Articles About Kane Street

Weisenberg as Kane Street Music Director

Shabbat at the Shtender

Kolot Magazine Winter 2008

by Sarah Schmerler

Peer through our chapel door on any given Friday night, and you’ll probably see nine or 10 people standing around an old wooden shtender (reader’s lectern), co-leading the Kabbalat Shabbat service with gusto. You’ll see two 20-somethings (a guy in jeans and a woman who is head of our social action committee); two women in their 40s, singing while their hungry families wait for them at home; an empty-nester couple in their 60s; a new guy whom nobody seems to know; anda fairly new phenomenonan infant or two, bouncing in a Baby Bjorn as mom or dad bangs along on the shtender to the rhythms of Carlebach’s Lecha Dodi.

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It would be a lie to say that the Kane Street Synagogue created this vision of unity-amiddiversity overnight. It was, in fact, built over many hours and nights and days of discussion. Eventually, over the better part of a year, our Kabbalat Shabbat grew from a rather low-key service averaging 20 attendees into the robust, loud, and buzz-generating one that draws as many as 75. Its architect is the guy in the brown-and-black tallis standing at the center of the group, musical enrichment director Joey Weisenberg. Look closely and you’ll notice he’s gently giving instruction to the lay gabbaim (service organizers) with a hand gesture here or a quiet word there, even as he’s mostly lost in prayer himself. A few attendees are there just because of him. But there is a coterie of longstanding members who are learning under his tutelage to do just what he’s doing: Inspire us toward more kavanah in prayer.

Weisenberg, just 26 years old, is bearded, handsome almost to a fault, and the possessor of a 100-watt smile that has done wonders for disarming the shul’s old and new guard during many battles. He’s from Milwaukee (seventh-generation German-American stock) and he not only studies traditional nusach but also is a professional guitarist who plays gigs in clubs like Williamsburg’s Zebulon and Manhattan’s Joe’s Pub. Joey Weisenberg doesn’t talk much about himself but he can find ways to get those who have been too shy to lead services to come forward and he can encourage the whole congregation to welcome change. As a teacher and prayer leader, Weisenberg’s both enigmatic and charismatic a powerfully effective combination.

When the members of the Kane Street board created the part-time position of musical enrichment director in fall 2007, they could not have anticipated how indispensable Weisenberg would become. Kane Street is a large and diverse Conservative congregation, located in the already diverse neighborhood of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Its membership of 250-plus boasts professionals, community activists, and many artists, coupled in relationships both straight and gay, in families large and small, from backgrounds traditional and secular. For every member fluent in Hebrew, there is another for whom reading is a chore. Some can read Torah with ease while others can barely sit still during the service. They all seem to have a preferred tune for Adon Olam, or a seat in the sanctuary from which they’d rather not budge, a melody from their childhood they’d like to introduce, or an aspect of the service they’d rather see struck. Kane Street is, in short, a highly opinionated congregation, populated by people who expect to be heard. The new musical enrichment director would have his hands full.

Weisenberg began by giving short, simple musical instructions at various times during the year. There is one easy-to-learn tune that he introduced in services, during children’s programs, and at almost every other event, a tune he named the Kane Street Niggun to share our sense of ownership and comfort. Whether we realized it or not, we had started participating in a pedagogical concept that Weisenberg calls “followership.” “You have leadership, of course,” Weisenberg said. “But you can’t blame leadership for all the problems. There must be people who follow actively. They have to be able to grab hold of what’s happening and take it to a higher level. That’s why, on Friday night, we invite gabbaim to stand and support the prayer leader.” According to Weisenberg, leaders of prayer have to feel the “immediate, proximate support” of their fellow congregants. Lines have to blur. “The leaders should feel like they’re steering a boat rather than pushing it.” Lay gabbaim aren’t a Jewish Renewal concept. The tradition goes back hundreds of years. In the interest of change, Kane Street found itself embracing that old concept.

By November, Weisenberg took over an hour-long Shabbat alternative service that ran in our small chapel at the same time as the Torah and musaf services, re-naming it the Singers Service. Not a service, per se, and not strictly a singing lesson, it instead became a close-knit circle of people, all encouraged to participate with tunes ranging from wordless chasidic melodies to traditional Shabbat songs. This ragtag assemblage learned how to be in the moment while taking direction from a leader. Participants would listen to a new tune, then break it down into sections, singing it at least 20 times before thinking that they’d begun to appreciate it. Then they would sit silently, letting the whole experience sink in. The overall goal for congregants, using our own abilities (and potentially unbounded kavanah), is to make an aesthetically beautiful experience out of prayer.

