Am Yisrael's Inspiring Musical Innovations

Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, Cantor Stuart Simon and School of Jewish Studies Director Charlie Sherman celebrate the School's Bar/Bat Mitzvah on Feb. 23 (Jan Loew Photography)
Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, Cantor Stuart Simon and School of Jewish Studies Director Charlie Sherman celebrate the School's Bar/Bat Mitzvah on Feb. 23 (Jan Loew Photography)
Am Yisrael in Northfield distinguishes itself as the only Conservative Congregation on the North Shore that uses musical instruments on Shabbat morning, and has been successful in revitalizing its Shabbat services with new melodies, the addition of a percussionist, and collaborations with other congregations.   During the past several years, Am Yisrael's spiritual leader, Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, has had the privilege to spend significant time in Israel, where there is a "renaissance of Jewish liturgical music."  She shared that "As soon as I heard some of it, I knew it would be perfect for North American congregations.  I brought back the music of Nava Tehila from Jerusalem, and we have incorporated many of their melodies into our service.  Cantor Simon and I have also visited local congregations who are doing innovative prayer services.  Cantor and our School of Jewish Studies (SJS) Director, Charlie Sherman, attended Songleader Boot Camp in January, 2013, an immersion leadership training program led by Rick Recht and Sheldon Low, well known contemporary Jewish writers and musicians.  It is clear that music can lead a congregation to a spiritual height that words alone cannot."  Indeed, music is a powerful vehicle for educating and inspiring all ages.    Charlie Sherman reflected upon his passion of infusing prayer with music, and the continuity of experience between SJS and the sanctuary services.  "Many of these tunes really jelled at the synagogue's family retreat in October, 2013.  What a joy it was to sing these prayers and songs for what seemed like 48 hours straight with a community of families who are the present and future of our synagogue!"   Am Yisrael's recent musical innovations supporting a group environment include the addition of a percussionist.  Shimon Levi is a highly accomplished doumbek drummer who made his Am Yisrael debut at Shabbat Under the Stars in July, 2013.  "Shimon and Cantor Simon make a terrific team that reinvigorates our Shabbat liturgy every second Friday of the month", commented Nancy Holab Nevins, Executive Director.  Dynamic percussionist Noah Plotkin has recently joined Cantor Simon for all other Friday evening services and for every SMFP (Shabbat Morning Family Programming) service.   Am Yisrael has collaborated the past three years with Chicago's Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation through band and choir, student exchanges and performances.  Nashone Yehudah, musical director of BSBZ, joins Cantor Simon at Am Yisrael once per quarter in a joyful, spirited Friday night service.     "Music adds so much to the spirit of Shabbat, and enhances the entire experience for our congregants", reflected Cantor Simon.  "After 37 years as a Cantor (30 at Am Yisrael), it is an incredible personal thrill to be unrestricted and creative in injecting the instrumental component into the service.  Playing guitar with such solid professionals as Shimon and Noah is a treat and an honor.  Of course it has been equally enjoyable to play with our own Shabbatones at Friday Night Live for close to 13 years already."   In 2001, coinciding with the opening of Am Yisrael's school building, Rabbi Newman Kamin and Cantor Simon launched a Friday Night Live family-oriented service on the last Friday of each month.  Rabbi brought composer Craig Taubman's music to the cantor's attention.  He creatively incorporated it into the Friday evening service, then enlisted volunteer musicians from the congregation to participate.  The Shabbatones band has attracted a devoted following ever since, adding spiritual enthusiasm to the life of the congregation.   Am Yisrael is again co-hosting Nava Tehila's visit from Jerusalem on Saturday, May 24, 2014.  This promises to be another unforgettable experience of musical and spiritual energy, not to be missed.   "In our tradition, we refer to Oneg Shabbat, the joy of celebrating Shabbat.  These new melodies help give our Shabbat services a more joyous and celebratory feeling.  I speak for the Cantor, as well as myself, when I say we feel refreshed, renewed and excited by these changes.  I hope you will consider coming to services to see what we have created," remarked Rabbi Newman Kamin with charisma, feeling the music.  


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