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A Brooklyn-Based Prayer Leader Heralds a Revolution in Jewish Music

Joey Weisenberg’s music workshops—blending a democratic approach with a range of traditions—aim to boost engagement

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Joey Weisenberg, center, leads singing at a wedding on April 28, 2013. (Marta Fodor)
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On a recent Saturday evening, as Shabbat began to fade, two dozen men and women, most in their 20s and early 30s, were slowly belting out a long niggun, a wordless melody, sitting in a close circle in the chapel of a Brooklyn synagogue. When their eyes weren’t closed in this meditative chant, they were watching Joey Weisenberg. He was leading a discussion on effective prayer leadership skills, but for the moment, Weisenberg wanted them simply to feel the mystical power of singing together. One melody, over and over and over. “Instead of changing melodies,” he said, “let it change our selves.”

Weisenberg, 31, is on a mission. A ba’al tefilah, or prayer leader, as well as a musician and teacher, he wants to reinvigorate Jewish life through song. He believes it can be done through what he calls Spontaneous Jewish Choir workshops, like this one in Brooklyn: normal people singing together, imperfectly perhaps, but making beautiful music—at synagogue and at home.

Despite a humble demeanor and a disarming smile, Weisenberg—or Joey, as everyone calls him— has the chutzpah to claim his work is “laying the groundwork for a revolution in American Jewish musical culture.” Many Jewish leaders who work with him believe that, too, and they’ve seen the evidence.

“People desperately want to come out of hibernation,” said Weisenberg, referring to what he sees and hears in so many American shuls. “You feel this deep sleepiness,” he said of those communities.

What’s unique about Weisenberg is that he’s working on so many different levels. He’s weaving back together strands of Jewish music that have grown apart, articulating a vision to foster communal engagement and unity through music, playing his part to transform Jewish culture into one that listens more carefully. Unlike most talented musicians or cantors who want to be at the center without involving amateurs in creating music, Weisenberg takes a democratic approach to his work, inviting people of all skills to contribute, teaching them how to be better and modeling what could be.

The recent niggun workshop in Brooklyn showcased that approach. Singing niggunim isn’t new; Hasidim have been doing it for generations. But Weisenberg brings an aesthetic to the effort rarely heard elsewhere, focusing on the quality of the effort, the rhythm, the possibility of movement and dance, the space, even the chair setup. Every melody, he believes, has the potential to be incredible, a revolutionary approach that shifts the conversation away from the tune and toward how participants bring themselves to the melody, an approach he says he tries to bring to life.

Weisenberg is also striving to use music to bridge divides between Jewish denominations and subcultures. Non-Orthodox Jewish communities, he says, often have a lot of musical experience, but they don’t know Jewish music in particular. Conversely, the Hasidic world knows a lot of traditional Jewish music but lacks musical training, technique, and, to some extent, creativity. “What I’m trying to do,” he said, “is break down some of the walls between different disciplines in Jewish life, because you find lots of talented people in the Jewish world, and we need to be able to learn from all different types of people.”

Weisenberg’s ambitions reach far beyond Brooklyn. This spring he recorded a new CD of original Jewish music and created a new national organization to help congregations actualize his philosophy. In short, in terms of potential impact, he may be the next Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman.

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To read his biography, you would think Weisenberg was always destined to assume the role he’s playing in the Jewish world. He’s a sixth-generation Milwaukeean, son of two accomplished musicians, whose maternal grandfather’s great-grandfather moved there from Germany in 1856. He adored his maternal grandfather, Milton Ettenheim, a music lover who was a classic Reform German Jew and follower of the Milwaukee Rebbe, Rabbi Michel Twerski, a famous Torah teacher and composer of Hasidic melodies. Weisenberg says his visits to the Twerski shul, experiencing the power of the niggun, had a lasting effect on him: In his 20s, he began tracking down as many old Jewish melodies as he could, notating and memorizing them, from New York to Transylvania. That upbringing also came to define his Judaism, a trans-denominational one, comfortable in vastly different Jewish worlds.

At Columbia University, where he majored in music theory and composition, he started the Columbia Klezmer Band. By the time he graduated he was developing a reputation as a mandolin and guitar virtuoso. He played and recorded with dozens of bands and master musicians, including several klezmer revival groups, relishing the creative energy among young Jewish musicians in downtown New York. But he also noticed that they wanted nothing to do with what he called “the shul world.” Any why would they? To Weisenberg and his fellow musicians, the mainstream religious world was “just re-hashing the same thing over and over again,” he said, not just in the way it prayed, but also in its overall attitude about synagogue life, lacking a creative spirit or curiosity about the ever unfolding moment.

