It hasn’t been what he expected. Which suits Rabbi Greg Wall just fine, thank you.
“I’m enjoying it a lot more than I thought, and it’s a lot more work,” says Rabbi Wall about his 15-month-old gig as spiritual leader of the Sixth Street Synagogue. “The biggest surprise is that I have relationships with people I wouldn’t have if I weren’t the rabbi. Being the rabbi gives me access to a demographic I wouldn’t have [contact with otherwise].”
On the other hand, by programming an impressive slate of jazz and New Klez performances, the Sixth Street Community Synagogue has become a magnet for the demographic that Wall, a brilliant reed player as well as a rabbi, probably knows best: serious jazz musicians and fans. The shul is celebrating that demographic on Dec. 25 with its second annual Tzadik/East Village Radical Jewish Music Festival, featuring the rabbi’s own Hasidic New Wave, which he co-leads with Frank London, as well as Pitom, Rashanim, Midnight Minyan and the Ayn Sof Arkestra with poet Jake Marmer.
Perhaps not the usual entertainment at an Orthodox synagogue, even in the East Village.
“[Sixth Street] was not such an arts-centered congregation before,” Rabbi Wall says. “We’re attracting people from outside the neighborhood to the events. [The older members] like the fact that the shul is on the map now. They’re happy to see people coming into the building.” (The Jewish Week has reported extensively on the controversy between the shul’s old and new members as they struggle to move forward amid changing demographics.)
The payoff is that the unexpected presence of new faces in the synagogue has had an impact that extends beyond the music. Rabbi Wall reports that attendance at Shabbat services has grown.
“Every Orthodox synagogue that’s not in a haredi neighborhood has to wonder if they’re moving up or down,” he says.
Clearly, with its unusual boost from avant-garde Jewish music, Sixth Street Synagogue appears to be moving up.
Does Rabbi Wall’s old friend John Zorn deserve credit for an assist? After all, the shul’s annual mini-festival bears the name of Zorn’s Tzadik record label, surely the foremost vehicle for promoting and delivering the radical Jewish music aesthetic.
“John gave me his blessing and has been very supportive,” the rabbi says. “All the artists are on the Tzadik label except for Hasidic New Wave, and John is planning to re-release all our CDs in a boxed set in the future.”
There simply is no gainsaying Zorn’s impact on the downtown music scene and, even more, on Jewish-American music in the last quarter-century. He has been an absolutely essential catalyst, creator and presence.
“Zorn was crucial in providing support for Jewish artists to reclaim their Jewish identity without compromising their artistic efforts,” Rabbi Wall says. “Because of his commitment to present Jewish culture on his terms, having the weight that comes with being a MacArthur recipient; he created a scene. But it’s more than that — he gave a weight, a seriousness to it. He’s not someone who people associate with fads or jumping on bandwagons. He does things that speak for themselves. The fact that the organized Jewish community is unaware of a lot of these artists doesn’t matter.”
If Sixth Street continues to grow, that could change. Success breeds attention and imitation, and if the presence of cutting-edge musical creators were to revive a small congregation, the Jewish communal world would have to take notice.
The result could be a lot of rabbis facing Greg Wall’s fascinating dilemma, relating to a very different demographic than they are used to. Rabbi Wall presents that situation as more of an opportunity for personal growth than a problem.
“It’s been challenging; you have to relate to [the people in your congregation],” he says. “I have a lot more respect for people than I did before. Here, I’m really able to appreciate a greater variety of people.”
Conversely, his peers are learning to relate to their Jewish identities in new ways, too.
“The people who are coming [to the concerts] meet me and tell me, ‘You made me want to check out Judaism,’” Rabbi Wall says. “I have musicians with life-cycle events coming to me, people taking my classes. … These are really defining moments of my rabbinate,” Rabbi Wall says proudly.
The Sixth Street Synagogue will present its second annual Tzadik/East Village Radical Jewish Music Festival on Saturday, Dec. 25 at 8:30 p.m. at the Max Raiskin Center For the Arts, Sixth Street Community Synagogue (325 E. 6th St.). For information and a complete schedule of the synagogue’s other events, go to www.sixthstreetsynagogue.org.