Shabbat Zimrah: Synagogue Music Innovation

musical-motifBy Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro
and Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein

How can a synagogue create innovative sound, engage congregants, and connect with students of all ages? At University Synagogue in LA, we have a model in Shabbat Zimrah.

Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro had a daunting task ahead of her as she followed a beloved cantor, Jay Frailich, her predecessor for forty years. What could she do musically to make University Synagogue come alive? We all knew that High Holy Days created a transition from tenor to soprano…but not a radical change in musical selections or styles. Our goal was to infuse Shabbat with a musical vision that connected past to present and delved into the spirit.

As Kerith envisioned the Zimrah project, it started with the idea of finding a path to blend familiar songs and prayers, Reform Jewish liturgy, with a mizrachi inflection. The combination required a tremendous vision and a lot of planning. Her first move was to convince her colleague Rabbi Morley Feinstein, who, fortunately, has a musical background and agreed that her musical ideas could create a worthy spiritual goal.

Kerith spoke with Yuval Ron, an Israeli magician with the oud, who signed up to join us. Though his experience in spiritual communities is vast and wide, he had never played in a synagogue as part of a Shabbat service. When creating the arrangements of the melodies, Yuval and Kerith speak in three languages simultaneously: Hebrew – the language of prayer; English – the language of discussion, and music – a language unto itself. The fluency in these three modes of communication is something that adds great depth of understanding to the process. Yuval’s oud playing connects us to the land of Israel through a Middle Eastern sound. Ava Nahas, a percussionist with roots in Egypt, brings vibrancy and vivacity to our sound. Marla Leigh Goldstein joins us on flute and the tof Miriam – a frame drum played in ancient times by women (including the prophet Miriam) in Middle Eastern cultures. Finally, our sound is rounded out by the mellow tones of Dennis Karmazyn, a temple member and the lead cellist for the Hollywood Bowl Symphony. The sound developed from its world class musicians in its own genuine manner, unique, creative, and spiritual. We premiered Shabbat Zimrah on the Shabbat of Kerith’s consecration to the pulpit, and knew there would be a healthy attendance. People were entranced. They had never heard such a sound before in the Sanctuary!

We decided to hold the service monthly. After three months of experiencing this wonderful service, a congregant approached Kerith and asked if she had a vision for expanding what we were doing at Shabbat Zimrah into other areas of the congregation. Her goal was to create a recording and to bring the Zimrah project into our schools. We were amazingly fortunate when he offered to fund it all. We now have a professional music educator/percussionist working in our preschool teaching our kids the basic building blocks of musicianship through rhythm. We have another professional musician/percussionist/educator specializing in Middle Eastern percussion, working with our religious school children. It is simply amazing to walk through the Synagogue today and hear traditional Middle Eastern rhythms coming from the children as they get to learn these rhythms and play them on the drums.

Music and culture don’t recognize borders. Our students and their parents are learning that the same rhythms being played in Israel are also being heard in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. In their everyday experiences they learn so much about what keeps us apart. Through the Zimrah project they learn about what we have in common. Having both instrumentalist educators in our schools and in our Zimrah band creates a bridge between what’s happening at preschool and religious school and what’s happening on the bimah for Shabbat.

The congregation is held and lifted up by the music and lyunim tying the songs together throughout. The music only stops at Kaddish. Each service concentrates on a theme that is put forward through connecting the music, the kavvanot and the d’var torah.

The recording itself includes the Cantor, our musicians, and her children singing backing vocals. Some of our middle school students who have been working extensively with our percussionist joined us for a few songs on djembe, tubano, and dumbek on the Shabbat when we gave away the CD.

We need great new Jewish melodies. We need vision to connect with our people and help them discover the joys of being Jewish, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and musically.

Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro and  Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein share the bimah at University Synagogue, Los Angeles.