I was enthralled by Joey Weisenberg’s visit to New Mexico. And those who had the fortune to attend either the concert gathering on 8/28 in Albuquerque or the Workshop on 8/29 in Santa Fe were clearly moved by his gift of gathering people close to sing the songs of the Jewish people. Joey Weisenberg has been my teacher for seven years. Every time I sit with him in a circle of people, whether it is 5 people or 100 people, I am transported to another place. I also watch what he does as a teacher to become a better teacher. I am never disappointed. Let me share what I learned this time.
Singing is a powerful way to build community.
Joey composes new songs and restores old Jewish songs. That is only one aspect of his genius. The other thing he does is to birth a song and enable the people gathered to make it their own both as individuals and as a group. At the workshop the 45 or so people there learned a simple nigun from him. We spent two hours (I lost sense of the time.) experiencing and learning how a song takes hold with people as it took hold with us.
Joey reminded me that to experience the spiritual power of singing, we need to be physically close to each other. We must sacrifice a need for physical space to be able to recover the intimacy of group singing. The metaphor Joey used to describe this was memorable. If you start a campfire, if you place the kindling and the logs too far apart, the match may ignite the fire, but it will burn out quickly. But to light the fire and to extend and grow the fire, you need to stack the kindling and the logs. We must be willing to stack ourselves together to feel the power of song to unite us. Joey also demonstrated how this applies to prayer in synagogue settings when we sit far apart from people. Prayer and song are closely related in Jewish prayer, but often, our collective prayers are distant echoes.
Judaism is a culture and religion of empowerment.
While there is a great variety of Jewish expression, Joey demonstrated what it means to create a space where everyone’s voice is critical. While there is a role for classical, organized music and song, it is possible to foster an environment where everyone is invited and empowered to sing regardless of the quality of their voices. The role of the leader is not to be a soloist or an expert, or a performer. The leader’s purpose is to engender participation and a help people gathered to rediscover the feeling of community. When Joey talks about building singing communities, he is demonstrating how to build communities that honor the dignity to each member of the community. He is much more than a performer; he convenes people to sing and lets the unfolding song build connections and relationships with everyone in the circle.
It is a tribute to Joey Weisenberg that 4 days after he left town, I am still having multiple conversations with others about the magical feeling of his appearances. For those who attended, please share with me what you learned and experienced.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Please contact me if you are interested in working with a team to follow up Joey’s visit to foster more singing in our community and utilizing his online learning resources to build our knowledge of Jewish music. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Rabbi Dov is the founder of Shabbat with Friends NM. He became a rabbi at 29 after schooling at UC Berkely, Harvard, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has maintained a blog for over twenty years, giving commentary on a wide range of themes, concerns, and passions.