“In order to make something more than the sum of its parts you have to have people close, for the same reason that an orchestra sits close together,” Weisenberg said. “I see the congregation as being a giant Jewish orchestra. It changes its composition every week and frequently has a different conductor. There’s a certain amount of discipline in an orchestra. Is it time to be quiet? Time to be loud? And you’d never have people in a true orchestra talking to each other and ignoring the conductor.” Now these biweekly services are greatly anticipated; they have become a way for congregants to build confidence. No matter how you feel when you enter the room, you have to admit that something definitely has shifted before you leave.

More than half of the diverse crew standing at the shtender got their Kabbalat Shabbat skills during those spontaneous Shabbat morning Jewish orchestra recitals. But even newbies get the sense that whatever you bring to the table the instrument of your kavanah is enough.

“At the beginning of every service, the leader should request that at least six people come up to support him or her,” Weisenberg said. “What’s most important is that they’re physically there, and trying. Kabbalat Shabbat is a flexible service in a number of ways, and a good training ground for leadership. Of course, it’s helpful if you have people who know what they’re doing. But it’s equally helpful if you don’t. The service begins with the invitation to the community: L’chu n’rannena l’Adonai Come, let us sing together to God.” At other times during the service, we make no noise at all.

Silence. A proud followership. Leading with sensitivity. Listening with initiative. It’s a recipe we highly recommend for welcoming Shabbat at the shtender along, of course, with loud, loud song.

My NYC shul-hopping continues at the Kane Street Synagogue

From the Reform Shuckle

If I were going to be in Brooklyn for more than a month, the Kane Street Synagogue might very well be the place I make my usual home for davening. Like last week’s shul, Kane Street is Conservative, but lively.

Kane Street’s Friday night service is wonderful because of it’s intimate location and small size. I counted about 25 people in the small room, arranged in a semi-circle around a prominent wooden shtender. Around the shtender hovered six people when I walked in. All seemed to be relatively in charge, though one was obviously more in charge than the others, Music Enrichment Director Joey Weisenberg, currently studying nusach with a chazan somewhere.

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He’s strikingly handsome and has an odd, shy charism to him. He bangs loudly on the shtender as he leads the mostly Carelbachian service, rocking back and forth exstatically. He leads from Sidur Sim Shalom, announcing page numbers occasionally as he goes. Whenever he announces a page number, one of the other people around the shtender annoucnes a page number for the other sidur in use, HYPERLINK “http://www.chav.net/siddur/” Sidur Chaveirim Kol Yisrael, the Friday night companion to my sidur of choice, HYPERLINK “http://www.newsiddur.org/” Siddur Eit Ratzon. Aside from Joey and the woman with the page numbers, I could discern no particular purpose for the other four people around the shtender. Then, as Kabalat Shabat was nearing completion, a guy came in late, and made himself the seventh member of the shtender cluster. During the closing song, a raucus rendition of Yigdal which everyone belted out together, an elder statesman of the group got up and made himself shtender cluster member number eight.

I appreciated the age mix in the crowd. Joey himself looked to be in his mid-20s, while the rest of the crowd included a young couple with their baby, a few older couples, and a group of single women in their 20s.

Let’s stop right here for a moment. This is just about everything I look for. Not only is the liturgy complete and somewhat liberal, but people are actually bothering to have a community diverse enough that it uses two differen sidurim. Unfortunatley, Joey lead the Me’ein Sheva with avot and no imahot, which is kind of a no-no in my book, but that is my only complaint. Add to the style and the liturgy the low level of chaose floating about the shtender, and you’ve got a good mixture in my book. I grew up at a synagogue that revels in its constant low-level hum of chaose during services and I’ve come to expect it.

In retrospect, perhaps that’s one thing that irked me about B’nai Jeshurun last week. BJ seemed so orchestrated, so well-practiced that the human element seemed to recede into the concert-like atmosphere. And while we’re on the subject of BJ, you’ll recall my bitching and moaning about the sermon I was subjected to at BJ last Friday night. At Kane Street, the same elder stateman who flung himself at the shtender during Yigdal told a fine little story from some Chasidic Rebbe or the other before Ma’ariv started. It was all well and good.

After services, I chatted with Joey about all manney of things, including this blog. Joey, if you’re reading, drop me a comment on this post and say hi.

Afterward, I had a Coke. Not a bad erev Shabat, all in all.

Shabat Shalom.

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