News & Notes

Zamru In The News

NJ Jewish News, 4/28/10, "The Minyan in the Message"

NJ Jewish News, 1/19/10, "New Minyan Declares Independence"

The Princeton Packet, Friday, February 26, 2010
PRINCETON: Spotlight: Worship music prompts discovery of religious heritage
By Michele Alperin Special Writer
    In western religious experience, song and melody are part of the language that allows human beings to reach toward the divine. As early as the biblical book of Exodus, Moses’ sister Miriam played her timbrels to thank God for the Israelites’ success in crossing the Red Sea.

    In two Princeton prayer groups from different traditions, music plays a significant role in both enhancing the soar toward infinity and in affirming and praising God. Zamru, a Jewish congregation that uses music to propel its entire Friday night service, held its first service in December for the Princeton community and Princeton University graduate students; its next service will take place March 12. At Manna Christian Fellowship, an evangelical service at Princeton University, music plays a more secondary role — as perfect praise to God that sings back to Christ the truth He has revealed to His people.

    The idea for Zamru came from Pam Edelman and her husband Dean, who wanted to recreate the Friday night services they had experienced at a synagogue in Manhattan. At B’nai Jeshurun, on the upper West Side, thousands would show up for these services whose intensive congregational singing stops only for the silent standing prayer toward the end of the service. In its first service at Princeton University in December, Zamru drew a multigenerational crowd of about 75, the majority of whom were in their 20s and 30s.

    The most important role that music plays at Zamru is to nurture the spirituality of participants. Mr. Edelman talks about his own experience as one of the service’s four lay leaders who guide the congregational singing with the help of guitar support from Dan Nadel.

    “What we try to do is, rather than rote repetition of prayers, to use melodies that we feel are spiritual and help us get closer to that feeling of God and Shabbos (the Jewish Sabbath),” says Mr. Edelman. “I feel like we all have the capacity to feel that sense of spirituality but need to create an environment where that pilot light can spring into flames.”

    At Manna Christian Fellowship, music also plays a role in nourishing spirituality. As the Rev. Blake Altman, Princeton University chaplain, explains, “We use music that allows students in the most natural way to express their deepest longings back to the Lord; in a world of lies, we want to sing the truth of what Scripture says is real and true about the world.”

    At Manna, continues Rev. Blake, the goal is to help students understand what their fundamental beliefs are and whether they are true according to Scripture.

    “Music, therefore, is a way for us to experience, to know; and singing is an action that helps you to remind yourself of what’s true about the world and to praise the Lord,” he says. “You are what you sing, therefore, it is important that when you do sing, you sing truth about what the spirit has revealed about the world through Holy Scripture.”

    At the same time that music supports the individual in search for the spiritual, it can serve as a potent draw into a communal experience. For Reiki therapist Debbie Freedman, who was among Zamru’s earliest participants, the group has drawn her back into a Judaism whose observance she had mostly dropped as an adult. Not too long before Zamru began, she had begun feeling the need to be part of a Jewish community and had visited some synagogues, but this “wandering Jew,” as she jokingly refers to herself, did not find a spiritual home until she came to Zamru. “Since I love music, it really speaks to me,” she explains. “Practically the whole service is singing, and I just love how I feel when I’m singing — the prayer and the feeling of spirituality.”

    The role played by Zamru’s lay service leaders is to facilitate congregational involvement, but in the process they have found their own spiritual growth nurtured. As Ms. Edelman explains, “Leaders are volunteers, learning while doing and sharing that struggle to be more engaged with Judaism.” Avi Paradise, who had not led services for a long time before he got involved with Zamru, has also found the experience of leading services to be personally enriching. “I never feel the connection and spirituality as deeply as when I’m leading it,” he says.

    Volunteer leader Margaret Berger emphasizes the importance of having leaders who are not trained musicians. “I have a good ear, and I am a good but not great singer. But one of the things we discussed was not having all of the prayer leaders sounding like professional singers, which sounds more like a performance,” she explains. “If you have people who can sing, but it doesn’t seem like they went to a vocal college, everyone feels like they can sing along. We don’t want it to be a Friday night concert.”

    The musical accompaniment at Manna — usually a full band, with drums, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, keyboard, and violin and sometimes a smaller ensemble like a violin and cello or even just an acoustic guitar — stands in contrast to the self-described imperfection of the prayer leaders at Zamru. Rev. Altman explains, “Music must be done with excellence, so that when people hear music, they think, ‘This must be a beautiful God; our Lord is worthy of excellent music.’” Yet in the next sentence Rev. Altman emphasizes the secondary role of the music. “It’s not the music that gets His attention but because you’ve been changed by what He has done.”

    Zamru developed first at Friday night potluck dinners and services in the homes of founders, where they talked endlessly both about the group’s vision and about selecting music that worked for them — a musical repertoire with a traditional feel that is a fusion of styles, including Ladino, Sefardic, and Israeli elements that would expand over time. Ms. Berger compares Zamru’s music to what she was used to in the synagogue where she grew up. “I love the traditional melodies, but at times they feel very rote,” she says. “We were looking for something different to shake it up, something you felt good singing to and clapping to and was more engaging than a traditional service, where you go in, sit down, and the cantor sings traditional melodies you’ve been singing for your whole life.”

