Setting the tone
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Setting the tone

Neil Tow: Connecting and creating

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Rabbi Neil Tow teaches school children songs using his guitar.

Several years ago, Neil Tow began to play the guitar.

“It’s something I thought about a lot over the years,” said Tow, rabbi of the Glen Rock Jewish Center. “I grew up playing the piano. I wanted something to sing with, share, and carry with me.”

Tow said that on June 11, a member of his community organized “a really wonderful social night of music at the synagogue. It’s the first time I played with a group and it was very positive experience. I had a lot of fun doing it.”

The congregational musicians all played at different levels, “some beginners like me and some of professional grade,” Tow said. Instruments included keyboard, bass drums, and electric and acoustic guitars.

“There were a number of musical acts that night,” he said. “We invited anyone who wanted to share a talent or musical offering.”

Tow said the evening “bonded him closer to congregants” as they shared in performing and singing mostly rock and roll classics. “We had a member who is a professional stage singer, the synagogue choir, a house band, and an a capella group. There was such a positive response. More than 100 people participated.”

He hopes to make the evening an annual event.

Tow said that in taking up the guitar, he wanted to learn to play the kind of Jewish songs he had learned at United Synagogue Youth groups and had sung at Hillel in college after dinner on Friday evenings.

“I always felt that I had the ability to sing the songs but not generate the music,” he said. “To strum and sing is a real gift. It’s a lot of fun and has helped build nice connections with [people] from the youngest kids through adults.”

Tow also brings out his guitar when Shabbat starts late, gathering congregants before sundown to sing Jewish songs. “I hand out song sheets,” he said, noting that the services attract members of various ages.

“I really feel it enhances the Shabbat experience,” he said. “It’s kind of a warm-up, [lifting] your voice and spirit before getting into the davening. It’s been a very positive thing.”

Integrating music into his religious life has been positive for Tow and the congregation.

“I’ve brought my guitar to small havdalah gatherings in private homes the past couple of years, and after a spirit-filled service we continue with Jewish, Israeli, and American songs,” he said. Such opportunities “offer additional venues to make positive relationships.”

Music, he said, helps make sacred texts more accessible. The words and ideas “come to life.” Chanting the Torah, for example, “brings out the meaning and helps you get to know the material. Music is a tool for memory. When you combine words and melody, it creates a stronger memory.”

Tow would like to connect with other rabbis who use music in their congregations. “How meaningful and helpful it would be if all Jewish professionals would share their musical best practices, melodies, and ideas,” he said. “There’s so much great material; it would be great to access it.”

Tow’s congregation has a part-time cantor and often relies on the musical ability of its members.

“I’m amazed at the amount of musical talent and knowledge among people in the community,” he said.

“Sharing music together is a way of creating something together,” he said. “Those connections can happen through regular teaching, talking, and dialogue. But an extra energy comes through when you share music together.”

Tow at times has played his guitar for others in the community, such as seniors groups.

It is a way to get to know people better, he said. “Music breaks the ice.”

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