The New Year marks the start of a new job for Rabbi Greg Wall. A saxophonist better known as the “jazz rabbi,” he is the new spiritual leader of Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport and Norwalk, a small Modern Orthodox congregation in Connecticut.
Rabbi Wall recently concluded three years at the Sixth Street Synagogue in the East Village, making it a destination for traditional Jews with a musical inclination. He left, he said, when the synagogue was unable to support a full-time rabbi. The Jewish Week interviewed the rabbi by e-mail; this is an edited transcript.
Q: How do you prepare spiritually for the upcoming holidays?
A: Appreciating the beauty in my life — good family, good friends, good music, good beer. I read a lot, going over traditional classical sources as well as contemporary re-examinations of holiday themes. I try to listen a lot as well, especially to silence.
You went through a period of uncertainty and change in the last few years, leaving your congregation in Manhattan and starting a new job in Connecticut. How does that experience prepare you to deal with the themes of the High Holy Days? What was the lesson of the changes you went through?
I describe my Manhattan pulpit as an expensive hobby I could no longer afford. It is tough to be working with serious financial pressure, and as a non-resident rabbi it is even harder. Because the East Village was not an option for a home large enough for my family and all the guests we regularly have for Shabbat and holidays, it was necessary to “camp out,” commuting back and forth from New Jersey. I have a professional music career, so I was able to support my family through that, and my wife has her own mental health career.
Ultimately Rosh HaShanah is about driving home the fact that there is a higher power at work in guiding our lives. We may not have the clarity during periods of transition, but over time it can become much clearer.
Your musical background is in jazz, which emphasizes improvisation and spontaneity. As an Orthodox rabbi you’re part of a tradition that often follows a set of predetermined procedures — what to say, how to act, etc. How do you balance these disparate sides of your nature?
Jazz is actually a highly disciplined creative environment, with rules and protocol, and skills that must be crafted, honed and maintained — just like a spiritual practice. I can’t just play any note at any time without the proper intention — there is no music there. I believe traditional Jewish practice is the same — an intentioned life path, drawing upon a rich history.
You once told an interviewer that you don’t “market” yourself to Orthodox Jews, but “to everybody.” What does that mean? What type of universal message do you preach on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur?
I believe I said, “I’m not pushing Orthodoxy, I’m pushing literacy.” My personal Jewish practice, based on traditional Jewish law, took many years to develop, and I am still a work in progress. I “market” myself as one invitation to participate in the discussion, to learn together, to find out how to ask the tough questions that really define our own unique Jewish mission. Torah belongs to the Jewish people, and the model for a G-d centered moral and just society belongs to everyone.
You grew up outside the Orthodox community in which you now find yourself — but you spend a lot of time with unaffiliated or “liberal” Jews. What sort of High Holy Days message resonates with them?
I really don’t know, but I will keep trying to find out!
The concept of answering to a higher authority is very intimidating (except for the folks at Hebrew National), and Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur underscore the fact that it is OK to be human, to fall short of our goals, and continue to work towards perfecting ourselves, and the world around us. We will never finish the work, but we can get closer every year.