A Rabbi-Saxophonist’s ‘Arts-Based Ministry’

A Rabbi-Saxophonist’s ‘Arts-Based Ministry’

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Rabbi Greg Wall is bouncing around the bima of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue like a very tall, bearded jack-in-the-box. It isn’t that the rabbi has caught some spiritual tsunami while delivering a homily on the weekly Torah portion. He’s playing a fiery version of the traditional Avinu Malkeinu on tenor sax, and when he hits the B theme he reaches down to the bottom of the tenor’s range for an almost feral sound: direct, immediate, impassioned. So you might say that he has connected to some deeply spiritual energy while giving a musical homily on the coming High Holy Days.

It’s a hot, almost sticky Saturday night in the East Village, where Rabbi Wall’s pulpit is located. The doors to the synagogue are opened out onto East Sixth Street, and the music is flowing in a frenzied prelude to the Selichot services that will begin shortly after midnight when, as he puts it “this place morphs back into a shul.”

This evening’s free concert, featuring several outstanding downtown Jewish/jazz/funk fusions and ending with a dazzling set by the Ayn Sof Arkestra and Bigger Band, and a Modern Orthodox worship service, are a taste for the neighbors of the formula on which Rabbi Wall has staked the congregation’s future.

Beginning next month, the synagogue and its multitalented rabbi will open The Center for Jewish Arts and Literacy, an ambitious program of classes, concerts, films, poetry readings and performances that will draw heavily on Rabbi Wall’s cohorts in the radical Jewish culture scene. Among the members of the advisory board will be John Zorn, and the curators who will assemble the busy schedule include the protean drummer Aaron Alexander and guitarist Jon Madof of Rashanim, as well as Rabbi Wall himself.

“I thought about having an arts-based ministry when I took the job,” Rabbi Wall says. “But I realized that the context of an Orthodox synagogue could be intimidating for some. Having a distinct identity [for the arts programming] could be advantageous.”

Besides, he adds, “I’m not pushing Orthodoxy, I’m pushing literacy.”

To that end, each arts program is preceded by a class that is designed to relate to the art on offer. For example, on Thursday nights, Rabbi Wall teaches a course called “The Art of Judaism,” which is followed by the “Jazz Rabbi’s Invitational,” a session that showcases some of his own varied musical projects, including Later Prophets and Ayn Sof. The Tuesday evening klezmer concert series is accompanied by a workshop for musicians and Yiddish classes “for fans and enthusiasts.”

As one congregant pointed, the arts orientation actually has a brief history at the synagogue that predates Rabbi Wall’s arrival.

“The shul has always had a finger on the pulse of the local arts scene,” Mike Felson said. A member for six years, Felson currently serves as shammas for morning services. He noted that there have been Yiddish theater veterans in the congregation and that one of the previous rabbis encouraged the presence of a Yiddish theater company in the synagogue.

But, he adds, “Rabbi Wall is the most dynamic of the three rabbis I’ve known here.”

The rabbi is utterly frank about the importance of using music and other arts events to bring people inside the building with a hope of getting them to stay and pray.

“The one thing the [synagogue and the Center] have in common is me, so there’s continuity there,” he explains. “I’ve had people tell me that they want to move to the neighborhood because they like what we’re doing. I’m hoping there are going to be types of Jews who say, ‘This is a shul that is meaningful to me, and I like the arts thing.’”

Rabbi Wall’s plans for the future are ambitious.

“I want to start commissioning new work from composers,” he says. “We have a fund to create new work, and we want to do that. We also can be a resource for other Jewish communities throughout the country. We can develop programs and export them to other cities.”

At heart, Rabbi Wall thinks like both a rabbi and a musician.

“I love the idea of artists being teachers of Jewish literacy,” he says. “It’s empowering to the artists that they have some other things to share as well as their art. That’s the kind of empowerment I’m looking forward to.”

The complete schedule of events for the Center for Jewish Arts and Literacy and the Sixth Street Community Synagogue can be found at www.SixthStreetSynagogue.org.

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