On the edge of Bernal Hill, an outcropping of nature adjacent to San Francisco’s bustling Mission District, an experiment in Jewish prayer was about to start. Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer, the chazan at The Kitchen, stood in front of a microphone wrapped in a sweater and scarf against the typical bluster of a summer afternoon. A dozen feet away on a folding chair was legendary Bay Area guitarist John Schott, part of a small group of professional musicians who help lead Shabbat services for the nine-year-old congregation. Sitting in between them was congregant Aaron Danzig, his guitar and oud at the ready, and in whose backyard this new approach to Kabbalat Shabbat was taking place.
At 6 p.m., around 150 people—Kitchen congregants and friends from around the Bay Area and across the country—joined by Zoom. It was the day after Tu B’Av, the holiday in which tradition encouraged young people to go out dancing in the fields. In that context Rabbi Meyer evoked the presence of the Baal Shem Tov, who drew inspiration from the energy and sounds of nature.
As the music began, Meyer gave permission to everyone watching to “find your voice” before beginning Shiru L’Adonai: Sing to G-d a new song.
Almost a decade into a new kind of Jewish congregation, The Kitchen is making a bold push to place music and song even more strongly at the center of their program. This move—supported by a 2019 Covenant Foundation Signature Grant for their Community in Song program—reflects a deepening sense among Jewish leaders and educators that music is a key tool for building community, connection, and Jewish literacy.
The Kitchen is not alone in emphasizing the power of music and song for creating community. The congregation is part of a seven-member collection of innovative congregations called the Jewish Emergent Network, which collectively aims to deepen community in large part through song. This collaboration is clear in the level of sharing and influence among the congregations. Indeed, Meyer was formerly the musical director at Romemu in New York City, as well as an active musical presence at IKAR in Los Angeles—both members of the network.
The Kitchen’s approach to music and prayer experience continues a generation (or two) of innovations that began with the chavurah movement of the 1970s, in which smaller Jewish congregations—intentional, anti-institutional, and mostly lay-led—put a premium on personal experience over formal tradition.
“One of our core pillars is that religion has to be experiential. This is especially true on the West Coast, where many people are two to three generations removed from sustained religious practice,” explained founding Rabbi Noa Kushner.
Congregants, rabbis, and educators at The Kitchen all emphasized the anti-hierarchical approach to prayer (there is no bima; everyone sits in a circle), and the fact that every voice counts—literally and figuratively.
The Community In Song program is spearheaded by Meyer, who came to The Kitchen from Romemu in 2019 in part to help bring the congregation to the next level musically. A rabbi as well as a chazan, Meyer embodies the value of music as both a means to deeper Jewish engagement, and as an end in and of itself.
On the one hand, she explained, giving oneself over to the spiritual experience of music can be a goal of Jewish practice. In the case of the Hasidim, for instance, “The niggun (wordless song) is the highest expression.” One sings the prayers in order to get to the musical spirit beyond and behind the words. In addition, Meyer added, “music literally moves us into a different space. In Hebrew and Arabic, the word for musical scale is makam, similar to the word makom, or holy space. Being inside the music is being inside a holy place.”
On the other hand, music has long functioned as an important tool to bring people further into prayer, study, and knowledge.
“When we learn Gemarah [Talmud], we chant,” she explained. “There are scales for learning this, which makes it easier and more memorable. It’s the same reason that we chant the Torah portion.”
The Community in Song program is designed to reach all age levels, and offer more performances, additional teaching opportunities, and home support for individuals and families wanting to bring music more fully into their home practice. While some key elements of this project will be delayed due to Covid, others appear to be more necessary than ever.
“For families with young children, as well as many others, music and musical prayer are a natural connecting point,” said Kushner. “Pre-Covid, we had been working to give families access to Jewish music at home, at their own tables. In the last few months, instead of being left high and dry, families are getting the learning opportunities they need at home.”
Congregant Melanie Ranen, a parent of two children ages 4 and 7, feels that the musical outreach The Kitchen has been doing is a lifeline during the pandemic. “Without the music for our kids, the Jewish experience would be a skeleton. The meat would be gone from the experience if we didn’t have service on the iPad in our home, and have our family listen and participate and be connected.”
Aaron Danzig, who works in tech by day and is part of the core “davening team” on Shabbat and holidays, emphasized the “ensemble” dimension of The Kitchen, in which every voice has a place.
“At The Kitchen I found a liturgical voice I never knew I had. And I found it as part of a group producing a bigger sound than I could make by myself,” Danzig explained.
A classical trained violinist, Danzig is also the son of a rabbi. What drew him to The Kitchen was the combination of musical quality and participation, and intellectual and ritual seriousness. It’s the same combination that drew Rabbi Meyer to The Kitchen, and who sees in Jewish music a key to Jewish continuity and innovation.
“With music we can go deeper into liturgy, and into Torah,” she said. “It’s one of the strongest tools of transportation into Jewish practice and learning. We grow through song. And in times like these, it’s where we find sanctuary.”
By Dan Schifrin, for The Covenant Foundation
A former columnist for both New York Jewish Week and the j: Jewish Newsweekly of Northern California, Dan Schifrin has taught creative writing at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, and Stanford University Continuing Studies, and served as writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. He recently founded StoryForward, which offers creative writing courses to Jewish teens, intergenerational Jewish book club support, and public conversations connecting art, literature, and community. He is the author, among other things, of the play “Sweet and Sour;” the one-man show “String Theory”; and a forthcoming memoir about fatherhood and science fiction. As part of a LABA Fellowship at the JCC of the East Bay, Dan is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain and its influence on twenty-first-century America.
“Together we will create Jewish experiences where preteens and their families can learn, explore, and feel more connected to each other, and to Jewish life” - Deborah S. Meyer, Founder and CEO, Moving Traditions
“Education holds the key to changing the world and making it better. For education to achieve all that it can, we must have teachers who believe in the moral, ethical, Jewish ideas we teach and who are committed to inspiring their students”
—Rabbi David Eliach, A Covenant of Dreams: Realizing the Promise of Jewish Education, 2009
“There are children, grownups, everywhere
That would love to hear your voices
Singing for our health to be bright
So that we can join together...and paint our world with healing and hope”
-From the original song, Painting Our World with Healing Hope, by Karina and Debora Zilberman
“Families that share stories about parents and grandparents, about triumphs and failures, provide powerful models for children. Children understand who they are in the world not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories that provide a sense of identity through historical time...Through sharing the past, families recreate themselves in the present, and project themselves into the future.”
—“Do You Know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being
Read more about Dr. Marshall Duke and his work, here.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project