Setting the tone
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Setting the tone

David Bockman: Facilitating harmony

“I’ve always done a lot of musical things in whatever synagogue I work for,” said David Bockman, rabbi of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes. “It’s a part of how I am as a rabbi. Every rabbi is different in his job,” he added. Bockman, who has played trumpet since fourth grade, said he played in a number of bands at school – from marching bands to jazz ensembles to orchestras at school musicals.

“The high school had an orchestra,” he said. “A couple of us were music geeks. We didn’t sign up for the class, but we came in for the last rehearsal of the concert and they assumed we were good enough.”

To round out his musical endeavors, he also joined a medieval brass ensemble and a klezmer group.

As an adult, his musical interest has become more focused. Today, he mainly plays jazz, klezmer, and rhythm and blues.

“I don’t make a living as part of a band,” joked the rabbi. “I have this other job.”

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Rabbi David Bockman jams at the Great Notch Inn in Little Falls. On the drums, owner Rich Hempel.

Still, the two parts of his life often intersect.

“Some people view [the rabbi] as the CEO of a synagogue, but every rabbinate is different, depending on the rabbi’s skills and strengths. Part of my rabbinate is music,” he said.

Bockman incorporates music into religious services, puts on performances in and out of synagogue, and has brought musicians into the congregation. He also participates frequently in jam sessions, “hosted by different people, different nights, in different places.”

Being a rabbi, however, is never far from his mind, even when he’s jamming.

On Wednesday nights, he teaches Israeli folk dancing, “then I go out and hit a jam session. There’s jazz in Butler, rock in Oakland, and R&B in Linden.”

“It feeds back into my rabbinate – it would have to,” he said. “I get sermon ideas from playing. Most years on the High Holidays I devote one of my sermons to something I got out of music or trumpet playing. It’s an easy connection with the shofar.”

To Bockman, however, making music is not just a personal experience. Rather, “Music has always been part of the Jewish experience,” he said, although he is quick to add that “we don’t know what it sounded like in the Temple. We don’t know what the experience was like.”

While working in New Orleans, Bockman said, he was part of the local music community, inviting area musicians to his synagogue for jam sessions on such occasions as Purim. “It meant something to the musicians,” he said. “They asked about it every year” in anticipation of the event.

After his mother died, he invited fellow musicians to join him in a “jazz sh’loshim” program to honor her memory. Sh’loshim is Hebrew for 30 and is the name given to the month following a person’s death. Memorial services held at the end of that time are also called sh’loshim. It was “a beautiful musical experience in her memory,” he said. “It was unique, but it also felt like it grew organically from the Jewish tradition.”

After Hurricane Katrina, Bockman led a “New Orleans style” jazz funeral at Cooper’s Pond in Bergenfield before Selichot.

“It paved the way for the determination to change and better ourselves and the world, which are the core themes of Selichot,” he said.

“Music is an important part of my life,” noted Bockman. “It’s a way I can contribute to the Jewish community and the world. Sometimes we get too staid and insular and don’t reach out. My way is to be traditionally Jewish, but to bring this aspect into it.”

Bockman said that playing the trumpet, specifically, has affected his davening.

“Some of my congregants have commented to me that they’ve never seen someone as happy when they’re davening as I am, that I really ‘get into the experience.'”

In addition, Bockman said, “I can help knit together a group of people harmonically when everyone is playing or singing together.

“My contribution never works as well with me as the only or featured soloist, but rather as a facilitator of harmony, of enhancing a shared musical experience.

“I excel at playing with other musicians and helping them find music within them that they didn’t know they had. I feel I function in much the same way in prayer. That’s why the traditional prayer structure is preferable for me. As a skeletal structure, it can facilitate the flow of rich music that I can help the participants to weave as an ensemble. That’s how I approach Kabbalat Shabbat. “I don’t perform it so much as facilitate the weaving together of a community that invites and embraces Shabbat together.”

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