Expressing the Music in my Heart

A long, long time ago I was forced to go to Sunday school and Friday night services in order to learn for my bat mitzvah, just like the majority of Reform youth. I always resented it then, and even now I wonder if anything valuable came out of those 7 years of Jewish education. I always thought Judaism was that boring thing your parents made you do because their parents made them back all the way to Abraham. That is until I started NFTY- the Reform youth group.

At my first event we had a few song sessions and services, and much to my surprise, everyone was singing and having fun. And I started learning all of the songs, and I started to connect to prayer through the beautiful melodies that we used.

At Penn, the Orthodox and Conservative minyanim also had beautiful melodies. Once I had davened at their Friday night services instead of Reform for a few weeks, I went back to Reform, and realized there that I missed the songs from kabbalat Shabbat that the Reform minyan always skips. There were also tisches and shalshuddises and meals that had more songs for me to learn. Even now I don’t have all the words to every song memorized.

Eventually I stopped being comfortable without a mechitza and started davening Orthodox full-time. Which was fine in Israel when there were tons of places like Yikar and Shir Chadash where they sang all of Kabbalat Shabbat and most of Ma’ariv. But then I got back to Penn, and sadly I learned that many people did not want to sing all of Kabbalat Shabbat. I always wonder how anyone can have kavanah when they say the words so fast.

And slowly the tisches also started to lose their ruach for me. Our wonderful Chad Gadya [not the traditional melody, but our own Penn nusach] was retired back to its original status as a Passover and Simchat Torah song, as opposed to being sung at tisches and random engagement parties. The shalshuddis set up was changed, despite my objections, to having everyone be in the same room, whether they were singing or schmoozing, which means that now no one can hear the singing [unless you try very hard and are in the front 2 rows]. My spirituality has been intertwined with music, and it’s hard for me to separate the two, it’s hard for me to feel that I am getting anything out of saying those fixed words to G-d every day. In fact, even now, whenever I can, I thinking my head of the words I am saying out loud as being sung to the tunes I know for them.

Where has the kavanah gone? Why do we daven like this? Where can I find a community of BTs who grew up in NFTY or USY and miss all of the singing and have services that are slightly longer but actually spiritually intense? Does such a thing exist?

Until then I do what I can to try and get that spiritual high, though it’s very hard. There’s only so much you can do when you’re in a place where most people are somewhat complacent, ok with the status-quo. People who have not been exposed to a ruach filled davening, have no idea what they’ve missed. I could be willing to host a tisch every Shabbat, but if no one wants to come, then there will be no tisch. I could be willing to organize a carlbach minyan [and find a willing guy to lead it] but if there’s not 9 other men besides him interested, then it won’t happen. And I understand that the OCP co-chairs want to keep together the community, but I wonder whether shalshuddis should be just a time for talking. I could organize a women’s only song session, but if the girls want to talk instead, my efforts will just be thwarted. There’s nothing wrong with their approach, but I feel like I’m just a black sheep here. There must be some other way. I welcome all of you to comment with practical suggestions of how to find communal ruach.

34 comments on “Expressing the Music in my Heart

  1. Rachel,

    This is a tough situation to be in. There are more spirited communities out there, and some day you will get to choose where you live.

    I would like to offer the following: My husband is a Carlebach chazan who does campus and community Shabbat visits. While this is not a long-term solution for your situation, this can be a great way to inspire interest in a Carlebach minyan, etc. He is very ruach-inspiring, but also not shleppy in the way that often bugs people about davening with singing. Please get my email from the moderators if you are interested in putting something together at Penn.

  2. Rachel – Many ba’alei t’shuvah face this same issue. They are used to a Judaism that is filled with songs and spiritual highs, only to eventually find a religion that often feels filled with day to day mundanity. The key thing is to find that high in other things – the words of your prayers, deep insights into the Chumash, works of Mussar that give you a new level understanding of the Torah, or even silet moments of meditation. Ruchnius isn’t always about constant fireworks. True spirituality is a constant flame.

