After last year’s wildly successful Ashira Jewish music program with fifty participants, this year several new initiatives are taking place incorporating Jewish music, prayer and Schechter’s pluralistic approach to Jewish Studies. In Elul leading up to the High Holidays two mini-courses were offered- in High Holiday nusach one in Ashkenazic and one in Sephardic. Both of these mini courses were student initiatives.
The desire for High Holiday learning highlights one of the challenges of the program: in an 18-week course only so much material can be covered. The instructors made the decision to focus primarily on Shabbat nusach. It offers the most opportunities for people to step into leadership roles in their own communities. One way of dealing with the limited number of class hours is homework assignments. Students are instructed to record themselves singing a particular part of the Shabbat liturgy and send it to their instructors who then offer critiques and suggestions for improvement. There are many paradigms the students can make use of and it fills their prayer leader ‘toolbox’ for years to come.
Ashira is in many ways a beit midrash for tefillah. Students study music theory but they aren’t only studying shtreigers (Ashkenazic musical modes) or maqqamim (musical modes unique to Sephardic liturgy). Dr. Naomi Cohn Zentner leads the Ashkenazic track and appreciates how Ashira incorporates music theory and text study: “We are also looking at the experience of prayer according to Jewish thinkers. What do the Talmud and aggadah have to say about prayer and prayer leading? In many ways this is a program devoted to prayer with a lot of music involved.”
Dr. Cohn Zentner is now also serving as the coordinator of Ashira, a new MA program in Jewish music at Schechter. This same goal of embracing more serious and methodical ways of prayer and prayer studies is behind Schechter’s decision to start an MA program: “We are surrounded by Jews and by Jewish music and there’s no place to do a degree. There is a major void in the field of prayer studies both on a beit midrash level and an academic level. These programs are fulfilling that need.” Having opportunities for formal study of the richness of Jewish prayer and music is long overdue she says: “It’s a huge question- what is Jewish music. Everyone studies klezmer, not everyone studies Ethiopian musical traditions. There are very few places where one can study the depth and breadth of Jewish music traditions from all over the world. There are so many communities with such rich, varied musical practices.”
As an Israeli who often works with Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College rabbinical and cantorial students, Dr. Cohn Zentner is surprised programs like Ashira, both the beit midrash and the new MA program, haven’t happened until today. A trained musicologist with a doctorate from the Hebrew University Cohn Zentner has taught all around Jerusalem. In an academic degree in musicology a person might complete the degree and only take one course in Jewish music: “There is a classical cantor who teaches in Tel Aviv, but if you want to learn Moroccan piyutim you have to go to Ashdod. Ashira is unique in that it offers multiple tracks and opportunities to study a wide variety of music traditions.”
Unlike many music programs which focus exclusively on music, a unique aspect of studying prayer is that the music is meant to elevate the words. Words still have primacy. Says Dr. Cohn Zenter: Often music has been an add-on to Judaism and the Arts courses or to studying Jews of Islamic lands. Now it is given its own focus, a unique program to allow students to go into true depth and breadth of Jewish musical traditions. There is the opportunity to incorporate all aspects of Jewish music – liturgy, Torah trope, women singing lullabies to children, all of these things that are part of the mosaic of Jewish identity.”