A Shabbat service at Urban Adamah in 2017. (Photo/File)
A Shabbat service at Urban Adamah in 2017. (Photo/File)

Berkeley Jewish music retreat will be ‘a mini university’

For years, the East Coast has hosted the best Jewish music retreats, from Let My People Sing! in Falls Village, Connecticut to Hadar’s Rising Song Intensive in New York City. Next month, that kind of multiday, communal music-making experience is coming to the West Coast.

Kol: A Retreat for Jewish Music Across the Diaspora will take place Sept. 9-11 at Urban Adamah in Berkeley. Workshops will be offered on a variety of musical styles, including nigguns (wordless melodies), Middle Eastern, Ladino, Yiddish and cantorial music.

The nonresidential retreat is open to both Jews and non-Jews 12 and up (under 12 must be accompanied by an adult). No musical background is required. Register on Urban Adamah’s website.

Eva Orbuch
Eva Orbuch

“We’re like a mini university of music and Jewish culture today,” said Eva Orbuch, who is organizing the weekend with fellow music lovers Atid Kimelman and Elan Loeb. “Our goal is to show that Jewish music doesn’t have to [sound] just one way. It can be cool and hip for young musicians, and it can also be beautiful and nostalgic and homey for older folks.”

The workshops will be taught by both professional and non-professional musicians. Rachel Valfer, a local singer and oud player, will teach women’s Ladino songs and Shabbat music from the Middle East. Debbie Fier, a prayer leader at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, will give two drumming workshops. Zvika Krieger, the spiritual leader of Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, will co-lead Shabbat services with cantorial soloist and choral conductor Jessalynn Levine.

Orbuch, 33, and Kimelman, 31, met through Thrive Street Choir, a non-religious music circle that participates in Bay Area protests. In 2018, Orbuch attended Hadar’s Rising Song Intensive and Kimelman participated in Let My People Sing! They both yearned for a similar program closer to home and decided to create one themselves. They quickly brought Loeb on board, and the three of them planned the retreat with little outside funding.

Urban Adamah is providing the site and logistical support for free, and OneTable is sponsoring Shabbat dinner. “We hope to make this annual and bring in other partners in future years,” Orbuch said.

The three organizers will co-lead a workshop on Jewish social justice music. Among the songs they plan to teach are “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” an anthem by Rabbi Menachem Creditor that has been adopted by IfNotNow, Hazon and the Union for Reform Judaism; a Yemenite arrangement of “Ozi v’Zimrat Yah” by Israeli composer Nahum Nardi; “We Rise” by Batya Levine; and songs of the Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis in World War II.

“The workshop is a learning space for people to come away with a few songs and know that Jews have been part of social justice movements for a long time and continue to be, both fighting for ourselves and also being good allies for other oppressed people,” said Orbuch, a consultant and life coach who lives in Berkeley. As a child, she attended Congregation Kol Shofar and Camp Tawonga, two places that cultivated her love of Jewish music, she said.

Atid Kimelman
Atid Kimelman

Kimelman, an environmental lawyer in San Francisco, was raised by a music teacher mother. He has played viola and clarinet since the age of 10, and in college he sang in the Yale Glee Club.

For the past nine months, he has facilitated the Nigun Collective, which he described as one of the primary venues for Bay Area Jews to sing communally “outside of the formal context of synagogue or a performance space.” Founded a decade ago, the group meets once a month at Urban Adamah.

Elan Loeb
Elan Loeb

The retreat’s third organizer, Loeb, serves as the music specialist and song leader at the Oshman Family JCC. Growing up in Palo Alto, Loeb sang in choirs and performed on the stage, but they were turned off by the competitiveness of the scene and took a break from singing for a few years. “Music has become this thing in our culture where you are only supposed to do it if you’re really good at it,” Loeb, 27, said. “In fact, if you’re a human being, you’re musical.”

At the retreat next month, the emphasis will not be on “how perfect your harmonies are, or how perfect your voice is,” they said, but on “connecting to the community and to the moment and to the words.”

Kol: A Retreat for Jewish Music Across the Diaspora

Sept. 9-11 at Urban Adamah, 1151 Sixth St., Berkeley. $180-$360, with a limited number of tickets available at $60-$120, all on a sliding scale; includes vegetarian meals.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.