  3. Yitz, I hear you. I think we’re on the same page.

    No, I’m not a moderator or a posek. I do work in kiruv though.

    I was attempting to navigate some complicated uncharted terrritory. I’m not sure I did so well. This blog is for chizuk for all Baalei Teshuvah and this blog is committed to halacha, of course. Halacha has many shades of gray. In some instances, one man’s white is another man’s black. I think if we are to gain the most we can out of what this blog is all about, we’re all going to have to find a way to focus on the chizuk part more than how to correct each other.

  4. “I hope this clarifies it for you. I certainly would not recommend asking anyone to sing who does not want to. And yes, if a man felt uncomfortable with my giving permission for the women to sing, I would withdraw my request, or if I knew ahead of time, not make it in the first place.”

    Or you could let people know ahead of time that your house is a house where women can [and do] sing. That’s the way it is here. If people have a problem with it [which I have yet to encounter] than they aren’t obligated to come to my meals…

  5. Gershon wrote:
    “Yitz, I really don’t want this to turn into a halachic discussion, This blog is all about giving each other the moral support we all need. but now it seems I need to take the other side…”

    I’m new to this blog, so perhaps I don’t understand its perameters. Are you a moderator or something on this blog? I didn’t see your name among the list of contributors or advisors or whatever.

    And while you write that you don’t want to turn this into a Halachic discussion, you then go on to ask me a Halachic-based question. So with your permission I’d like to clarify:

    Firstly, I’m not a Posek, but I do observe Halacha to the best of my knowledge. I rely on various psakim I’ve received over the years, including from talmidim of R. Moshe Feinstein.

    Your question is not black & white, for very often one has at his table a VARIETY of people, some of whom are very strict about Kol Isha, and others who may not be. What often happens is that women may become intimidated into not singing, and join others in chatting while niggunim are being sung. What I try to do in that case is:
    1. Explain the sanctity of Negina, as I mentioned earlier, that it’s on par with a Dvar Torah. Most people are polite enough not to chat or shmooze while someone is giving over a Dvar Torah.
    2. For those who may want to sing, I assure them that they may do so – together with men, and only Zemiros or Niggunim [not secular music] – at my table, and that I prefer that to chatting.

    I hope this clarifies it for you. I certainly would not recommend asking anyone to sing who does not want to. And yes, if a man felt uncomfortable with my giving permission for the women to sing, I would withdraw my request, or if I knew ahead of time, not make it in the first place.

  6. Rachel,

    Amidst all this discussion, I hope you caught Gershon Seif’s point about studying the meanings in the words of the tefillos. A few inspiring shiurim can help them become more meaningful to you in those times that you can’t sing.

  7. I also relate to this post. If it weren’t for the warmth and singing of my Reform youth group, I never would have had any Jewish connection. I also attended NFTY events and Reform camps (Teko and Herzl), and traveled to Israel with NFTY at age 16. I remember feeling so uplifted and connected to Hashem through the singing. My FFB kids know lots of those Debbie Friedman tunes from me. In fact, they complain if I skip her Eliahu HaNavi after Havdalah!
    I love singing, and yes, I feel muzzled that I can’t join in with the zmiros at the table or in shul. But when it’s just our family, we all sing. I wish, though, that I could recapture that old feeling….

  8. Debbie- As somebody else commented, you could have an all girls kumzits. My community is mixed in this matter, but mostly the norm is for men and women to sing together. I, personally, don’t feel comfortable with this, so I find other times to sing. Once on a retreat there was mixed singing and I was so upset that I arranged an all girls singing group for later that evening. Everybody enjoyed it, and it was a success.

  9. As a former NFTY-ite and Goldman Union camper (reform summer camp), I also miss the opportunity to sing. I have yet to feel the type of spiritual connection that I felt being a part of 100 voices harmonizing beautiful prayers. Havdalah was so amazing that it brought tears to my eyes everytime. I used to choose my reform congrational affiliations based on whether they used “camp tunes” so I could glimpse that feeling again.

