Uplifting Song: Our Time at Hadar’s Singing Communities Intensive

By: Students at the University of Maryland

“I knew today that God was there with me; I felt their presence. I was singing surrounded by a

Jewish community that not only would accept me for who I am, because there are many of those of that exist, but a community in which a somewhat observant queer Jew is not an anomaly. I wasn’t different and that made all the difference."
–University of Maryland Student, ‘22

From December 24th to 27th, while most students at the University of Maryland were

just beginning their winter break, seven Jewish students traveled to the heart of New York City

for an incredible opportunity. We were privileged to travel with Maryland Hillel to join the Singing Communities Intensive (SCI), led by the Hadar Institute (​https://www.hadar.org/​). The goal of this four-day gathering, led by musician, singer, and composer Joey Weisenberg, was to

spread a love of Jewish singing to communities all over the country, learning new songs and

niggunim along the way. As Jewish students who are active in Maryland Hillel and Jewish

denominational groups and clubs around campus, we were inspired to bring this passion for

singing back with us.  

 

“The experience of singing ניגון תשרי was one of the most incredibly moving musical experiences of my entire life.... I have never felt so wholly consumed by the music ...I've been nearly moved to tears a few times as I've stopped in the silence to appreciate how I feel.”  

–University of Maryland Student, ‘20

Every morning to open the program and every evening to close, we sat in concentric

circles, next to musicians, rabbis, college students, and adults who are passionate about Jewish

music. There were over 200 participants of all ages from across the country. Tunes of the niggunim – wordless melodies, as Joey explained to us – filled the sanctuary. The repeating “lai

dai dai” syllables bounced off of the stained glass windows and the ancient organ set into the

walls above the ark. We could show you the videos or multitude of audio recordings that we took

during the week, and we could try to explain the feeling of being surrounded by people coming

up with harmonies on the spot, singing their hearts out, but nothing is the same as actually being in that room and feeling the singing.  

 

"It's important to experience all Jewish music...most American Jews associate Jewish music with Yiddish and European roots. I found it really enlightening to experience other roots." ​

 – University of Maryland Student, ‘20

In those sessions and over the course of SCI, we learned new niggunim and songs, some

in English, some in Hebrew, some wordless tunes. We heard about the musical process, from

inspiration to the final song. Throughout the days, we got to engage in different sessions to learn

more about Jewish music and the elements that make it up. We learned about Arabic,

Baghdadi-Indian, Yemenite, and Iraqi influences in Jewish music, how to interweave melody

and prayer, starting and maintaining a niggun circle in our communities, and how to unleash our

personal spark. There was one incredible session led by Batya Levine and Ilana Lerman from Let My People Sing! where people were encouraged to simply stand up and teach the group songs or niggunim that they loved. We were privileged to hear many beautiful original tunes, and it was inspiring to see people stand up and teach what was in their heads.  

 

"I found myself enjoying being engulfed in the spirituality and being able to observe the way that

people around me react to the music."

–University of Maryland Student, ‘22

We had special learning tracks, in which participants studied different Jewish music-related topics in depth. One, led by Rabbi Aviva Richman, was a textual learning class about music and singing through chaos. In another, we enjoyed learning to drum and create beats to all sorts of music with Ritchie Barshay. There was also a fantastic track about incorporating music into davening, or prayer, leadership, with Deborah Sacks-Mintz. In each track, which was really a masterclass, we learned hands-on strategies and concrete ideas to bring back to Maryland with us.  

 

"I believe SCI was such a success because of the people in our cohort. We pushed each other to think differently and explore unfamiliar settings... I can honestly say that I'm close friends with

everyone."

–University of Maryland Student, ‘20

The Maryland Hillel cohort, going through all of this together, became connected deeply

to each other and within the larger group context of Hadar. We feel that experiencing SCI as a

group was beneficial, as we always had someone to refer back to and feel comfortable with if we were drawn outside our comfort zones during the programs. We learned from each other: music theory, Hebrew words, cultural references, and more. We had engaging discussions and debates about a range of religious and cultural issues, and we all fully respected each other’s opinions even when we disagreed. Furthermore, we were each able to connect to our Judaism in various ways. Some of us were inspired by certain niggunim, others by words of the songs that we learned, and others by meeting people from diverse backgrounds who chose to make Jewish music their life. This week provided us with endless new insights into Jewish music and its relationship with Judaism religiously, historically, and culturally.  

 

“I plan to empower, embrace, and unite all walks of Judaism at my university."

-- University of Maryland Student, ‘22

SCI also taught us about the different benefits that music can bring to a community,

whether it’s a new community or an old one. We learned skills that would help us create,

maintain, and enhance the feeling of community among any given group of people. Many of us

hope to take with us the practice of niggun circles that we learned at SCI, and incorporate them

after Maryland Hillel’s weekly Shabbat services. Through these circles, we aim to bring together

and engage Jewish students from all different denominations.