All over North America, cantors are in rehearsal for the High Holiday services, which begin with the advent of Rosh Hashanah on the evening of Sept. 18.
Meanwhile, there are fast-growing minyanim not affiliated with mainstream denominations whose leaders are also preparing.
These minyanim attract a significantly younger cohort of congregants in their 20s and 30s than more establishment congregations. Their liturgical music has much to do with drawing in young Jews in great numbers, and I sought to learn what happens at these services that is so alluring and inviting to younger "hip" Jews, which, in the past, have turned to the works of such stars in the field as Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman.
Rabbi Sharon Brous, ranked 31st in the current Newsweek list of America's top rabbis, is the founder and spiritual leader of "Ikar" minyan of Los Angeles. Ikar attracts 200 congregants for Shabbat services, and more than 1,300 on the High Holidays, including rabbinical students, hundreds of singles in their 20s, and families with young children from both the right and left sides of the religious spectrum.
Brous, together with Philadelphia native Hillel Tigay — the 40-year-old prayer leader and music director of Ikar — looks for music that communicates the "spiritual arc and narrative of the High Holiday liturgy through whatever music opens the heart," she explained.
Two drummers playing Near Eastern Israeli-style instruments accompany most of Tigay's High Holiday chanting. Brous is not averse to using music from popular sources, such as a setting for "Hayom Harat Olam/Today Is the Birthday of the World," derived from the Arrested Development Band.
She noted that they have used Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky," as well as an Alison Krauss composition. And last Yom Kippur evening, the entire congregation sang "Amazing Grace" — admittedly an audacious and controversial act.
While Tigay said that he first searches for repertoire from Jewish sources, "the purpose of the service is to move us spiritually, not just because the recitation of the prayer is prescribed by tradition."
No Showing Off
He chants the traditional Kol Nidre and Avenu Malkeinu accompanied by a small vocal group, but says he is opposed to extended solos that tend to "show off the chazzan's voice."
By Neilah time at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the energy of the congregants seems to go through the roof.
In our community, Rabbi Chaim Gelfand, religious leader at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School, leads a group of Jews from Wynnewood and Ardmore.
He noted that group calls itself "Ardwood," and is a "loose amalgam of young committed families, about 150 people who have synagogue roots, but who meet together from time to time in families' homes."
During the holidays, this informal minyan will meet on Yom Kippur for Kol Nidre, Minchah and Neilah. "We haven't altered Kol Nidre, but we add some piyyutim ['poems'] sung to Chasidic melodies, such as 'S'lach Na,' set to the Bratzlaver wedding niggun," he explained.
Gelfand wants his people to "really sing together"; at no time does the prayer leader daven for listening or introspection.
"One really rousing super melody that we use is Va-ye-e-ta-yu, from the Hadar Minyan" in New York, said Gelfand. "We are searching for intimacy, connection and warmth."
Said Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 46th on the Newsweek list and the executive director of Mechon Hadar, the educational division of Kehilat Hadar, the Manhattan-based volunteer minyan: "Our minyan has a broad denominational background, from Orthodox to unaffiliated, including 180 Shabbat congregants, and 250 to 550 High Holiday worshippers in their 20s and 30s."
Describing his minyan's music, Kaunfer stated that "a premium is placed on variety!" The volunteer prayer leaders bring in music from all over the Jewish world: Shlomo Carlebach, Chasidic, Israeli. On the High Holidays, certain melodies must be included, namely the traditional chants for Kol Nidre, Avenu Malkeinu and Ashamnu — the short confessional.
"Va-ye-e-ta-yu is an Israeli tune beloved by our community," the rabbi added of the hymn that is a joyous high point, with congregants rising to their feet in song and dance.
Rachel Forster Held, 29, never received any formal cantorial training, but is one of the more skilled Hadar High Holiday prayer leaders, who said that "our davening is very engaging; people can get involved in our participatory style."
Held and her colleagues offer classes to review old melodies and teach new ones, including, for this year, a new niggun from Morocco. But she does stand on the traditions of Hadar and the Jewish people: "Kol Nidre is universal; it resonates and hits home with all. Va-ye-e-ta-yu has become sacred. If we left it out, we would have a revolution."
What are the common elements in all this? Infectious melody derived from many diverse sources both sacred and secular; a strong emphasis on rhythm; a significant nod to Jewish musical traditions; minimal solo singing; great courage; and … participation!
Indeed, my cantorial foundations were rocked to the core by what I learned.