    My community now, while kiruv-oriented, doesn’t encourage women to sing, so I haven’t seen the point in learning the Orthodox tunes. I haven’t been able to connect to davening yet…I’m hoping that as I learn more Hebrew, I’ll find a way to have kavanah without the music. :(

  10. Yitz: Finally, this can be another reason to apply leniency to the issue of women singing [together with the men] at the Shabbos table. What often happens in situations where people are very strict about this, is that the women end up chatting with each other, and the niggunim are often drowned out or at best, ignored, which is a shame!

    Yitz, I really don’t want this to turn into a halachic discussion, This blog is all about giving each other the moral support we all need. but now it seems I need to take the other side…

    Just a question.. you aren’t suggesting that in circles where the observance of not hearing a woman’s voice is kept strictly, that they should stop doing so because it is a shame that we’re not hearing all the voices in harmony which is a mitzvah unto itself, and the women’s chatter gets in the way…

  11. Michoel, and anyone else:

    You can e-mail me at:

    I’ll check the link on my blog, but I’m pretty sure it works.

    As to the Halachic discussion here, I can agree with both sides. One should be aware of the issues, but also, the mere citing of a Gemara and/or the Mishna Brura is not enough to suffice. Modern-day poskim, with a view to the various situations [such as kiruv, BTs, etc.] should be looked into.

    Regarding niggunim at the Shabbat table, in the midst of eating or discussions: While I hear that there should be sensitivity to what the majority of the people at the seuda are doing, sometimes discusssions can run on for a long time, at the “expense” of a good niggun. Ideally, the “master of the house” should be gauging the timing of these things, so that when Divrei Torah are delivered, or niggunim are sung, the proper attention is devoted to them so they can fulfill their purpose. I often remind my guests that the second Modzitzer Rebbe said that the same word, HaBocher [“He Who chooses”] is used about the Torah and about song – HaBocher B’Torah, and HaBocher b’Shirei Zimra – to teach you that they have the same sanctity.

    Furthermore, R. Shlomo Carlebach pointed out that when two people are talking at the same time, there is dissonance and nothing is heard or understood; whereas, when they sing together it can have the most beautiful harmony!

    Finally, this can be another reason to apply leniency to the issue of women singing [together with the men] at the Shabbos table. What often happens in situations where people are very strict about this, is that the women end up chatting with each other, and the niggunim are often drowned out or at best, ignored, which is a shame!

    Hope this clarifies some of the above…great blog, too!

  12. Rachel, Mark, Eddie and Gershon,
    While agreeing with what Mark said above, I just want to point out to Rachel that sometimes it is good to look at the broad picture. Yes, you should go with your presents spiritual needs as long as there is a valid halachic basis. No need to rush to chumros. At the same time, it may be worth while to look ahead and try to develope solutions for your needs that will work for you regrdless of where you live and what kind of man you will marry. Rachel, you seem to really have your head on straight so I am not worried about “being frum on you” or damping your enthuiasm for growth. When I was first becoming frum, I got some eitzos about things that were intended to make the path easier. But in the end, they created problems. For example, things having to do with family relationships where I was told that it is fine to rely on this or that leniency. My parents accepted that leniency as “normal Yiddishkeit” and then, when I personally grew to a new place, they were hurt that I didn’t want to rely on what was already declared OK by the orthodox rabbi. It is not the exact same circumstance that you are in, but I hope you understand what I am saying.

    On a practical note, it seems that when one organizes a Carlebach minyon as a special event, or when women organize a ladies-only shalsheudas, if they do it less frequently, then there is greater attendance and more to look forward too. By picking certain specific times, like shabbos m’varchim, and by having different women prepare something to say, you can generate a lot of enthusiasm.

    Hatzlacha Raba

  13. Rachel,

    As I pointed out earlier, my comment was not meant to reflect your situation as only someone on site would know what the situation requires. Your rabbi is the one who qualifies and should make the decision. thus, I reserve all comment on that point.

    “I think it may be deceptive then to have a service which does allow mixed singing, only to draw the person into a community which doesn’t allow this mixed singing [ie “allowing something for the sake of kiruv”].”

