Most conferences feature plenaries, breakout sessions, and moderated Q&As with panels of experts, but rarely do the presentations suddenly erupt into four-part harmony.
" Hallel v'Zimra: Jewish Liturgical Music Past, Present and Future" assembled more than 70 clergy, artists, and scholars from around the world to share their views and expertise on the crucial role of Jewish music in prayer. Some 200 people attended the March conference and preceding Shabbaton organized by the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood in collaboration with the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Mervis Chair in Jewish Culture at Indiana University.
The Evanston-based Kaplan Center, which aims to promote the vision of the 20th century Jewish thinker after which it's named, began holding conferences just five years ago. When the center focused its 2015 conference on liturgy and prayer, Executive Director Daniel Cedarbaum said they received some complaints, specifically, "what about the music?"
"We started promising people that having done the lyrics, as it were, we would eventually get to the musical score," Cedarbaum said.
Hallel v'Zimra delivered the music, recruiting many of the icons and influencers of Jewish music, as well as lesser-known radical innovators across nearly every stream of Judaism from Modern Orthodox to Renewal.
"It seems clear to anyone actively involved in the broader picture of Jewish communal life and across denominations and streams that music seems to be very, very important in what some would call revitalizing the American Jewish worship experience," Cedarbaum said.
The first plenary, in fact, picked the minds of four directors of major cantorial programs spanning the movements. They discussed everything from the number of open pulpits exceeding the supply of cantors to preserving nusach (musical motifs in chant that correspond with specific holidays or parts of a prayer service) to how their students view the importance of their work.
Hazzan Jack Kessler said students in the ALEPH Ordination Program see themselves as healers, in the sense that many of the people they serve are recovering spiritually from negative Jewish experiences earlier in life.
"The emotional power of music is a tremendous force to that end," he said.
Other sessions covered the diverse styles of Jewish music in and out of the synagogue, innovation, piyyutim (liturgical poetry), Sephardi-Mizrahi song traditions, the impact of women's voices in liturgical music, and much more.
Certain themes regularly emerged, such as the tension between performance and participation in worship. Merri Lovinger Arian, who teaches at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, spoke to the importance of training her students "as communicators of prayer." In a subsequent session, Cantor Audrey Abrams of Beth El Synagogue in Minneapolis, Minn. said, "I wouldn't call it performance, I would call it a moment for active listening."
Cedarbaum said one goal was to create an experience that appealed to both scholars and lay people. To build this vision, he worked with his Kaplan Center colleague Dr. Eric Caplan at McGill University, Dr. Judah M. Cohen at Indiana University, and local Cantors Rachel Rosenberg (Rodfei Zedek) and David Berger (KAM Isaiah Israel).
Cohen said the idea was not to redefine Jewish music, but to "look at the relationship between music, Judaism, and worship in a dynamic way that crosses over both scholarship and practice."
Of course, there was plenty of actual music. Participants had the option to sing during breakout sessions, and a concert featured the diverse voices inspiring Jewish communities. Audiences enjoyed everything from formal choral pieces by the great German/Austrian composers to Joey Weisenberg and Deborah Sacks Mintz of Hadar's Rising Song Institute taking microphones into the center aisle to lead more participatory singing.
Cohen said he was impressed by the diversity of musical and theological ideas and the energy behind them. "The sessions were themselves illuminating," he said, "but the conversations ahead of and around those sessions are what will give the conference deep and lasting resonance."
For those who missed out, the Kaplan Center will make the video of all sessions available on its website,