Young Jewish voices filled the elegant Mellon Auditorium in Washington, DC recently as hundreds of people gathered to honor the three 2016 Covenant Foundation awards for Jewish Educators. Rabbi Benay Lappe won for SVARA, her unique Chicago based Talmud program and Ilana-Ruskay-Kidd was awarded her prize for The Shefa School, a special education community day school in New York. And the singers were there salute their choir master, Covenant award winner Daniel Henkin, a beloved music teacher who directs choirs at a number of schools, synagogues and camps including the Ramaz School in New York City, Camp Ramah Nyack and Queens College.
Henkin says he heard an acapella group his first day at Columbia College “and fell in love with the sound.” That led to a major in music and a long career as a music teacher and choir director that also finds Henkin bringing different ages together in song. In additional to an intergenerational choir he leads, each year Henkin conducts a Ramaz School choir performance that includes both lower school and high school students. “Ordinarily they’d never meet, just like the twenty-somethings would likely rarely mingle with the older people in our intergenerational choir, Kol Ram, but by bringing them together they can share a common passion and learn from each other,” Henkin says.
It’s no surprise that Henkin can make Jewish music sound like pageantry: he is a descendant of rabbinic royalty. His grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (1881–1973) was one of the most revered decisors of Jewish law of the 20th century. Henkin, who has also taught day school Judaic studies, says his choirs generally sing a mix of Jewish and secular music “but I see singers who are really turned on to Judaism though the Israeli and liturgical songs we sing.” Says Henkin, “it was pretty clear to me that if you could find songs that are well arranged and executed that would be a good way to get more Jews connected.”
Ahead of Ramaz choir road trips Henkin teaches zemirot (Shabbat songs) not for the performances, but so the group can “share a common repertoire” when we eat the Shabbat meals together.” Henkin says the two songs sung at the Covenant awards dinner, Shiru Shir Amen (Sing a Song of Amen) and Amen, both Eurovision entries, are among his favorites. “I tend to be drawn to warm fuzzy sort of music. The slow paced songs have a lot of harmonies. Both songs are similar and have this message that when the going gets tough, our response is to sing a song and sing amen. That’s a message I like to impart to my singers and listeners. That music can really heal and make you feel better.”
Choirs, says Henkin, are a wonderful way to bring music to a wide array of Jews. “As part of Jewish choral festivals, Henkin says, “we sing with schools of other denominations and the music is a great barrier breaker. The music isn’t Orthodox or Reform; it’s a Jewish music enterprise.”
Francesca Lunzer Kritz is a health policy reporter in Washington, DC