Spike + music = joy
Jacob Kraus of Jersey City brings song and leadership skills to shuls
We might still be recovering from the effects of the pandemic, Jacob Kraus of Jersey City says. But he has a solution for that.
“I’m a Jewish singer, songwriter, educator, and innovator,” Spike said. “Basically, what I do is travel around the country, singing, leading worship, teaching workshops, and generally just finding ways to bring joy and energy into communal spaces. And I think that’s important, especially coming out of the pandemic, when we might have forgotten what it means to be together.”
Spike will be in Congregation Ohr Shalom — the Summit Jewish Community Center this Shabbat, bringing community, energy, and joy. (See box.)
Before we go on, we should explain that Spike is a nickname that Mr. Kraus got in summer camp, because “I used to spike my hair, and there were too many Jacobs there,” he said. And it’s memorable. “If I’m Jacob, people remember some Jewish name with a J — Jacob? Josh? Judah? Jared? — and they forget it. But people remember Spike, and it’s relationship building.” It also implies energy, something he has great heaping mounds of. And it’s the name we will use in this story, because really, who doesn’t want to write about Spike instead of Mr. Kraus?
This is who he is, and what to expect from him, both this weekend and after.
Spike grew up in suburban Boston — to be specific, in Belmont, Massachusetts, where his father, Rabbi Jonathan Kraus, leads Beth El Temple Center. “I grew up as a rabbi’s kid; I went to the Rashi School” — a K-9 Reform movement school in Dedham — “and then to the Gan Academy” — the community high school in Waltham that used to be called New Jew, or more formally the New Jewish High School. “And I went to Camp Eisner,” the Reform movement summer camp in Great Barrington, he said. “And because I have Israeli family as well, I went to Israel many times.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the intensely Jewish world he lived in, Judaism was mainly a background part of his life back then, he said. “It was just something I did every day, like taking out the trash or walking the dog.”
But Spike always was musical, he said. He comes from a musical family — “my father is a songwriter and song leader, my mom, Amy Kraus, sings, my aunt sings, and my uncle is Cantor Leon Sher. I grew up singing, acting, taking lessons, first on piano, and then on guitar.” But he didn’t associate music with Judaism, at least not then. “Judaism felt academic to me. It felt like work.”
That changed at camp, with the full immersion into both Jewish life and Jewish music that it provides. “I started song-leading,” he said; song-leading is a specifically Reform movement term that describes the work of someone who leads a group in song, generally with a guitar, and most of the time is neither a cantor nor a rabbi. “Music suddenly became an avenue for me to latch onto Judaism in a way that felt authentic and exciting. Schoolwork and study certainly is an authentic way to be Jewish for many people, but not for me. I wasn’t jibing with it.”
But he was jibing with music. So he started song leading at camp, “and it trickled into the rest of the year,” Spike said. He song-led for NFTY, the Reform movement’s youth group, at his own synagogue, and at another one nearby. This was in the aughts, when Debby Friedman, Jeff Klepper, Craig Taubman, Dan Nichols, and Josh Nelson all were active, and spent much of their time performing in Jewish venues. “Performing that music became a huge part of my identity and my Jewish practice in high school,” Spike said. He wrote a lot of music then, “but it was love songs for girls I had crushes on. I’d have a huge crush and write a song, and it would have no effect. And then I’d have another crush, and write another song.” None of them worked, he said. “And then, in my senior year of high school, I wrote a melody for Ken Y’Hi Ratzon.”
Spike went to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, “with the intention of being an English and creative writing major,” he said. “I had no intention of studying music. But you’re not allowed to declare a major there until after your freshman year, so I took a music class.” To his surprise, he found himself excited not only by performing — he’d always known that — but also by music history and theory. “I realized that I can do this,” he said.
It was 2010. That spring, Spike went to Hava Nashira, “a Jewish music conference hosted by the Reform movement. “It was a four- or five-day conference, including Shabbat; it had all the big names in Jewish music on the faculty.
“That was the first time that I realized, ‘Whoa! This is something I could turn into a career.’
“It’s like when they ask you why you want to be a camp counselor, and for me it was because I want to give back. This was the first time when I felt that I had something to give back. I have a unique voice that I can offer.
“I could help build community through singing, and I could have the opportunity to do music full time in a way that felt authentic to me and my life. I didn’t have to study music and then try to make it in Los Angeles or go join a band or be a music teacher. Instead, I could be creative Jewishly, and then go do the work of community building, leading people in song.
“The avenues that I had been presented with for Judaism were not working for me, but this did. So I could role-model. I could introduce teens, kids, and maybe even adults to another way to connect with their faith and community and traditions.
“And it doesn’t have to be through music. There can be many different ways of being creative.”
Spike graduated from college in 2013. “I was not the only young song leader to think that this would be a cool way to live,” he said. “So the market was oversaturated in terms of song leaders and teachers and educators. I also had to do a lot of growing and maturing as an artist to properly engage with every subset and every generation of the community. I was in my mid-20s and thought that I could work with adults as well as kids,” but now he realizes that back then, he couldn’t have done it very effectively.
“My dream was to be Debbie Friedman or Dan Nichols and tour full time, sing with community, and write albums,” he said. “But I didn’t have a big enough network.”
