I was fortunate to attend two parts of the recent Building Singing Communities weekend with scholar-in-residence Joey Weisenberg, the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service at Shir Tikvah, and Sunday’s morning service and daylong workshop at Beth Jacob. I attended the latter along with prayer leaders, singers, and intentional singing followers from many congregations in the Twin Cities, including more than 25 members from Shir Tikvah, ranging in age from their teens to their 60’s.
The workshop was a joyous event; our day included two 90-minute sessions of singing and learning with Joey focused on many dimensions of learning a single niggun. Joey urged us to dive deeply into learning and playing with this single melody which we sang at different speeds, at different volumes, and with different kinds of accompanying movement and clapping. This single melody served as a vehicle for creating both a joyful praise of the Holy as well as a meditative space and for thinking about the various goals we might have in singing the melody. Joey’s goal was to have us sing one niggun for a longer period of time and let ourselves change through the process, not the melody. As he said, “Sometimes after you’ve sung a melody 20 times is when you’re just getting started, when the heart is just starting to open.”
I appreciated the parallels he drew between the learning of a melody and the building of a holy community. As he taught us, once the initial excitement of a melody or a community wears off, that’s when the real work begins, the time when we need to expand our ability to listen to each other and attend to what we are building together. Because singing together in a communal setting is not just about creating beautiful music but also about building our capacity to pay attention to the people around us, first in the synagogue and then in the larger community. Singing together gives us a gateway into experiencing what oneness means and and prepares us for saying a heartfelt Shema Yisrael.
Towards the end of the day, the Shir Tikvah-ites had a chance to meet together to talk about what had moved, surprised, and challenged us about our experiences during the weekend and to think about what we wanted to bring back to Shir Tikvah. We talked about how we might build on what we’ve learned in the laboratory of First Friday services to offer more chances for our members to explore the contrast that singing offers between making a joyful noise akin to the blast of the shofar and listening to the quiet of the still, small voice within each of us. We also talked about how to make our efforts inclusive and continue to acknowledge the diverse ways in which congregants experience song, prayer, and silence.
I look forward to sharing with many of you the beautiful niggun Joey taught us in the months ahead.