The Jewish Week’s annual 36 Under 36 honors young leaders, entrepreneurs and change-makers who are making a difference in the life of Jewish New York. For the full list of this year’s “36ers,” click here.
What do you do?
Some people know me as the Rapping Rabbi, others as the Quirky Quebecer. Ever since I can remember I’ve been integrating Jewish themes into my music projects. I launched the Amen Institute, where artists and rabbis examine biblical texts together to inspire sermons and art work. The Amen Institute has created partnerships with synagogues and Jewish institutions around the world to spotlight a different Jewish artist of the week in their weekly newsletters. From retreats, to art exhibitions, to creation circles and publications, I am building a vibrant pluralistic community that produces thoughtful and sophisticated art and torah for the wider Jewish community.
How has the pandemic influenced your work?
In the first weeks of the pandemic, along with my father and sister I began a web-based project entitled Bezallel Koli. Each week, one of us would write a d’var Torah accompanied by an original poem, artwork and song in conversation with the original sermon. We used our artistic midrashim to teach and perform Zoom concerts and even released an album. This creative endeavor inspired me to create a virtual art exhibition where 23 artists and musicians presented their art that explored Jewish themes of veiling and revealing, which in turn laid the groundwork for the Amen Institute.
Was there a formative Jewish experience that influenced your life path?
When I was 16, my father, at 56, survived a brain-stem stroke, which left him quadriplegic, voiceless and on life support. While my mother became the financial provider for my father’s care and five children, I tried to fill my father’s rabbinic shoes, giving sermons at our synagogue, doing hospital visits with the cantor, and providing a listening ear to heavy-hearted congregants. With summers spent in science/engineering programs at MIT and the Technion, my obvious natural trajectory was engineering. But through my experiences in the congregation and care-giving for my father, as well as the gut-wrenching process of working through my grief, I came to realize that rabbinics was my path.
Do you have a favorite inspiring quote?
“No child knows hate. All they know is how to love someone else harder.” (Rabbi Ronnie Cahana)
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