Fresh out of cantorial school and working at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda, Maryland, one thing immediately hit a high note with Hazzan Matthew Austerklein (now a cantor at Beth El in Akron, Ohio)—the synagogue’s teen-run a Capella group, Marak HaYom.
The group, which is made up of singers from local high school music and theatre groups and has grown to include teens from surrounding schools and congregations, performs at High Holy Day services and B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies. But what Matthew found particularly noteworthy is they run the program themselves, handling everything from choosing their name (which means “soup of the day” in Hebrew) and music director and business manager to holding auditions and meeting each Sunday to rehearse.
Soon, Matthew had taken on an informal agent-type role with the group, using his connections to book events, create workshops and more. The experience recently inspired Matthew to team up with The Cantors Assembly to publish the book, Ilu Finu: A Capella for Jewish Prayer. It also gave him a whole new perspective on the power of Jewish a Capella music.
While Matthew has since moved to another synagogue, Hazzan Asa Fradkin of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County shares his same passion for Jewish music and teens. “The biggest question in every synagogue is how we can get the next generation of Jews involved in the synagogue, he says. “One of the major ways we can reconnect them with Judaism and bring them back to religion is through music. What we see in the areas we serve is that Jewish music programs, such as a Capella groups, creates a huge base to draw kids into the synagogue that may not be involved otherwise. As a result, cantors and leadership are able to make relationships with these kids by taking them to events, exploring other synagogues and learning together how meaningful music and Judaism really is.”
Journeys: What did you find most inspirational about your experience with Marak HaYom?
Matthew: It was so inspiring to me that a group of young people was gathering together and making high-level music and business decisions without an adult authority figure telling them what to do. That’s when I began thinking about how this amazing ensemble experience could be transformed into a more integrated part of the prayer experience. I wanted to help add more meaning any way I could to take them to the next level.
Journeys: How can Jewish a Capella music inspire the next generation?
Matthew: The cool thing about Jewish a Capella music is that it’s so public and valued. Touring ensembles regularly visit our synagogues and flood YouTube with holiday-themed Jewish music videos. There are so many rabbis and cantors I know who were inspired to love Judaism because of their Jewish a Capella experience, particularly because of the teachers and coaches they had. But we’re also at a critical moment for Jewish a Cappella groups nationwide, some of whom have secularized and/or are seeking their Jewish identity. Jewish a Capella groups have some of the same questions as interfaith Jewish families, such as “What makes our family/group Jewish?” or “What makes being a part of a Jewish group so compelling?” To keep Jewish a Cappella sustainable, Hillels, Jewish organizations, and synagogue need to help answer these questions and promote Jewish a Cappella engagement.
Journeys: How do you choose new music to introduce to your own congregation?
Matthew: When I’m choosing new music for worship, I’m thinking about what’s going to connect the congregation and what’s going to meet them where they are at, as well as what’s going to uplift the liturgy and the message of the service. It’s a delicate dance to balance both of these things while staying prayerful.
Journeys: What inspired the book, Ilu Finu: A Capella for Jewish Prayer?
Matthew: My teens in Marak HaYom inspired this book. I wanted to give them a resource to be a part of prayer, as well as to educate them Jewishly and provide resources to promote Jewish a Cappella engagement. In 2017, The Cantors Assembly launched a nationwide contest—the Ilu Finu Jewish Songwriting Competition—that called for college students in North American Jewish a Cappella groups to submit their best original compositions and arrangements of the Jewish liturgy. I created this project together with my colleague, Hazzan Benjamin Tisser of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (Highland Park, Illinois). Eight beautiful collegiate arrangements were given recognition and are included in the book.
After the contest, we gathered additional arrangements from professional Jewish a Cappella and vocal jazz arrangers, together with cantors with Jewish a Cappella backgrounds. The result was 22 pieces of Jewish liturgy, designed for spirited and sensitive inclusion in a worship service. The styles included in this book are diverse and in addition to the music itself, the book seeks to provide some of the corresponding spiritual and textual background required to interpret the music in a prayerful way. It also includes essays from seasoned prayer leaders like Joey Weisenbverg and Nava Tehila, a how-to chapter for starting your own a Cappella group, and an international directory of Jewish a Cappella groups.