The Ferris Wheels, with Rabbi Yehuda Ferris front and center, plays at the Bay Street Mall menorah lighting in Emeryville in 2021. (Photo/Courtesy)
The Ferris Wheels, with Rabbi Yehuda Ferris front and center, plays at the Bay Street Mall menorah lighting in Emeryville in 2021. (Photo/Courtesy)

The Ferris Wheels, a Chabad rabbi’s cover band, mix classic rock with Jewish ruach

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They’re your basic rock quartet — lead guitar, bass, drums and a charismatic, black-clad, gray-bearded frontman — playing blistering renditions of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Or are they?

Once the rewritten lyrics come into focus, it’s clear this is no Vegas-style cover band. Instead, they sing “Sweet Aroma of the Challah” and “I Can’t Get No Hamantaschen.”

Meet the Ferris Wheels, featuring Rabbi Yehuda Ferris on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. He’s been rabbi of Chabad House Berkeley for four decades. And though he and his bandmates want to rock the house — and they do — more importantly, they aim to elevate every performance with Jewish ruach, or spirit, every time they play.

“We want to make them holy,” Ferris said, referring to his audiences, ”and we want to make them move.”

The Ferris Wheels have been around since the 1990s — Ferris, 67, isn’t precisely sure when they started. They are a popular Bay Area band for weddings, bar mitzvahs and simchas, including playing during Jewish Heritage Nights organized by the San Francisco Giants and Golden State Warriors.

On May 29, the band will perform during Chabad House Berkeley’s Memorial Day barbecue at Tilden Regional Park.

The set list features traditional and contemporary Jewish songs, niggunim and liturgy, as well as rock classics with Ferris’ Judaized lyrics. That means everything from a double-time “David Melech Israel” to a swing version of “Oseh Shalom.” Their “Eliahu Hanavi” sounds like a Led Zeppelin ballad, while their version of one Beatles classic includes Hebrew verses and a tweaked chorus: “Get back to where we all belong.”

How does an Orthodox rabbi choose secular songs to reinvent? Very carefully.

“If [the pop song] is parve, if it’s neutral, we can bring it into a holy atmosphere,” Ferris said.

He has other requirements, too.

“If it don’t swing, it don’t mean a thing,” he said. “We have to swing it and we have to flip it into an energized song or people will go to sleep.”

Bass player Avraham Burrell, whose long, grizzled beard makes him look like a frum escapee from ZZ Top, has been in the Ferris Wheels since 2006. He has great admiration for Ferris and his goals for the band.

“He’s a very accomplished guitar player,” Burrell said. “I don’t think he realizes how talented he is. He sings from his heart, and he doesn’t ever seem to get tired. I get tired.”

The notion of a rock ’n’ roll Chabadnik may seem incongruous, but Ferris has a lifelong connection to pop music. The Chicago-born rabbi’s mother was a classical pianist, his father an opera singer and cantor. That was not his path, though. He grew up listening to the Windy City’s hard-rocking WLS-FM, taking in The Beatles and all the music of the era.

We want to make them holy, and we want to make them move.

Ferris spent his bar mitzvah money to buy his first guitar. He also sang with his high school choir. In his 20s, he became a ba’al teshuvah, turning to traditional Orthodox Judaism and Chabad. But that didn’t mean he would leave music behind.

“I needed a band for Purim and Hanukkah,” Ferris recalled of the origins of the Ferris Wheels. “I thought my kids could help. So they played drums and bass, and I played rhythm guitar.”

Over multiple permutations, the band gradually became more professional, upgrading their equipment and recruiting musicians such as Burrell, guitarist Jawxillion Loeb and drummer Shalom Bochner, the band’s second rabbi. (Bochner will soon be the full-time rabbi at Petaluma’s B’nai Israel Jewish Center, which describes itself as “inclusive.”)

“I look at my role as being there to support good performances to make the music exciting and listenable, and have some energy,” Loeb said. “In terms of the mission, it’s to present Jewish-faced music, but with our take.”

While dancing is encouraged at Ferris Wheels concerts, the band officially promotes the halachic maxim that men and women dance separately. At weddings, a mechitza separating the sexes is required. At Oracle Park, not so much.

Though he’s well versed in classic rock, Ferris relies on his adult children to keep him abreast of new music. That’s how he finds contemporary songs to reimagine Jewishly.

“I ask my kids what’s hot, what’s not,” he said. “I have to listen to the new stuff, otherwise people will yawn. I like anything with a beat that speaks to me.”

Though the band members take the music seriously, Ferris stresses the higher purpose of the Ferris Wheels.

“Before we go on, we huddle and decide what we are doing here,” he said. “Why us? Why tonight? What can we contribute that no one else can? We ultimately ask: Is this about us or about [the audience]? It’s about them.”

The band hasn’t done a regional tour per se, though they’ve flung as far as Modesto and Chico, and they haven’t recorded an album. Those traditional pathways to musical fame and fortune are not in the cards for the Ferris Wheels, but that’s fine with Ferris.

“You’ve got to love what you’re doing,” he said. “If people are enjoying it, that’s how we get paid.”

The Ferris Wheels

1 p.m. Monday, May 29 at Padre Picnic Site, located off South Park Drive in the East Bay’s Tilden Regional Park. Admission to the park is free. Kosher food will be sold.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.