‘I’m Just a Shul’: TBI’s ‘Shulhouse Rock’ Makes Music Central to Synagogue’s Children’s Service

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The Shulhouse Rock ensemble, from left: Rabbi Eric Woodward, Chana Rothman, Cantor Elizabeth Shammash, Joe Tayoun and Rabbi Danielle Parmenter | Photo provided

“Conjunction Junction” has a new function: Jewish rock ’n’ roll.

Well, more so Conservative and Reform songs, accompanied by melodies on a guitar — but let’s not put a label on it.

Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell has introduced a new type of worship, “Shulhouse Rock,” a family service geared primarily toward third- through seventh-graders.

TBI has always had a family service the first Friday of each month with a musical component — usually just Cantor Elizabeth Shammash playing guitar, with influence from TBI’s previous rabbi.

So when Rabbi Eric Woodward joined the synagogue, they needed to find a new voice and a new way to reshape the service together.

TBI has a strong young family membership, and many adults enjoy the monthly “Shabbat Sababa” service, which includes an “upbeat freilich” service, band and dancing for the grown-ups.

With Shabbat Sababa in mind, Shammash brought some other musicians on board to create Shulhouse Rock for a younger audience.

She collaborated with Chana Rothman, a Jewish educator, composer and guitarist, all summer to prepare a “master music list” repertoire ahead of the rest of the busy year.

“She’s very creative and really has quite a niche as an educator with kids,” Shammash said. “My background is Conservative but eclectic, and she has a really strong background in the Reform music world and in contemporary Jewish music.

“Between the two of us, we would have a really wide swath of music to choose from.”

The ensemble is made up of Shammash as lead vocals, guitar and sometimes percussion; Rothman on guitar; Joe Tayoun on percussion, who has performed as part of Shabbat Sababa; and Rabbi Woodward and Rabbi Danielle Parmenter, director of congregational learning and engagement, as additional vocals.

“The idea was to be able to teach traditional melodies,” Shammash said, “but also keep the service moving — at an hour — and teach themes, teach new melodies, and keep it fun and exciting.”

The nine-part monthly worship series began Sept. 15 and will continue on Nov. 3, Dec. 1, Jan. 5, March 2, April 13, May 4 and June 8, 2018, each beginning at 7:30 p.m., though it is expected to continue beyond that.

Parmenter said it was important that she get involved in the family service, bringing “energy and liveliness.”

With around 140 kids enrolled in TBI’s religious school, Parmenter said they want to keep the momentum going and get “more religious school-aged kids interested and excited about tefillah, about Jewish prayer, and about really engaging the whole body and all the senses in prayer, and what that means to come together as a Shabbat community.”

She’s inspired when the older kids participate too, even by just moving to the beat or drumming at their seats.

Although the nod to Schoolhouse Rock! may go over most kids’ heads today, Shammash said the ensemble members fondly remember the now-retro TV segments.

“It’s slightly a misnomer,” she admitted, “because it’s not that it’s a rock band.”

The music they choose to play is “eclectic,” some pulled from contemporary Reform compositions, others more traditional, but mostly all in Hebrew.

“It was very important to me to really move to this contemporary model, which diverges from the past where ‘the rabbi speaks, the cantor sings,’” she said. “We all sit in a semi-circle and the rabbi can also sing, and the cantor can also give a little d’var tefillah.

“We’re all modeling together what spirituality means and what it means to be engaged in prayer together.”

They try to keep the music consistent for each service so the tunes become routine, allowing returning members to easily join in, though they’ll throw in some new melodies every now and then.

The September service was a hit, which also fell on TBI’s “Shabbat BQ” night, an annual back-to-school kickoff Shabbat followed by a barbecue dinner, which usually draws in about 250 people on its own. Parmenter estimated more than 100 at the October Shulhouse Rock service.

Shammash hopes people leave the services rejuvenated and excited to celebrate Shabbat.

“A real win will be if kids say to their parents, ‘Hey, we got to go to services tonight. It’s Shulhouse Rock.’”

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