Chochmat band makes divine music on Friday nights

Before he was living here, Brian Schachter-Brooks visited a friend in the Bay Area, who took him to San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church. Like so many, he was deeply moved by the way music served as a form of prayer — but in a way so different than at synagogues.

A musician himself, he started thinking, “I’d like to do some kind of Jewish version of that.”

But when he moved here a few years later, Schachter-Brooks got involved in a different kind of band, and the “Jewish Glide” idea was pretty much forgotten.

But with Schachter-Brooks being interested in Jewish Renewal, it wasn’t long before he met Avram Davis and Sara Shendelman. The founders of Berkeley’s Jewish meditation center Chochmat HaLev, they were just beginning to lead Shabbat services for the first time. Davis invited Schachter-Brooks to come play music at the service.

At first, he refused. The space was not large enough for a piano — Schachter-Brooks’ instrument of choice — and he did not want to play an electronic synthesizer on Shabbat. But he eventually gave in, and soon a band began to take shape around him.

While the idea of recording a CD has been on the mind of original band-member Artyom Ash for years, “Shirat HaLev: Songs from the Heart” has only recently been completed, mostly because it was an all-volunteer effort. Clips can be heard and the CD bought at

After the band had formed, it took a little time before it dawned on Schachter-Brooks, now Chochmat HaLev’s musical director, that “the band became the realization of the idea I had. This was kind of like the Jewish Glide.”

Many who come to Chochmat HaLev’s Kabbalat Shabbat service are drawn by the music. While a few songs are recognizable, most are completely original. Some are tunes taken from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, but have been completely reworked. Most are taken directly from Jewish psalms in the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service, but may have not been used in a song before.

A band with guitar, bass and drum kit, along with several vocalists (plus the occasional guest musician or two) plays throughout the service. And the drum kit immediately sends the signal that this is no ordinary synagogue choir.

Indeed, the momentum builds at a Friday night service there, with people standing and swaying to certain songs. It is also not complete without some dancing in the aisles.

“What we’re trying to do is use the music to create a very direct spiritual experience that people can plug right into, without prior knowledge or effort,” said Schachter-Brooks, “and in doing that, allow people to really connect with the practice of Shabbat and build a community of people who are passionate about that.”

While some of the band members have come and gone over the years, and others alternate with one another, the majority of them have been playing together for more than six years.

“When you do that for so long, naturally and organically a certain sound and communication develops,” said Schachter-Brooks.

When asked why he thought the band was such a draw, he attributed it to three things.

“Most of the people that are involved with it have some heartfelt connection to the Jewish tradition,” he said. “And they also have a passion for making spiritual music. They are also really good musicians and singers. It’s hard to get all those things.

“Sometimes very spiritual people are not into Judaism that much, or people are really into Judaism or OK musicians, but don’t have a way of projecting that spirituality into the music. We have a unique combination in that context. It’s part of the divine unfolding, I guess.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."