Grace notes: Bridging religious boundaries with music
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Grace notes: Bridging religious boundaries with music

People from different religious communities don’t always feel comfortable with one another. Yet even when they get along well, it may be difficult, or even impossible, for them to pray together. In that case, says Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, chazzan at Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia, they might consider bonding through music.

Maintaining that "it is not difficult to listen to music together," the cantor — speaking at the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding’s second annual conference, held recently at Union Theological Seminary in New York City — suggested that music is an effective way to bridge boundaries.

The center, a project of Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University, brought together 30 Jewish and Christian clergy to discuss their congregations’ experiences in interfaith relations.

Cantor Michelle Freedman of Temple Israel and Community Center in Ridgewood, a town in which there are many churches but only one synagogue, agrees that music has the ability to bridge gaps.

For the past seven years, Freedman has directed an interfaith choir that performs at the Ridgewood religious community’s annual Holocaust commemoration. The service is held at a different location each year, rotating among the town’s houses of worship.

"I send letters to all the local churches months in advance inviting conductors and choirs to participate," said Freedman. Noting that the music selected has included Hebrew and Yiddish pieces as well as English songs, she said all the music is consistent with Jewish tradition. About 60 men and women participate in the choir, ‘0 from Temple Israel. The remaining singers generally come from five churches, said Freedman.

"When I sing Jewish prayers at interreligious services, other clergy tell me they are extremely moved," she said. And while the cantor has sung some of the prayers in English, "they particularly appreciate those sung in Hebrew," she noted.

Ridgewood’s houses of worship — including Hindu and Muslim groups as well as Christian churches and Temple Israel — hold interfaith services on Thanksgiving, Yom HaShoah, Martin Luther King Day, and other significant occasions. For example, said Freedman, a joint service was held after 9/11.

Freedman said that music, unlike spoken texts, transcends politics. In addition, she said, she considers music to be a major source of the spirituality in a religious service. "If the right music is not there, the service loses something," she said.

The cantor pointed out that Temple Israel has added more niggunim (wordless melodies) to its own Shabbat service precisely for that reason.

Rabbi Adina Lewittes, religious leader of Sha’ar in Tenafly, believes that music is also an important tool in strengthening "intrafaith" relations.

"It provides a language that is accessible to all, regardless of their level of Jewish education or familiarity with liturgy or the Hebrew language," she said. "It allows for collective participation and community building that transcends difference."

The services at Sha’ar consist of vocal readings by Lewittes, accompanied by musican Dan Nadel, who interprets the liturgy on the guitar. Nadel, a graduate of the jazz program at the Thelma Yellin High School for the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv, spent his army duty as the guitarist for the Israel Defense Forces’ Air Force Band. In ‘004 he wrote and recorded a CD called "Brooklyn Prayer."

"Together we have evolved a really unique sound and spiritual environment," said Lewittes, noting that this format is used in every service Sha’ar convenes. "His style brings together musical traditions from Israel, the Middle East, Africa, South America, jazz, flamenco, etc. The melodies draw from different cultures, like Judaism itself."

Sha’ar introduced musical services during the High Holy Days in ‘003. "The response was fantastic," said Lewittes.

"This is not innovative," said Lewittes. "In Temple times, the worship service had music everywhere."

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