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A Brooklyn-Based Prayer Leader Heralds a Revolution in Jewish Music

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Joey Weisenberg’s music workshops—blending a democratic approach with a range of traditions—aim to boost engagement

By Leonard Felson published in Tablet Magazine – june 4,2013
Joey Weisenberg, center, leads singing at a wedding on April 28, 2013.
Joey Weisenberg, center, leads singing at a wedding on April 28, 2013. (Marta Fodor)

On a recent Saturday evening, as Shabbat began to fade, two dozen men and women, most in their 20s and early 30s, were slowly belting out a long niggun, a wordless melody, sitting in a close circle in the chapel of a Brooklyn synagogue. When their eyes weren’t closed in this meditative chant, they were watching Joey Weisenberg. He was leading a discussion on effective prayer leadership skills, but for the moment, Weisenberg wanted them simply to feel the mystical power of singing together. One melody, over and over and over. “Instead of changing melodies,” he said, “let it change our selves.”

Weisenberg, 31, is on a mission. A ba’al tefilah, or prayer leader, as well as a musician and teacher, he wants to reinvigorate Jewish life through song. He believes it can be done through what he calls Spontaneous Jewish Choir workshops, like this one in Brooklyn: normal people singing together, imperfectly perhaps, but making beautiful music—at synagogue and at home.

Despite a humble demeanor and a disarming smile, Weisenberg—or Joey, as everyone calls him— has the chutzpah to claim his work is “laying the groundwork for a revolution in American Jewish musical culture.” Many Jewish leaders who work with him believe that, too, and they’ve seen the evidence.

“People desperately want to come out of hibernation,” said Weisenberg, referring to what he sees and hears in so many American shuls. “You feel this deep sleepiness,” he said of those communities.

What’s unique about Weisenberg is that he’s working on so many different levels. He’s weaving back together strands of Jewish music that have grown apart, articulating a vision to foster communal engagement and unity through music, playing his part to transform Jewish culture into one that listens more carefully. Unlike most talented musicians or cantors who want to be at the center without involving amateurs in creating music, Weisenberg takes a democratic approach to his work, inviting people of all skills to contribute, teaching them how to be better and modeling what could be.

The recent niggun workshop in Brooklyn showcased that approach. Singing niggunim isn’t new; Hasidim have been doing it for generations. But Weisenberg brings an aesthetic to the effort rarely heard elsewhere, focusing on the quality of the effort, the rhythm, the possibility of movement and dance, the space, even the chair setup. Every melody, he believes, has the potential to be incredible, a revolutionary approach that shifts the conversation away from the tune and toward how participants bring themselves to the melody, an approach he says he tries to bring to life.

Weisenberg is also striving to use music to bridge divides between Jewish denominations and subcultures. Non-Orthodox Jewish communities, he says, often have a lot of musical experience, but they don’t know Jewish music in particular. Conversely, the Hasidic world knows a lot of traditional Jewish music but lacks musical training, technique, and, to some extent, creativity. “What I’m trying to do,” he said, “is break down some of the walls between different disciplines in Jewish life, because you find lots of talented people in the Jewish world, and we need to be able to learn from all different types of people.”

Weisenberg’s ambitions reach far beyond Brooklyn. This spring he recorded a new CD of original Jewish music and created a new national organization to help congregations actualize his philosophy. In short, in terms of potential impact, he may be the next Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman.

read more in Tablet Magazine