It was around then, in 2005, that the trajectory of Weisenberg’s life changed when he met Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar, a New York institution with a traditional egalitarian yeshiva and a mission to empower Jewish communities nationally. Kaunfer knew that on the side Weisenberg was interested in teaching people how to sing. It was Shavuot, and at Hadar’s annual retreat in upstate New York, where participants stay up all night learning, Kaunfer asked Weisenberg to take the 4 a.m. slot just before a sunrise service.

“I figured we’d sing a bunch of songs, trying to keep our eyes open until sunrise,” Kaunfer recalled. “But Joey said, ‘We’re going to learn just one melody tonight.’ A two- to three-minute melody for an hour meant singing it 20 times,” Kaunfer recalled calculating. “We clapped out the beat. I thought, if he can keep people awake at 4 in the morning, teaching them one niggun, this guy has a lot of talent.” People were enthralled, Kaunfer said: “I think he is the greatest Jewish music educator on the planet.”

Three years later, Weisenberg was a faculty member of Hadar’s yeshiva, teaching. He now teaches at seminaries, too, including Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

He never went to one of the professional seminary cantorial schools; instead he’s learned nusach the old-world way, under the tutelage of another hazzan, in his case Cantor Noah Schall of Queens. In 2007, Weisenberg was hired as music director at Kane Street Synagogue, which in many ways is a typical Conservative synagogue. It dubs itself the oldest Jewish congregation that still serves the Brooklyn neighborhood in which it was founded.

“He’s made a huge impact [at the synagogue],” said Elise Bernhardt, a Kane Street member and president and CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Culture. Soon after he came on board, Weisenberg’s Friday night services were often jammed. His alternative High Holiday services always sell out. Last Yom Kippur’s alternative service, said Bernhardt, was so moving that “the day went by in 20 minutes. I didn’t know I was fasting.” He also produced a book, or songster, of more than 100 melodies he collected from Kane Street members.

His impact could start to ripple across the country. This spring, he and Mechon Hadar created the Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music, the vehicle that could propel Weisenberg’s vision forward.

Weisenberg is the center’s founder and creative director. By the end of the year, a new website under construction will feature hundreds of niggunim and the different nusach, or melodies, of hundreds of prayers, which Weisenberg and other cantors or prayer leaders will record. The center also will produce a CD of Weisenberg-original melodies, adding to the lexicon of prayer music. And it will organize weekend workshops across the country, including weeklong intensives in New York and on the West Coast, which Weisenberg and other Hadar fellows trained in his mold will lead.

Even as the center gets up and running, estimated to take two years, Weisenberg continues to spread his gospel. This past week, he taught at Hava Nashira, a massive music workshop that draws 300 song-leaders from the Reform movement each year in Wisconsin. He’ll co-teach a four-day workshop in mid-June in Berkeley, Calif., that focuses on creating singing communities. And in July, he’ll lead workshops at the North American Jewish Choral Festival in New York’s Hudson Valley, which draws more than 500 singers yearly.

That itinerary comes on the heels of Weisenberg’s latest recording in May, Joey’s Nigunim Vol. III, Live in the Choir Loft—his third album—featuring his eight-member band, Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble, with original compositions of Jewish spiritual music that includes elements of jazz, Balkan, soul, flamenco, bluegrass, and blues styles. It will be released later this year. The recording session, done in the choir loft of the Kane Street shul, where the band performed Tuesday nights for months, was classic Weisenberg: A crowd of about 30 friends packed into the loft. Three vocalists, including a Hasidic cantor and two women, added harmonies that floated over melodies. A klezmer violin master, a percussionist, and jazz lap-steel virtuoso rounded out the band, as Weisenberg led, sang, and played mandolin or guitar.

What Weisenberg teaches is easily accessible in his how-to book Building Singing Communities, A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Power of Music in Jewish Prayer. It covers such issues as the architecture of singing: using small rooms if possible; and leading from the center, not from the front, which breaks down barriers between performer and audience. He says you can create “communal intimacy” by bringing people closer together physically “to create a sense of connection and shared experience.” Employ rhythm, a lost art in the Jewish world, he says, to enhance Jewish singing, using the instruments of the synagogue, like the wood top of the amud or reading table to beat on, or the floor to tap on.

To see what’s possible, and what challenges Weisenberg faces, there’s no better place to observe than at Kane Street. Last year, he got the shul to move its shtender, or lectern, off the bima and onto the floor so the ba’al tefila can be closer to congregants. “It was a big decision,” Bernhardt said.

