Rabbi Shlomo Katz leading the Sukkot tefillot at Kehillat Shirat David. (Photo: Courtesy)
Singing a New Song in the Judean Hills
The Soul of Kehillat Shirat David
BY RABBI SHLOMO KATZ
It was 2016, and I was living in the Zayit neighborhood of Efrat – a community of olim. I found myself among an incredible group of people who had not only moved to Israel, but who also understood that their inner work had only just begun. The group’s passion and focus resonated deeply with me, at a time when I was already reevaluating my life’s direction.
At that point, I had been working as a musician for nearly twenty years, and my professional life was on a clear trajectory exclusively centered around Jewish music. I had produced seven albums and was performing around the world. While I always did a bit of teaching on the side, I generally felt that I was fulfilling my calling when I stood on stage, sharing brief Torah teachings in between the songs.
But as time went by, I began to feel that I needed to bring something more to the world. When our chevre in Efrat asked me to lead them in building a new kehillah – Shirat David – this ‘more’ began to take shape.
Living in a Lonely World
Society today is characterized largely by individualism and illusion: every person sits behind their own protective screen, sharing distorted images and partial truths with strangers across the world. Alone, each person consumes the warped perspectives of others, judging their own life and building their own ideology off of these filtered fragments of reality. Together but apart, we build a skewed and splintered picture of the world, humanity, and ourselves, leaving many people feeling either lonely and insecure or phenomenally self-righteous and falsely connected. If this was true a few years ago, things have only gotten worse during the pandemic era.
Building a spiritual, growth-oriented community has never been so difficult – or so important. How do you convey the importance of the process of brokenness and becoming in a society based on false images of perfection? How do you convey the values of community and togetherness when people can so easily resort to the virtual world? What is the role of a rabbi when all information is immediately accessible with the click of a button? And why is it unique, as well as a necessity, for such an endeavor to take place in the Holy Land?
With these thoughts in mind, I accepted the position of leadership of Kehillat Shirat David, a growth-oriented, shul-centered spiritual community in Efrat. Throughout the process of building our community, I have struggled with these questions endlessly – and am learning some beautiful lessons along the way.
When our shul was first established, it was the warmest and most loving minyan possible. We gathered on Shabbatot and chagim, turning those high and holy musical experiences of my former career into genuine and joyful prayer. However, after a number of years, this didn’t seem like enough. What were we doing the rest of the week? We dug deep to uncover the foundational values that would shape our unique and intentional community. With the challenges facing the world, we knew that we all needed something more than a physical building to house Shabbat services or even a daily minyan. We needed a spiritual home that would radiate the essence of Avodat Hashem, a place of passion that would inspire spiritual growth through song, and a supportive environment of longing and hope with other people who also dared to dream of a better world.
- The Ongoing Process of Teshuvah: First and foremost, teshuvah is not something we only think about during Elul. Our community is built on a firm belief that people are at their best when they are actively engaged in a process of becoming – regardless of where they stand at the present moment. As individuals and as a community, we are all in a constant process of spiritual growth and change, yearning to reveal our authentic selves to the world – and to ourselves. This is what the Chassidic Masters refer to as gilui hanefesh.
- Authenticity Over Cynicism: In order to actualize our unique purpose, live fulfilling lives and create genuine relationships, we must all find our own paths up the mountain of spirituality. However, this demands not only courage, but a safe space, free of judgment and expectations. The greatest roadblock on this journey is cynicism; if we doubt our own abilities or fear that others may mock us, we will never take risks in our Avodat Hashem to discover what truly works for us. If we can’t cry, scream, dance, or sing our way through our prayer, how can the deepest needs of our heart find their way to Hashem?
- Embracing Failure: Of course, such an intense and vulnerable process opens the door for challenges and crises of faith. On any genuine journey, there will be times when we are rising, on fire for Hashem, and times when we are falling, riddled with self-doubt and frustration at our own inability to progress. Guided by the words of Rebbe Nachman, we are committed to learning the art of how to walk, how to fall, and how to pick ourselves back up. Challenges are inevitable, but they do not define us. What makes us who we are is how we respond to these tough times, as well as how we support others through their struggles.
- Living with Questions: Part of living an authentic, vulnerable, growth-oriented life means coming face-to-face with aspects of ourselves, our tradition, our relationships and our lives that leave us perplexed. Why would our loving Father in Heaven allow so much pain in the world? How could the Torah command us to do something seemingly impossible? Why do I struggle so much to simply be myself? Navigating this journey not only means being willing to ask the hard questions, but also knowing that they don’t always have clear answers. While uncertainty can be uncomfortable, together, we can learn to accept our limitations with humility while never giving up on our search for clarity.
- Aspiring for Greatness: In order to draw up a map for our personal growth, we first need a clear vision of who we want to be in the world and what we want the world to be. When envisioning our ideal self, it’s crucial to think big. We are so used to lowering our expectations, staying within safe boundaries, and being told by the world that we are not enough. If we want to become the best and truest versions of ourselves, we have to first acknowledge that our soul is infinitely holy and essentially good – even if we don’t feel that way right now. And just as we believe in our own unlimited potential, we need to practice looking at the world through cosmic eyes as well. That means talking openly about working to bring Mashiach and revealing the greatness and holiness hidden within every seemingly mundane moment.
