place, be hip and soul-stirring is amazing,” she said.
Zach Mayer, the baritone sax player for Zion 80, agreed.
“I walk around humming the tunes all the time,” Mayer said. “Looking around now, I see the purpose of the music has been fulfilled. Everyone here is brought together. That’s the function of music at its core.”
Cantor Alty Weinreb of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott Massachusetts, was one of more than 200 people from Conservative, Egalitarian, and Reform synagogues across the country who took part in Hadar’s four-day Singing Communities Intensive at B’nai Jeshurun, which featured numerous workshops. He praised Weisenberg for having a plan to spread Jewish music and executing it.
“He is a one man think-tank who is helping forge a new musical pathway for Judaism,” Weinreb said. “He is a great songwriter and educator, and he is the antidote to the unaffiliated and estranged shul-goer who feels that the modern synagogue is boring, not interactive, and not relevant to their lives.”
Weisenberg, who has recorded numerous albums with the Hadar Ensemble, said he hopes all synagogues can have services that are interactive and allow congregants to sing along.
“It’s powerful when everyone sings, and it can also get quiet and there’s a beautiful and intense silence,” he said. “Sometimes the silence is just as good as the sound.”