    This is a great question which requires a discussion of its own but I doubt this blog is the place for that discussion. It’ll be sure to offend at least a couple of the regulars. Suffice it to say, that in gray areas of Halachah the bar is usually set very low for Jews who have not made a conscious decision to practice Halachah and they usually raise it on their own once they gain familiarity with the issue.


    Thanks for the offer. It was most gracious and even more enlightening.

  14. Eddie,

    At Penn, the custom is to allow men and women singing together, not just in kiruv situations, but as a norm- at minyan [if there is singing], at tisches, at meals, etc. Our rabbinical authority allows this, and never once has commented on there being an issue. Maybe we’re being makil, but the community wouldn’t just allow something that blatantly breaks halacha to go on. As we see it, the mixed singing is within the realm of things allowed by the law. Different people feel comfortable with different practices of observing kol isha, but I think at this level our entire community is fine. We do take the precautions of only having men lead the shalshuddis singing, so an individual woman is not starting a song.

    Obviously not every community views the halacha this way. I think it may be deceptive then to have a service which does allow mixed singing, only to draw the person into a community which doesn’t allow this mixed singing [ie “allowing something for the sake of kiruv”]. If the person, going into frumkeit, didn’t know that this wasn’t the norm, and was attracted to frumkeit because of music and now has to give up being able to sing altogether [except in all women situations, which are very rare] then that would not lead to a good situation.

    This was actually one of those posts that wasn’t meant to be controversial, but more to show one of my current issues with my own spirituality, which unfortunately is linked to community and is not something I can just fix by myself. But thanks for the compliment.

  15. Gershon,

    I know the feeling. Believe me.

    Perhaps you and I see this differently but Rachel’s post is not where the discussion begins and ends. As usual it leads to many other scenarios and sentiments that don’t directly tackle how to solve Rachel’s problem. Her posts in particular tend to stimulate peoples emotions as she is obviously a very bright, spiritual and creative writer. As I said preiously , it was to the broader public that I was addressing my post. You’re free to disagree of course and I respect that. I only ask for the same.

  16. Eddie, my mother frequently tells me “you can die being right”.

    After Rachel bemoans her lack of feeling inspired, and conludes with ” I welcome all of you to comment with practical suggestions of how to find communal ruach.”, is not the time to start bringing up Mishna Berurahs…

    If you don’t understand what I’m trying to say, I give up!

  17. Gershon,

    In case I wasn’t clear enough the first two times around, let me try to clarify my point once more so that there be no misunderstanding. Nowhere in my original or followup post did I express an opinion on what’s Halachically appropriate for Rachel’s situation or any other specific situation. All I did was point out that the entire idea of a mixed singing minyan or meal is not without its complications [a sentiment that I felt was missing from the discussion]. I assume that Rachel is aware of this and is acting under guidance from a competent Halchic authority and so would any NCSY director.

    I’m not suggesting anyone be stringent or lenient, I’m only pointing out that this is an area that is not always black and white. That, I believe is not immediately obvious in the original post or subsequent followups and on a blog that is committed to Halacha, it needs to be pointed out.

  18. “The fact that someone enjoyed something that was used to help draw them into Yiddishkeit does not mean it should be made a regular feature of their Jewish expression once they know better.”

    I’m curious, how do you determine the point at which they know better? I work for NCSY. We don’t tell kids who’ve been with us for a few years, mixed singing and all, that they should stop. They need to remain with us for the support system we provide, even if as individuals they could handle hearing about and observing the laws of Kol Isha. There do exist leniencies, and they are put to use precisely insituations like this. After high school many NCSYers go on to yeshivos and seminaries and come to their own understanding and growth in observance.

    But on a college campus, what would you suggest? You are aware that Rachel is at Penn, right? If you start imposing chumras, forget about Rachel singing while davening. As a matter of fact you might just forget about anyone else davening either! Would you suggest Rachel stays in her dorm room since she knows better? It would seem to me that it would be wiser to err towards the lenient direction on this issue. Remember, there are shittos that are matir when it’s not an individual voice.

