There is a Chassidic tale told of the student watching his great rebbe tie his shoes. When asked why he was focused on this meaningless occurrence instead of studying his Talmud lessons, the student responded: “My rebbe lives his Torah. So, his Torah can be found in everything he does – even when he ties his shoes, there is Torah to be learnt.”
The First B’Chavana High Holidays
The year was 2011, it was February, and Susan and I had decided to host High Holiday services for the first time. As such, B’Chavana didn’t yet exist. We had hosted a few Shabbat morning services, people were enjoying them and there was a special feeling.
While a rabbinic student, I had served small congregations for the holidays, leading the service, serving also as Cantor, reading the Torah: a regular Jacob-of-all-trades. I knew that doing that in addition to establishing the service logistics was an impossibility. More important, I wanted a partner whose voice would be more suited to the dignity of the holidays and, equally, someone who would develop a “music program” that would include other voices and instrumentalists from within our new community.
I put out the word through channels and received three responses. I was impressed with the candidates. I felt that we would be successful with any one of them. Each had many strengths. Each also had shortcomings. I was ready to invite one so that we could get started.
Randi Saves the Day
Susan said to me, “Why don’t you ask Randi?” and the light bulb went off. We had known Randi and Glenn since the kids were in pre-school together. I hadn’t heard her perform with her band, but she and Bernie sang at a party for my 40th birthday and it was a highlight. I also knew that Randi had a traditional Jewish background and would regularly lein (chant) Torah and Haftarah at Beth Judea. Conservative holiday services can be greatly different from Reform, but I wanted a combination of both, and I figured that whatever Randi didn’t know I could teach her, or at least lead her to. I figured we’d start small and, if it worked, we could always add more in the future.
We met, we talked, and Randi joined the team enthusiastically. What followed was remarkable.
In the handful of months from that point until late September, Randi (and Bernie) were always at work. Always. We began by identifying the pieces of traditional nusah (high holiday melody) that Randi knew (but had never led). There were some other melodies that were common to both Reform and Conservative communities, such as the stately Avinu Malkenu by Max Janowsky that we sing at the evening services. Randi began to prepare both kinds of materials.
I knew several beautiful melodies and once Randi was comfortable, she began on one . . . and then another . . . and then another. I regularly received emails: she was ready to learn something new. I had deliberately minimized my goals so as not to overwhelm Randi. But she would have none of it. She wanted to learn as much as she possibly could.
By Rosh Hashana, Randi was prepared to sing five complete services in a stunning and inspiring blend of old and new. And did I mention – she had never done this before?
The response to her artistry, enthusiasm and neshama (soulfulness) was immediate and full-throated. Everyone sang along, even when they “shouldn’t” have. She did more to give heart and shape to our fledgling community than anyone or anything.
What I’ve witnessed over these ten years has been remarkable.
The rabbis ask the question: “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness and not, say, in a city where there are lots of people?” And the answer given: if you really want to learn Torah, make yourself as empty and open as the wilderness, so that its words can enter.
This is what Randi did. She began with a lifetime of experience with a traditional style of davvening. For her, that’s what the holidays should be. Yet, she made herself open like a wilderness to new ideas. I would nudge and she would resist but then she’d think about the new piece and listen to it. She’d master it, irrespective of the musical style. Her repertoire grew and so did her understanding of ideas of what worship might be and how it could be shaped to reach and inspire Jews today.
From the get-go, she enlisted the musical members of our family to play guitar or join the choir or take a solo – despite no training in leading any of that kind of activity. Soon, I’d receive emails with suggestions: “What about this one at the end of the service? And what would you think of this one at the end of the Amida?” These days, I can’t keep up with her search for the “perfect piece” for next year’s holidays, enjoying her emails around the year.
And then she turned to creating slide shows with Caryn Putterman to illustrate powerfully key pieces during the service, providing more inspiration.
How Randi Ties Her Shoes
Randi’s journey has been a kind of Torah. If you watch Randi “tie her shoes,” you’ll see someone open to learning. You’ll see someone who doesn’t rule something out because it’s different. You’ll see someone push herself with a new piece or a new style. You’ll see someone who understands that we all need the regularity of music that we know but, also, that to stand still, doing what we’ve always done – to slip into rote – is to betray our mission and to slip into spiritual somnolence.
And you’ll see someone who does this because she wants the service to be perfect – for you. She wants to know that you are inspired and lifted and comforted during the holidays. So that you can do the work that you need to do during that sacred time.
It shouldn’t go without saying that Randi also has brought Bernie to us. What a gift. Bernie’s musicianship and his arrangements also are foundational to our spirituality and Bernie, too, has learned his way into the services, not having been involved in the past. I can’t imagine what our services would have been like without him, although I’m sure that they would have been much, much less.
And, finally, Randi succeeded in bringing Shira to us. There are so many ways in which Shira graces our services, and you’re aware of them. This year, I said to her that in addition to all of the obvious things that she brings to us, I also notice the less obvious ones – a little piece of harmony sung here, a quiet violin accompaniment while Randi is singing – the things that make so much richer the music and, therefore, our experience.
When I think back ten years ago, I cannot picture what it might have been like if Randi had not said yes. I am certain, though, that it would not have been as good. And I’m equally certain that I would not have enjoyed a partnership that has been so creative, respectful, and meaningful to me. My partnership with Randi is one of the highlights of my career.
Randi, from myself: thank you. And I know I can speak for the community as well: thank you. Your contribution to our spirituality has been exceptional.