In order to bring these lofty ideas down into the reality of our daily lives, our community employs three powerful tools: The Avodah of Music, Dibbuk Chaverim, and Talmud Torah. In Chassidic thought, these things are not cute little activities we do to feel good or luxuries we indulge in when the important things in our lives are taken care of. They are essential aspects of Avodat Hashem, transformative acts that engage our bodies, hearts, minds and souls. Without these tools, our spiritual dreams will fall short.
- The Avodah of Music: As a community Rav, I spend most of my time teaching, writing, and caring for my community. However, music still lies at the root of everything that I do, and in our community, we bring song into our prayer and learning, and prayer and learning into our song. When we experience the world of music – either as listeners or creators – we gain the ability to go beyond our logical minds. As we move along in our journeys of growth and exploration, we need to be able to express ourselves in a way that isn’t limited by our words and intellect.
Music also has the power to bring people together in a way that I have not experienced with any other medium. When a disparate group of individuals come together, each with different kavanot, lifestyles, and struggles, only music – particularly niggunim – can meet each person where they are and then elevate everyone together. It doesn’t matter how long the niggun is or who composed it, but rather to what extent we allow ourselves to surrender to the journey on which it can take us.
- Dibbuk Chaverim: However, the power of song can only go so far; tefillah is a form of avodah, and avodah is literally work. To experience truly meaningful and impactful tefillah, we first need to invest in tremendous effort and preparation. Like all difficult tasks, this one is also much easier when done as a group. It is no coincidence that our tradition requires a minyan for prayer. If a community wants to be able to reach great spiritual heights through their tefillah on Shabbat, they must work hard during the week to deepen personal and communal relationships.
By opening up to each other about what is really going on inside – our struggles, our Avodat Hashem, our deepest dreams – we elevate our community as a whole. While it is lovely to share Shabbat meals, help each other out in times of need, and celebrate smachot, it is only through mutual vulnerability that we can really grow together. Our role as members of the kehillah is not to judge or exclude others, but rather to encourage and support those with whom we share this journey.
- Talmud Torah: While strengthening our relationships through talking and praying together is essential, we cannot forget the power of learning Torah together. So much of growth is about flying high, but without the grounding roots of our tradition, no change will be lasting. With multiple daily shiurim for both men and women, our community is deeply anchored in the words of our Torah and Chazal. The timeless stories, laws, and lessons contained within Torah shape our goals, color our questions, and provide us guidance in every aspect of our lives. When engaging with the Torah, we must go beyond the intellectual pursuit of knowledge or the surface reading of ancient words. The learning we are opening our hearts with speaks to every part of who we are, and does not end when leaving the shiur. It shapes our whole world.
One of our greatest inspirations is the Piaseczna Rebbe, Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapira zt”l, who led his Chassidic community through some of the darkest days in our history as a spiritual leader in the Warsaw Ghetto. Often referred to by the name of one of his sefarim, the Aish Kodesh, the Rebbe also wrote a work that has become a guiding light for our community, known as the Bnei Machshava Tova. In this short but powerful manual, the Rebbe outlines how and why our Avodat Hashem needs to be based on deep inner-soul work that is done together in a chabura. The adults of our community gather almost every day in chaburot for men and women to delve into these kinds of writings together, actively engaging in the collective soul work described by the tzaddikim who somehow knew exactly what our generation would so desperately need.
Everything I’ve shared up until this point is applicable to every Jewish community around the world. But I believe that the power of what we are building is further amplified by the fact that we are living in Eretz Yisrael. We are so privileged to look out of our windows into the backyard of Jewish history. My home and shul are located on the road between Chevron – the city of our blessed Avot and Imahot – and Yerushalayim – the center of the universe and home to the past and future Batei Mikdash.
Efrat is a place of transition, where our mother Rachel waited to cry for her children when they would be sent into exile, and where King David composed Tehillim, describing humankind’s simultaneous fallibility and potential for greatness. On our national and personal journeys, we are always in motion, always moving back and forth from the force of our internal and external tides. Our community is acutely aware that we are part of that historic tradition of transition. Whatever we build today will have a long-term impact on what happens tomorrow. The future of our people, our tradition, our world, depend on us creating something authentic and meaningful, here, in Eretz Yisrael.
Where Art Meets Life
While I believe that what our community is creating is unique, I think the need for change is the same across the Jewish world. Like everything important, I see this reflected in the music that is popular in our generation. When I hear Eviatar Banai belting out Yesh Li Sikuyi (I Have A Chance), Hanan Ben Ari singing about dreaming like Yosef HaTzadik, my brother, Eitan Katz, crying out Ki Karov Eilecha (For it is Close to You), and Joey Newcomb simply stating “Thank You, Hashem,” I know for a fact that change has arrived. Jewish music, both traditional religious music that openly discusses spiritual challenges or modern Israeli music that integrates stories from the Torah or quotes from Jewish liturgy, resonates far more deeply today than it has in the past.
As Rav Kook predicted, modern Jewish music reflects the emphasis on teshuvah that people need to hear; the importance of engaging in an eternal process of becoming. My music has always focused on these ideas, but with the building of Shirat David, I now feel that we have a way to make these lofty ideas a part of our lives. We have found a home, together.
Ashreinu, Ma Tov Chelkeinu; how fortunate we are, how good is our portion!
Rabbi Shlomo Katz has served as Rav of the Shirat David community since 2016. He is an accomplished musician who has released multiple albums and conducted concert tours throughout the world. His passion for music has, in turn, become part of the very identity of Shirat David, shaping the unique character of their tefillot and other events throughout the year.