Drumming circle at B’nai Israel fosters emotional as well as intellectual connections to Judaism
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Drumming circle at B’nai Israel fosters emotional as well as intellectual connections to Judaism

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Phyllis Schleifer, Emma Fodor, Rabbi Debra Orenstein, Emmett Weisz, Seth Weinstein, Phylicia Fodor, Corey Dubin, Max Dubin, and Harvey Meer at a drum circle rehearsal. Photos by Naomi Weinberg

When Amy and Jonathan Shein heard that Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson was holding an intergenerational drumming circle before Shabbat services one recent Friday evening, they figured it would be a child-friendly activity that would excite their 6-year-old daughter, Erica, and 8-year-old son, Evan.

“What kid doesn’t like to bang on a drum?” Amy Shein said a few days after the event.

So the Sheins joined more than a dozen other B’nai Israel members and guests for a 45-minute introduction on Feb. 4 to the spiritual aspects of drumming, one of the most ancient forms of Jewish worship. The inaugural session – monthly sessions are planned – was led by Rabbi Debra Orenstein, who studied drumming as a healing art as the religious leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles before assuming the pulpit of CBI last year.

“[One] reason I like drumming is because for many of us, Judaism has become hyper-intellectualized – what I call Judaism from the neck up,” said Orenstein. “Judaism obviously has a strong intellectual tradition. But it also has other aspects. It’s a feeling tradition; it’s an embodied tradition.”

Orenstein organized the drumming circle as a way to provide congregants with that deeper emotional as well as intellectual connection to Judaism – and also to draw more parents and children to the synagogue on Friday nights. The rabbi provided drums and other percussion instruments to three generations of participants, who experimented with different sounds, rhythms, and volumes to reflect their interpretation of the week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, which includes the account of the construction of the mishkan (portable temple) with its interior courtyard and inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies.

“We had been looking for ways to make all our programming exciting and relevant for young families,” said Orenstein. “The drumming circle was part of this. To me, it was also important to create opportunities for intergenerational events that will be engaging for everybody. [The drumming circle also helps] create a welcoming, supportive atmosphere so people of any background and any age can feel part of the community.”

Orenstein explained that there is a long tradition in Judaism of using drums and percussion instruments.

“Drumming is an early form of expression in the history of humanity, the history of Jewish worship, and even in a baby’s development,” she said. “Drumming and percussion are mentioned in one of the earliest poems of the Bible – the ‘Song of the Sea.’ Miriam took the tambourine and the women danced after her.

“Drums and cymbals are mentioned as instruments for worshipping God in the psalms, and percussion was used in the ancient temple. Of all instruments, drums are among the least controversial to use on Shabbat today, partly because there is no issue of breaking a string or needing to make a repair. Just as I tap on a table or clap my hands, one can use a drum.”

The rabbi cited Psalm 150 as an example in which the use of drums in Jewish prayer was prescribed. The psalm includes the phrase “Praise God with drums and dance … praise God with clashing cymbals.”

Orenstein noted that a drumming circle that gathers in honor of Shabbat can “use the instruments to celebrate the joy and peace of Shabbat and the meaning of the Torah portion.” To help explore Parshat Terumah, “we used our drums to convey the spirit and atmosphere of the holy courtyard in the temple and of the inner sanctum of the Holy of the Holies. We also used the sound of the drums and other percussion to imagine the experience and sound of the parochet [curtain] separating different areas in the temple. For future gatherings we’ll [continue to] use our drums to explore and personalize the meaning of that week’s Torah portion.”

At one point, the rabbi asked participants to express the sound of God’s voice on their drums.

“It was very beautiful to see many people use their instruments in unexpected ways – gently moving fingernails over the front of a tambourine to make a soft, inviting sound or circling the outer rim of a drum using a drumstick,” said Orenstein. “My favorite part was when we made the different holy sounds together. It was not a cacophony but a chorus that created a new type of harmony.”

Bill Davis, 80, who came to the event with his 14-year-old granddaughter, Peri Ganberg, also noted the differing ways in which attendees illustrated the voice of God.

“Some people had loud voices, some people had soft voices, and sometimes it was silent,” said Davis. “I think it’s quite significant what they think God is like. If you go back to the Bible,… you think God [has] a booming voice, but not everybody thinks that way.

“I thought [the drumming circle] was instructive, inclusive, and very interesting, especially for young people.”

“The rabbi related to the kids on their level, and they all seemed to be able to relate to her,” said Bob Greenblatt, 66, who accompanied his daughter, Stephanie Brenner, and 6-year-old grogger-shaking granddaughter Jessica to the drumming program.

For Emma Fodor, a fifth-grader in the CBI Hebrew School who played the drums last year at Brookside Elementary School in Westwood before taking up the clarinet, the drumming circle helped her to feel a stronger spiritual connection to Judaism.

“I loved it,” the 10-year-old said. “I liked that we were learning something new and having fun doing it. I liked that it kind of expressed my feelings a little bit and I liked the music and how everybody was playing.”

Echoing Emma’s observations about the drumming circle, Amy Shein said, “It was a lot of fun. It really had the kids thinking about lots of sounds and the beat and how to express the story [the rabbi] was telling. I liked how it was so creative.”

The next Shabbat drumming circle at Cong. B’nai Israel is scheduled for March 25 at 7 p.m.

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