    Mr. Nadel, Zamru’s guitarist, sees music as essential in a Jewish service, especially for Jews who do not go to synagogue regularly and are not familiar with Jewish texts. “Music is a key that allows people to enter into the kind of spirit of prayer or meditation or community or whatever they want to experience at a prayer service,” he says.

    Mr. Edelman agrees. Summarizing the impact of Zamru, both as a creator of spirituality and of community, he says, “By creating a service where the focus is on the way the prayers flow and the way the music uplifts people and helps them feel they can participate and get active in the service — that creates an environment where everyone starts to feel connected and allows that inherent spirituality that we all have as part of us to grow.”

Reflections by Rabbi Julie Roth

March 12, 2010, Zamru Kabbalat Shabbat

For the last few weeks, including the last time we met for Zamru, our Torah readings have been focused on the intricate details of building the miskan, the traveling sanctuary in the desert.   Amidst the details of pomegranate bells and crimson curtains of dolphin skins and cherubim, we find a powerful and striking exception:

Sheshet yamim tayaseh m’lachah, six days you may work

U’vayom Hashvi’i yeyeh lachem kodesh Shabbat Shabbaton Ladonai¸ But on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to the Lord

Classically, the juxtaposition of Shabbat with the construction of the mishkan, comes to teach us that no work, not even the work of building a dwelling place for God, is so important that it overrides Shabbat.  Only saving a person’s life is considered more important in Jewish tradition than keeping the Sabbath and making it holy.

Furthermore, our Torah teaches us that it is holiness in time, not holiness of space or things that is ultimately important.  The word for holiness, kadosh, first appears in our Torah in reference to Shabbat at the end of the account of Creation.  As we will sing in L’chah Dodi in a moment, Shabbat was sof ma’aseh, last in God’s acts of Creation, but b’machshavah t’chilah, but first in God’s thinking about the creation of the world.  As Torah scholar Nechamah Leibowitz points out, it was Moses who sanctified the sancturay, but it was God who sanctified the Sabbath day.

In a few weeks, we will gather with community, family, and friends to retell the story of freedom as we sit around our seder tables.  We will exercise our obligation and opportunity to see ourselves, kiulu, as if we ourselves came out of Egypt.  Perhaps one of the most striking differences between being slaves and being free is our ability to choose to have a day when we do not work.  Shabbat did not exist in Egypt; it can only exist once the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea.  And while our ancestors were wandering in the desert for forty years, internalizing the privileges and responsibilities associated with freedom, their mishkan was a reminder not only of what they could build together as a community, but also of God’s desire that they remember that they are more than the work of their hands.  We are more than what we do.  This is one of the many gifts of Shabbat.

On Friday evenings, when we say Kiddush, the blessing over the wine, we recite words that speak about Shabbat as both zikaron l’ma’aseh b’reisheit, as a reminder of creation and as zikaron l’yitziat mitzrayim, as a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.  Even though we were first instructed to keep Shabbat when the Ten Commandments were given at Mount Sinai, it is the Exodus from Egypt and not the giving of the Torah at Sinai that is mentioned in the Kiddush.  This is another way that our tradition teaches us that the most precious freedom we have as free human beings is the freedom to sanctify one day each way, to stop working, even if only for a few hours, and to be refreshed.    As we celebrate Passover in a few weeks and Shabbat tonight, may we be blessed with the freedom to not always work and a sense of the holiness of time.

Reflections by Rabbi Julie Roth
January 22, 2010, Zamru Kabbalat Shabbat

I want to speak this evening about our new siddur and about what this particular prayer book says about how we approach prayer at Zamru.

As I mentioned last time, Zamru is a Hebrew word that means Sing!.  Taken from one of the Psalms we just recited as a part of our Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service,  Psalm 98 proclaims, zamru la’donai b’kinor, b’kinor v’kol zimrah, sing to God with string instruments, (notice the guitar on the cover), with instruments and melodious song.  Zamru is dedicated to transformative, engaging, joyful and heartfelt prayer.   Over the past seven months, the founders of Zamru have devoted tremendous energy to choosing melodies, finding Dan Nadel, this soulful musician who elevates our prayers, and learning and teaching these melodies with others.

But why did we decide to sing all the prayers in Hebrew?  There is an emotional power to praying in Hebrew, despite, or in some cases because, we don’t understand exactly what we are saying.  These words connect us with our Jewish ancestors back to biblical times and allow Jews all over the world to pray together, regardless of their native language.  But Hebrew is difficult for many of us and we want to build an inclusive community.  This is why we chose a siddur, a prayerbook, where every Hebrew word is transliterated into English, line by line.  Although we had transliteration available last month as well, it was in some books, but not others.  We decided it was important to us, even though this is only our second time, to have the same siddur for everyone so no one would feel embarrassed about their ability to read Hebrew. 