  19. Gershon,

    There is such a broad range of readers here and many of them are not speaking Kiruv. I don’t know Rachel but it sounds like she’s religous already and lamenting the lack of such a gathering for her own well being. That doesn’t sound like Kiruv to me but I could be wrong and that’s why I wrote what I did.

    The fact that someone enjoyed something that was used to help draw them into Yiddishkeit [itself a practice that needs competent Halachic oversight – of which there is B”H much to go around] does not mean it should be made a regular feature of their Jewish expression once they know better.

    Again, I don’t know Rachel and am not suggesting that she or anyone else is Chas V’Shalom guilty of this. My goal was to point out that as a mainstream practice, one must be aware of the Halachic issues involved.

  20. “There may be allowances for this at a function that is Kiruv oriented but as a LeChatchilah it is a practice that must be questioned from a Halachic standpoint.”

    Eddie, you don’t think we’re talking kiruv here???

  21. I hate to be the spoiler here but as much as I [sometimes] love my davening with song, there can be a serious Halachic issue with some of the Carlebach minyanim and communal meals where men and women sing together. The issur is discussed inthe Gemara Sotah 48a Mishnah Brurah Siman 479 [and elsewhere].

    There may be allowances for this at a function that is Kiruv oriented but as a LeChatchilah it is a practice that must be questioned from a Halachic standpoint.

    I have no idea whether this is the type of situation that Rachel is speaking of. I’m only pointing out that this pitfall exists.

  22. Yaakov-

    I actually don’t disagree with you on the singing during meals thing. But our shalshuddis isn’t a formal meal. What happens is that everyone washes and gets food, has a good 10-20 minutes to schmooze in the beginning, and then we sit down to sing mizmor l’david and yedid nefesh, then there’s a d’var torah, and then more singing. So really the talking and singing go on simultaneously, except that it’s at the singing’s expense.

    During a normal meal, if it’s my meal, I only start the singing [and by start I mean have a guy start] when enough people request it. Usually it happens towards the end anyways, after we’ve all eaten and are waiting for/munching on desert.

  23. It is really profound to try hisbodedis, speaking in privacy to H’ in your own words, for a set amount of time. It has changed my whole relationship with prayer, including the formal ones. :-)

  24. Rachel,

    I concur: when there’s no singing in shul on Shabbos there’s no simcha (for me). All the joy just dissipates and leaves me desiccated and depressed.

    Have you ever been out to AISH Philadelphia? It’s in Bala Cynwyd, and easy to get to from PENN. It is an extraordinarily warm and welcoming community –and the singing on Friday nights (Carlebach minyan) is so soulful, so joyful that it never fails to elevate me.
    (To get there you can drive up 44th Street/Belmont from Lancaster Ave straight to City Line Ave. Or you can take the #44 bus from Center City (19th and JFK), or you can catch a Northbound bus from 52nd Street, or you can catch the commuter rail-line –R6 Cynwyd from 30th Street.) If you call them, (610-668-9600) they can always hook you up with a family. Also they occasionally have singles Shabbatons run by “The Chevre.” Alas, many of the singles who come out for this aren’t observant, but there are invariably a few that are.

    Of course, its a pain to be away from home and friends on Shabbos, so it would be great if you could set something up at PENN. That would be a real triumph.

    I’ve also found that in Passaic, NJ, despite the very shtark nature of the neighborhood, there’s a wonderful Carlebach minyan that meets virtually every week. (you can find them on The female turnout for this Minyan isn’t always great in number, but occasionally is decent sized.

    One thing on which we apparently differ, Rachel, and I’m curious as to whether anyone else concurs: is there anyone else who loves singing, but finds interrupting eating and talking to sing at a meal very irritating? Drinking and singing is fine -but eating and singing is another. It seems dictatorial to me: one person, or a few people decide that they want to sing, and then anyone involved in a conversation or in relishing their food is expected to stop abruptly at this arbitrary time in order to sing, and is frowned at if he or she prefers to talk or eat. It’s fine when there’s a designated order to the meal, but the impromptu niggun is an impositon. Perhaps I’m just a grump?


