Growing up as the daughter of a rabbi in Minnesota, Ariela Freedman never especially loved spending long stretches of time in services.
Bet Haverim chorus on the road in Charleston
Yet several years after moving to Atlanta 11 years ago, Freedman fell in love with the musical services at Congregation Bet Haverim, the city’s lone Reconstructionist congregation. At a concert, listening to the haunting melody of “Hareini Mekabel Alai,” the feeling hit Freedman: She just had to be part of the chorus.
“Everything just stopped and melted away, and I thought, I have to be part of these people that make music,” recalled the alto, who became a mainstay of the congregation’s volunteer chorus, which boasts more than 30 members.
She’d sung a bit in her junior high school chorus, but didn’t have a strong singing background. Before officially joining, she undertook vocal training with Gayanne Geurin, Bet Haverim’s music director — a process she described as part-therapy, part-vocal coaching. It was awkward, challenging and, ultimately, liberating, she said.
“This has been a really important journey for me,” said Freedman. “The process of digging deep in vulnerable places, getting comfortable hearing the sound of my singing voice, learning to trust my body to just sing without overthinking everything — all of it has been life-changing for me.”
Bet Haverim’s music program is designed not to entertain, but to metaphorically move a community gathering towards a sacred space. By definition, Reconstructionist Judaism has room for many forms of artistic and liturgical expression. Yet with its cultivated intentionality, its fusion of musical genres, Bet Haverim may have come as close as possible to embodying the Reconstructionist sound.
“What is unique about our chorus,” continued Freedman, the mother of an 8-year-old girl, “we are not just a group that wants to perform and be in front of everyone. It is not just an experience that you come and listen to; it is an experience you are invited to come and be part of along with us.”
This November, the congregation will share its unique musical culture with Reconstructionists from across North America and beyond. Freedman and a contingent of more than 30 members of Bet Haverim’s chorus and band will be featured at the Reconstructing Judaism 2018 Convention in Philadelphia. The group will offer a 45-minute musical program after the community Shabbat dinner. On Thursday, Nov. 15, chorus director Will Robertson, Geurin and Rabbi Joshua Lesser will also lead a workshop about incorporating music into communal life.
In fact, the entire convention experience will be infused with music, highlighting the powerful role that song plays in religious experience and community-building. Music will be featured at every major program throughout Convention. For example, Saturday night will feature a concert by Nefesh Mountain, which blends old time and bluegrass with Hebrew lyrics and even Jewish liturgy. The band’s husband-and-wife leaders, Eric Lindbeg and Doni Zasloff, are members of Bnai Keshet in Montclair, N.J.
Additionally, Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton of Or Haneshamah, Ottawa’s Reconstructionist Community, will be leading an “Instant Choir.” Participants who want to join the choir and sing throughout convention can meet with Bolton at the outset.
Lesser, Bet Haverim’s rabbi, explained that the decision to have the chorus sing at convention — only the second time members have traveled together out of state — demonstrates a deep commitment to the Reconstructionist movement and a desire for even deeper connections.
“Progressive Judaism and Reconstructing Judaism are at a watershed moment,” said Lesser. “This particular convening brings so much of the promise of who we are and what we have to offer to the world. It was important for our community to invest in a vision that has been so impactful. And we wanted to show one of the ways that we reconstruct Judaism: through our liturgy and our music.”
Sending more than 35 singers and musicians to Philadelphia is no small investment of time, energy and resources. Travel expenses are being funded in part by the Vita Leo Brown Creativity and Arts Fund, named in honor a beloved member of the congregational community who died at a tragic young age and was deeply devoted to the arts. The fund was created with a generous gift from the Calmenson Foundation.
“For us all to get from Atlanta to Philly is a really big deal. We are not a wealthy congregation,” said Freedman.
To help defray costs, other synagogue members have donated frequent-flyer miles to the chorus, and some have purchased airline tickets for the chorus outright. Additionally, Reconstructing Judaism is subsidizing some of the costs for the chorus members to take part in Shabbat dinner and the overall convention.
Bet Haverim chorus performs at bioethics conference
Over the course of the congregation’s three decades, it has grown from a small group to one that has become an integral part of communal life. The chorus has recorded a half-dozen CDs, ranging from chants to full arrangements.
Though the program is overseen by trained professionals, participants are volunteers and largely musical amateurs who have learned together, forming deep bonds.
Geurin explained that since Bet Haverim is the only Reconstructionist congregation in the area, many chorus members haven’t encountered Reconstructionist Judaism outside of the congregation. Convention presents the perfect opportunity for chorus members to encounter Reconstructionism on a deeper level.
“At convention, our singing will be reflective of who we are, presenting mission-oriented music that has social justice at its hallmark,” said Geurin. “We aim for a strongly connective experience and a really strong learning experience.”
Robertson, a noted recording engineer, producer and musician, added that he aims to inspire convention participants to believe that they can enhance the musicality of their own communities.
“We are always trying to look beyond and think: How will what we are doing resonate with the community?” he said.
Clearly, being part of the chorus is a powerful experience.
Carrie Hausman, a chorus member for more than a decade, said “what we do is really high-quality, both from the musical point of view and choosing the right piece of music for the right purpose. Every single one of us loves what we are doing. We feel so fortunate to be part of this group.”
Freedman echoed those sentiments. “We all love and look out for each other within the chorus. It is really a family within itself. We love choir for the music, but also for the people.”