On a recent Shabbat morning, despite the sanctuary’s cavernous Romanesque interior, the scene could have been anywhere in suburban Jewish America, as family and friends of a bar mitzvah boy filled the pews, though few sang the prayers. As more regulars showed up, Weisenberg took over during musaf, the last section of the morning service, and a noticeable shift in energy filled the room of about 300 people. A small cadre of men and women stood close to him, providing harmonies to his soaring, warm prayer voice. (“He’s like an old soul in a young body,” said Bernhardt.) They tapped out rhythms, too, with their hands, or stomped their feet on the floor in syncopated beats. Afterward at the kiddush over bagels and tuna fish, Weisenberg admitted that it’s still an effort to get people singing, and other members say not everyone is sold on the change he’s bringing. He admits that when he leads workshops elsewhere, as an outsider, he doesn’t have to worry about shul politics and stepping on toes.

Last summer at Shir Tikvah , a Reform congregation in Minneapolis, for example, Weisenberg flatly told members that just as many Americans, raised on TV, use musical cues from shows to tell them how to feel, too many Jews use decorum to trump their emotions, the temple’s music director Wendy Goldberg said. Since his workshop, she said, more members are standing to dance or clap when prayers move them.

Change has also come to Congregation Beth El, an 1,100-member Conservative synagogue in Bethesda, Md., where once a month Friday night services are done in the round and every second Shabbat morning is led from the middle, all since Weisenberg spent a weekend there last fall. Beth El’s Hazzan, Matt Klein, who invited him, said about the Shabbaton: “I was dancing on this wave of kavanah and davening energy—the most I had ever experienced in my two years here.”

On any given week, Weisenberg tries to re-create similar waves during a varied and busy schedule. One week in April, for example, he taught cantorial students at JTS, the Conservative seminary. He led his band on Tuesday night in a performance, preparing for the May recording. He taught rabbinical and cantorial students at HUC, the Reform seminary, on Wednesday, then led a children’s choir. On Thursday, he did a recording session with Noah Aronson, a rising star of Reform liturgical music. He led Shabbat services Friday night and Saturday morning at Kane Street and finished the week at a Spontaneous Jewish Choir workshop in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.

His mentor, Kaunfer, said about his student’s work: “It actually could make a significant change in the way that American Jews experience davening.”

Weisenberg said that much of what he’s teaching he’s learned as a musician playing in bands: “You got to be right next to each other to feel their notes, feel their energy. And that’s what we need in shuls across America.”

“Music teaches us how to listen,” he added. “It awakens us to the connections that we can foster in every moment. As we say on Rosh Hashana, ‘The great shofar is sounded, and the still small voice is heard.’ Let music teach us to be more sensitive to each other and to the world around us.”

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harrietg says:

Really interesting article. But I’m surprised there’s no mention of the music- and congregational-singing-filled services at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, which began this particular revolution in the 80s by encouraging people to join in and sing with kavannah. BJ services, which draw many hundreds of people weekly, are a blend of musical traditions (Carlebach, contemporary Israeli melodies, and piyutim, to name a few), and are highly participatory and deeply spiritual. Weisenberg’s work is important and wonderful, but this article makes it sound like he’s the first and only trailblazer.

    the staged singing at Bnai Jeshurun has the authenticity of a lobster knish and the spontaneity of a presidential election debate.

    the author was describing a small group without the structure and institutional overbearance that is antithetical to “speaking in tongues” or niggunim (even if the two have no connection to one another)

Most people go nuts if you use a diminutive form of their name but this guy calls himself Joey. I wonder if it means he doesn’t have any status issues or if he is being cute or if that’s what his family always called him and he doesn’t think about at all.

disqus_cAG9Iukq5J says:

In response to the “Joey” issue, Joey has always been called Joey by everyone. He was named after his deceased grandfather with the same surname.
Signed, His Mother

copying the most base features of the low-brow evangelicals is a cop-out on the part of a clergy that has no sense of tradition or even an understanding of the purpose of prayer

thewisebard says:

As one totally bereft of musical talent who has had the extreme good fortune to study a bit with Joey, i can only join the chorus in praise of his extraordinary gifts and devotion to enriching the range of Jewish musical, liturgical and spiritual experience. I am gratified that his talents, as well as his mentschlikayt, are increasingly being recognized across the spectrum of Jewish life.

Alan Jay Weisbard, Madison, WI (not Joey’s mother,although I hope this makes her proud!)

I’ve heard “reb Joey”; he couldn’t shine Shlomo Carlebach’s shoes

    danman says:

    Shlomo Carlebach was a letch who liked to show the shoes of pretty young women. Joey is an outstanding musician who is a much better example for young jews than the “heiliger” Reb Shlomo

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A Brooklyn-Based Prayer Leader Heralds a Revolution in Jewish Music

Joey Weisenberg’s music workshops—blending a democratic approach with a range of traditions—aim to boost engagement