  25. I see both sides. Sometimes singing can enhance the service greatly, but sometimes I just can’t get into the tune chosen. It really depends upon the tefilah and tune chosen. I think most people will agree that while if the shema and following paragraphs were sung it may not be as easy to connect, but if ashis chayil were not sung there would also be lack of connection.

    If you say the tefilah as opposed to singing, but you do not rush through, there is the potential for an amazing conection. I used to rush through shemonah esrei becasue that’s what everybody did. But one day I forced myself to slow down and look at the english to understand it better, and the connection was amazing.

    It really depends on the person and finding your link to it. Also there are many books and commentators which can give you little things to connect through in different parts of davening. Maybe looking at some of those could also help.

  26. I have to agree with Rachel – sometimes I feel like there is something missing out of the rote davening I sometimes encounter. I think that’s why I like Friday night Shabbat services the best – the Orthodox minyan at my undergrad really got into them (once some guys who sang joined the minyan). I also went to a Carlebach-Shabbat morning service at a Hillel conference (I didn’t know it was going to be Carlebach – imagine my total surprise when students started dancing after the Amidah out of nowhere) and it was the most engaging and uplifting Shabbat morning service I have ever attended.

    Half the time davening doesn’t do it for me. The words just don’t adequately express what I feel. But certain songs get me every time (Lecha Dodi is my all-time favorite); almost every time I want to personally connect with Hashem, I find a song to sing. Good luck Rachel!

  27. One thing you seem to take for granted is that song is at a higher spiritual level than simple praying. Understand that is not true for all people is important to keep in mind though.

    I feel like I have to take my focus away from God when we sing parts of services…and that’s fine. If everything is always sung though, I don’t walk away from davening feeling like I spoke with God. I realize song is very important to many people, like yourself though, so I don’t begrude the people who want to sing more.

    The more balanced the mix, the more people who can walk away from services feeling like they accomplished the goals of teffilah.

  28. oh, one more thing, if you haven’t yet, please click on my name and visit my website. I’ve got some original songs to download. The recordings aren’t perfect as I’m still learning how to do this, but you might like them. I’ve got another 4 songs I’d like to add, but it might have to wait until lag Ba’omer. (work and pesach cleaning loom…)

  29. Rachel,
    I understand your feelings very well. I’m fortunate enough to have my musical expression in many ways. Here in Chicago there is a minyan I attend that has a small dose of Carelbach type davening. I also play guitar for an occasional kumzits for NCSY or for local shul events. I pick up my guitar at last once a day. I don’t know what I’d do without it.

    While it might not help for shul davening, you can of course fill your day with soulful music.

    Another good idea is to organize a study session where you and some friends discuss the meaning of the prayers. I’ve been seriously studying the meaning of davening for over 15 years. I started a small study group about 3 years ago.

    People are people and it’s hard to say all those words, especially when to feel them when they were written by someone else. Plus, not everyone knows how to be in touch with their inner musical side. (And not everyone can carry a tune!)

  30. Rachel –
    Thank you for your beautiful words. I am not a BT, but your comments resonate with me. I work as a NFTY song-leader, and connect spiritually through music, especially when I have 150 kids singing and praying together. I do, however, find myself frustrated with the abbreviated liturgy. I feel that our struggles are similar, even while we approach them from different directions. I wish you the best of luck in finding your spiritual and musical home.

  31. Hi Rachel,
    Our mutual friend ASJ sent me here! People who like to sing usually can find each other. But since you’re not so sure how many of you there are, I’d like to suggest the following.

    Have a Kumzitz on a Motzaei Shabbat, or other convenient time. You must have a least one guy who can sing and play an instrument, usually guitar, but keyboard’s okay too. Publicize it, but indicate that it’s for serious singers only – anyone who wants to spend the whole time shmoozing shouldn’t bother to come.

    Hopefully you can build a base from this to generate a monthly, or weekly, Carlebach minyan or the like. Try it, and let us know what happens!

    Whatever you do, don’t give up singing, and if you like, check out my blog – perhaps that will inspire you a little bit, too!

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