Setting the tone
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Setting the tone

Robert Scheinberg: Sustenance for the soul

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg has loved music all his life.

“I play guitar and piano,” said the rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken.

“I started playing guitar at age 9 and piano at age 13. In college, I minored in theory and music history.”

Scheinberg is not a professional musician, he says, but music plays an important part in his rabbinate. “It’s kind of funny that these days I do more music in my career than many people I studied music with in college,” he said.

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Rabbi Robert Scheinberg playing at a wedding reception.

Scheinberg is one of the founders of the Columbia University a capella group Pizmon and was its first musical director. He uses his experience conducting to broaden the Jewish music scene in Hoboken. A capella is singing unaccompanied by any instruments, the use of which is forbidden on Shabbatot and other sacred days, according to traditional interpretations of Jewish law, as is the case in the Hoboken synagogue.

“The purpose of our shul choir is not to sing to accompany the prayer service, but to provide Jewish a cappella music at community events,” he said.

A composer as well as choir leader, Scheinberg (whose synagogue has no cantor) said the majority of musical things he does are connected to his synagogue, such as teaching Jewish music to the children in his preschool.

Scheinberg said his knowledge and love of music influence his approach to prayer.

“I encourage laypeople who lead synagogue services to be thoughtful about their use of melodies, balancing old with new,” he said. “Music enhances the prayer experience,” especially for those not fluent in Hebrew.

On Fridays when sundown is somewhat later than 7 p.m. – the time when Kabbalat Shabbat services begin at the Hoboken synagogue, but Shabbat is still a half-hour or an hour away – he uses his guitar to usher in the sacred day.

Scheinberg said that music helps him create deeper bonds with congregants, “especially those who are musical. We do a number of musical events every year.

“Music provides a tremendous wealth of useful metaphors for understanding various things about Jewish tradition,” he said. “Being a choral director and conductor is a favorite metaphor for being a communal leader. Everyone is doing something different, but hopefully in a coordinated way. The conductor can’t possibly do everything at the same time, but he helps people use their greatest skill in a coordinated manner so that no one overshadows anyone else. It’s a metaphor for that dimension of being a rabbi – communal leadership.”

The rabbi said that one of his favorite d’rashot, or interpretations of a religious text, centers on the section in Exodus 15, in which Miriam “took her drum in her hand” following the miraculous splitting of the sea, and led Israel’s women in singing and dancing.

When you consider how quickly the Jews left Egypt and how little capacity they had to carry things, he said, “How bizarre was it that she brought her musical instruments?” And yet, Scheinberg said, citing a tribute he wrote in February to the late songwriter Debbie Friedman, doing so led to one of Miriam’s “stand-out moments” in the Bible.

“When the Israelites did not even bring all of their necessities, the decision by Miriam and the other women to bring luxury items, like musical instruments, appears to have been a foolish, reckless decision,” he said. “But our tradition describes it as a prophetic decision. Miriam, in this episode, is described as ‘Miriam ha-n’viah, Miriam the prophet,’ and some commentaries specify that her act of prophecy was specifically that she encouraged the women to bring musical instruments with them out of Egypt. She knew that music is no luxury item; music provides sustenance for the soul of a people just as food provides sustenance for the body.”

“There’s no question,” said Scheinberg. “My congregants benefit from my love of music.”

“I love to jam,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. At my 40th birthday party, the shul asked what kind of event I wanted. I said a musical event, an open jam.” The jammers – playing folk, rock, and klezmer – included members of a band composed largely of congregants.

One “professional” whom he greatly admires is David Bockman (the second rabbi profiled here). “David is a musician of the highest quality,” Scheinberg said.

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