For the rest of the decade, Spike had what he calls homebased jobs — he didn’t travel as much as he wanted to. Instead, he worked in camps during the summer — one summer, he said, he got to work with 15 of them — and with youth groups during the year; he spent two years working at Beit Rabban, a day school in Manhattan. He learned how to create curricula to train song leaders, and from that he learned how to teach about leadership. “I translated what I learned into consulting with rabbis and cantors and educators who needed help in learning how to lead. How do you get in front of the room and control the room and create an environment where people feel safe and also eager and excited? What is the proper amount of leading versus performing?”
In 2019, he moved to Michigan with Casey Wright, who then was his girlfriend and now is his wife, because she started law school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “I said that this will be my time,” he reported. “I will tour full time. And I fell absolutely flat on my face. It was a total failure. I didn’t yet have the audience or the network to make the leap from camps and students to synagogues, and to work with all parts of the community.”
But Spike was lucky. He was offered a job as artist in residence at Temple Israel of West Bloomfield, a huge synagogue in suburban Detroit that has 3,300 families, he said. This was a new position at the synagogue, and he was to pilot it.
This was the job pitch that he was offered: “We are looking to bring a high level of creativity and talent to Michigan. We want to be a pioneer. We want to be a flagship. We want to work out a partnership with you, and you can be here part time and also travel and work on your career.”
It was a perfect offer, and he took it, with the understanding that after three years, when Casey graduated, they’d move on. “It meant that I was going to be able to do work that was what I wanted to do, not work that was adjacent to it. Not to be a youth advisor or an educator. I would do choral arrangements and song commissions and leadership training.
“I love both the Jewish aspect and the educational aspect of what I do. In my heart, I am two things, a singer/songwriter and an educator. And I am a specific kind of educator — an experiential educator. I see myself as a Jewish artist who is able to use music as a tool for education, engagement, and inspiration.”
Which all is great, except for what happened next.
And in that silver-lining way that the pandemic had of strengthening what it didn’t kill, that made his choice even better.
For one thing, the job gave him an income that otherwise he would not have had, because touring was entirely out. But for another, “the pandemic gave me the time and Temple Israel gave me the place to do a self-audit.”
He realized that he should write more liturgical music. “I have a unique style. I spent the years of the pandemic writing a lot of prayer music, in a way that is authentic to my musical style.
“I could write Hadar-like meditative music, but I am much more pop, much more rock. So I landed on the folk music of the late 60s and the 70s, James Taylor and Carole King and Harry Chapin. That felt like a perfect blend. It’s authentic to me and functional in a prayer space.”
He also figured out how to market his work differently. He has successfully crowd-sourced albums, and he is part of an internet radio network called Jewish Rock Radio. (Not surprisingly, you can find it at jewishrockradio.com. Spike’s own website is www.jacobspikekraus.com.)
Although most of his work is with Reform institutions, he’s also glad to work with synagogues in other movements. That’s what he’s doing this week; Congregation Ohr Shalom is Conservative. He’s worked with Ramah camps, as well as unaffiliated ones. He’s open to the whole Jewish world.
“I fell in love with my work,” he said. “I am now touring three weekends a month. My new album is exciting; half of it is pop rock stuff for kids and half is new liturgical music. I am doing song commissions. I am going to Israel for Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.” (That’s the unlikely name of the city’s federation.) “That is what my career looks like now.”
He had an epiphany just last weekend, Spike said. “I was song-leading at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, and I thought about tzimtzum,” the mystical concept of the contractions that allowed God to make room for non-God in the world.
Song-leading is about “pulling out of space, to allow space for the community,” he said; song leading is less about performance – remember, a song leader is not a cantor, or at any rate doesn’t function as one while song leading — than about leading a group in song. “As a song leader, you don’t want to take up all the space. It’s not about ‘Look at what I can do.’ You don’t leave no space for the community to participate. That would be bad song- leading, and I’ve been taught that for years and years.
“And it occurred to me that the process of tzimtzum is like a Jenga tower,” a rickety structure that players construct and deconstruct and rebuild while trying to keep it from toppling. “If you pull out of the space before your community is ready, like if you just pull a brick out of the tower, it will collapse.
“I was always told to leave space, but my epiphany was realizing that if you don’t give the team enough of a sense of confidence first, then when you pull out then everything will fall apart.
“This isn’t specific just to song leading or to musicians. It’s for anyone who stands and leads groups. It’s a way of being able to create a space so that people in groups can feel empowered.”
This weekend, like every weekend he spends at a synagogue, “I hope to bring energy and joy. Specifically joy. I want to write a melody for prayer so that when I start singing it, I start smiling. I want to write music that lifts up in joy. I want to bring joy and enthusiasm and energy to a community — and I want to do it tastefully.
“I want it not to feel out of place in the pews; I want to bring joy and energy to the community tastefully and respectfully. I want to bring joy and energy with kavannah. With intention.”
Who: Jacob “Spike” Kraus
What: Is artist in residence
Where: At Congregation Ohr Shalom
When: All weekend, from Tot Shabbat at 4:30 to a program for teens on Sunday morning.
How much: Everything on Shabbat except dinner is free (and that had to be prearranged earlier in the week); the concert at 8:30 on Saturday night is open to the community. Tickets are $36.
For more information about the weekend: The shul’s website is www.summitjcc.org; click through to learn more about the concert.
For more information about Spike: His website is www.jacobspikekraus.com.