A New Kind of Song

Think back to a favorite memory of a Jewish experience. Maybe you grew up Jewish and remember a yearly Passover Seder with your family. Maybe your first encounter with Judaism was a recent Shabbat service. Maybe your child came home from summer camp excited about the friends she made.

Now, think about what gave that experience the meaning to imprint in your memory. Was it the food? Was it the people? Was it God? The setting? The emotion?

What role did music play?

Jewish moments consist of many elements, but hardly any is as ubiquitous as music. We sing the Motzi to begin our meals and the Four Questions to celebrate Passover. We sing on Shabbat to express our joy and at funerals to give voice to our grief. We sing to remember the Hebrew letters and to bring individuals together in community. Music is integral to Jewish life.

This year, as an educational leadership fellow at Isaac M. Wise Temple working with Barbara Dragul, Director of Education and Lifelong Learning, I am helping to launch Project Zemer. Zemer is one of many Hebrew words for music, and our project is to integrate music into the life of the religious school. Project Zemer is meant to help everyone in the Wise Temple community use music to connect with the Jewish story and Jewish life, with other people across time and space, and with God. In that way, our efforts reflect Deuteronomy’s instruction to teach song to our children, that it may serve as a witness to God’s presence (31:19). We hope Project Zemer will allow people to express their Judaism with their whole selves, and we hope it nurtures students’ connections with their classmates and with the entire congregational family.

The first objective of Project Zemer is to integrate music education with existing curricula. Instead of being a “special,” disconnected from what students are learning in the classroom, music time now consists of developed lessons that support students’ ongoing learning. This time is called Zimrah, a word used in Israeli schools for music class, and it occurs for each grade every two or three weeks. As the main coordinator of Project Zemer, I am also serving as the Zimrah teacher. I have been working with teachers to learn what I can do to support their students’ learning, and they have begun bringing lessons from Zimrah into their regularly scheduled classroom time.

For example, students in the fourth grade study Israel for the year. In Zimrah, fourth grade students began singing “L’chi Lach” by Debbie Friedman, a song based on the Genesis story in which God charges Abraham to travel to the land of Israel. Students evaluated what they would need to go on such a journey, allowing them to see themselves in the story. In the classroom, students studied the relevant Torah portion in depth to contextualize their singing.

In other Zimrah lessons, students in the third grade (who study the Jewish calendar and holidays) sang “The Jewish Calendar Song” by Julie Jaslow Auerbach. This song pairs Jewish holidays and their paraphernalia with the Hebrew months in which they occur. A few weeks later, students learned to sing “Al Sh’loshah D’varim” (from Pirkei Avot 1:2), which says, “The world stands on three things: on Torah (learning and teaching), on Avodah (worship and service), and on G’milut Chasadim (acts of lovingkindness).” We applied these words to the Jewish calendar, grouping Jewish activities into the three categories. In doing so, students came to see why different elements of each holiday (and of the entire year) fit into a complete whole.

Such an emphasis on collaboration is a hallmark of Project Zemer. A significant portion of my work is cultivating partnership and cooperation between teachers, madrichim (high school student leaders), Wise Temple rabbis, Barbara Dragul, and myself to refine a living vision for Project Zemer. Our collective efforts are bringing a new sense of integration and cohesion to the religious school. In reflecting with Barbara on my work, I am learning how a seemingly circumscribed initiative like Project Zemer can precipitate large-scale systematic change in an organization.

Psalm 96 says, “Sing a new song to God,” and helping the Wise Temple community sing in a new way is the goal of Project Zemer. All of us involved have been energized by the enthusiasm and openness of students to lend their voices and smiles to this new experience, and we are excited for the possibilities ahead. Just as music has given meaning and depth to our own Jewish memories, so do we hope it will create new ones for the next generation.

Sam Pollak is the educational leadership fellow at Isaac M. Wise Temple.

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