We also chose this prayerbook because the English translation which closely matches the Hebrew, is formatted line by line, allowing us to move back and forward fluidly between the Hebrew and English when we  want to get a better sense of what the words mean.  Although we will be singing our communal prayers in Hebrew, I want to remind us all that our ancient rabbis not only gave us permission to pray in any language, but they even encouraged us, in the Mishnah, to say the most important prayers – the Sh’ma and the Amidah in a language we can understand.  (Sotah 7:1)

This week’s parshah, Bo, continues the story of the Exodus from Egypt – picking up in the middle of the ten plagues with locusts and taking us through the escape from Egypt and our obligation to “observe this as an institution for all time” throughout the generations.  Right in the middle of the instructions about putting the blood on the doorposts of the houses, before it happens, the Torah instructs the Israelites who are about to be freed from slavery to mark this moment each year, themselves, and throughout the generations.  Indeed, the tradition of the four questions, stems from this part of the Torah.  The Torah anticipates that children will ask us questions about the meaning of our traditions; v’hayah ki yomru aleyheim beneichem, mah ha-avodah hazot lachem?, the time will come when your children will ask you, “what is the meaning of this rite?”  The word avodah here refers to the Passover sacrifice which we performed in the days of the Temple.  When the temple was destroyed, the rabbis turned to prayer, which they called, avodat ha-lev, the service of the heart.  We hope, as a part of Zamru, we will each ask ourselves, mah haavodah ha-zot? What is the meaning of our ancient prayers?  And how can we bring them closer to our hearts?

You may have noticed that this siddur – is not perfect – I like to think the crooked lines remind us that each one of us is on our own Jewish journey and it’s often not a straight path.  But you might not know from looking at this, that it took dozens of hours of volunteer time to make this happen – all driven by a commitment to inclusive prayer – where each of us, regardless of our background – could participate, learn something new, and ask ourselves, what does this mean?  We pray to cultivate gratitude.  We pray to talk to God.  We pray to be a part of a community.  We pray to experience joy.  We prayer to awaken compassion.  We pray to celebrate Shabbat.  We pray to orient ourselves.  We pray to remind ourselves that the world is in need of healing.  We pray to praise God (give thanks).

Reflections by Rabbi Julie Roth
December 4, 2009, Zamru Kabbalat Shabbat

This brings me to our second namesake, Zamru.  Zamru is a Hebrew word that means Sing!.  Taken from one of the Psalms we just recited as a part of our Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service,  Psalm 98 proclaims, zamru la’donai b’kinor, b’kinor v’kol zimrah, sing to God with string instruments, (perhaps not a guitar, but close enough), with instruments and melodious song.  Zamru is dedicated to transformative, engaging, joyful and heartfelt prayer.   Over the past six months, the founders of Zamru have devoted tremendous energy to choosing melodies, finding Dan Nadel, a talented musician who elevates our prayers, and learning and teaching these melodies with others.  But ultimately, Zamru can only be Zamru with the participation of all who are here, so we invite you again to sing even if you don’t know the words, and to clap even if you don’t know the melodies.

I want to speak this evening about our namesake – about what it means to be called the People of Israel and what it means to be a part of Zamru.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Va’yishlach, Jacob wrestles until the break of dawn and in so doing earns himself a blessing.  Jacob’s blessing is a new name. “Lo ya’akov yayamare od shimcha, ki im yisrael, ki sariti im elohim v’im anashim v’tuchal.  “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.  The Jewish People are a people who are given permission, in our very name, to struggle with God.  We are also asked to wrestle with the human tendencies and divine impulses inside of us and to choose, as Jacob does when he faces his brother Esau, to do the right thing even if it is difficult.  But more than that, the message of the story of Jacob wrestling is one that teaches us that the full blessing of our tradition is not given to us as a birthright, even if we steal it.  Rather, the wisdom and joy of Shabbat, of prayer, and community is something we can only access through active engagement.  The physicality and the back and forth of Jacob’s wrestling tells us that prayer is not just something that happens to us while we sit passively in our chairs, but rather davening, intentional Jewish prayer, demands the active engagement of our full selves – including our bodies in clapping and dancing and our voices in song.

In the words, of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests.  The primary purpose is to praise, to sing, to chant.  Because the essence of prayer is a song, and [human beings] cannot live without a song.

Worship is more than paying homage.  To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God.  The whole cosmos, every living being sings, the psalmists insist.  Neither joy nor sorrow but song is the ground plan of being.  It is the quintessence of life.  To praise is to call forth the promise and presence of the divine.  We live for the sake of a song.  We praise for the privilege of being.”  (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity 263)

As we turn now to L’cha Dodi, I invite us to celebrate both of our namesakes.  By singing (and maybe even dancing), by rising at the last verse to face the door and by bowing to welcome the Sabbath Bride, let us actively welcome Shabbat into our lives and into our hearts.   Let go of the struggles of the past week; join me in embracing Shabbat with song.