Creating community through music: an interview of Rebekka Goldsmith

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Editor’s note: Rebekka Goldsmith was to perform at brunch launching the Jewish Federation of Greater Binghamton’s the Chesed Challenge. The brunch has now been cancelled, but we think readers will still find this interview of interest.
Rebekka Goldsmith is a resident and vocal arts consultant for the Rising Song Institute, where she coaches other residents. She also works the institute directors, Joey Weisenberg and Rabbi Yosef Goldman, to think about the role of voice and leadership in institute programs. She is currently working on a multi-disciplinary performance piece called, “Seeding the Tree” that incorporates community, Jewish spirituality and music. The following is an e-mail interview Goldsmith did with Reporter Executive Editor Rabbi Rachel Esserman.
Question: How did you become interested in the Rising Song institute? 
Answer: I became interested in the Rising Song Institute through the annual New York Hadar Rising Song Intensive that happens in December. Every year a growing number of pluralistic Jews gather to sing for three-five days in a powerful and rich community music making event. I had been building community through singing in the secular world for 15 years and, when I walked into my first Rising Song Intensive three years ago, I felt the power and possibility of doing this kind of work in Jewish community. This experience prompted me to begin partnering with local Jewish communities in Seattle (where I lived) to lead community singing events. I continued following the work of Joey Weisenberg, founder of The Rising Song Institute, and when he and Co-director Rabbi Yosef Goldman created a nine-month residency, I was very excited to apply. We are seven months into this inaugural year and it has been a rich, growth0filled experience, one in which I am honored to participate.
Question: How can music help people connect to spirituality and Judaism? 
Answer: Music has a way of bypassing the intellect and moving right into a place of feelings and experience. When we sing together, we have the potential to be transported out of the mundane and into a much more essential nature of being alive. Linear time gives way to poetic time and we find ourselves in the experience of something bigger than ourselves. This is a place of ruach, spirit and connection. As Jews, we have a rich tapestry of cultural and religious practices that involve music. David composed his psalms with a lyre, Miriam gave thanks for liberation in Egypt through song, the angels sing praise as part of the daily Amidah prayer and our prophets employed musicians as a critical tool for prophesying. Music has always been a spiritual tool. When we sing together in community, we tap into all of our musical traditions and create a pathway to our own spiritual capacity. In this way, music is a powerful conduit between the physical and spiritual self.
Question: How do you see music playing a role in creating community?
Answer: As Americans, Jews live in a society that values individualism, a trait that we have integrated through assimilation. But to be a Jew is to value the collective. I see music as a great bridge between the two. In community singing, no single voice matters, yet we need everyone’s individual voice to be a collective. For me, community singing is not about how to make something beautiful, though beauty is often a byproduct of the experience. To me, the power comes from each of us deciding to be part of the whole. When we sing in community as Jews, we are collectively saying, “I am here.” We immediately become connected to the others in the room, to our ancestors and, if we are lucky, to the creative life force that lives within and all around us.
Question: What are some of the most exciting things that have happened in your activities with Rising Song? Why do you think this is important? 
Answer: The Rising Song Residency has been a treasure chest of exciting and meaningful experiences. I am one of seven residents who have made a commitment to study the art of building Jewish spiritual community through singing. As part of this process we host a public Friday evening and Saturday morning Rising Song minyan. Our services are filled with music and other creative and spiritual experiential practices that we are learning about in the residency. Our inspiration comes from fellow resident experience and skill, visiting teaching artists and rabbis, Torah study and practical music skill development. We are in constant conversation (literally and in our practices) about the ways that tradition and the present moment inform one another. To me, this is one of the most fundamental questions of Judaism. We study as a pluralist community using creative practices to get at deeper understanding and expression of what it means to be Jewish, spiritual and creative. It’s enormously meaningful to be in relationship with others who are not only asking these questions, but practicing aspects of the answers in the world.
Question: What is the style of music you prefer personally and how does it relate to the work you do for Rising Song?
Answer: I am an improviser at heart. I have studied for many years with master improviser Rhiannon and have made improvisational singing a core part of my teaching. At its core, improvisation is about singing the present moment. As a practice, we grow our ability to listen, to be comfortable in the unknowing, to be silent and to trust inspiration. When I am leading groups, I have to be able to understand what is happening in a room. I am always looking for ways to facilitate and then get out of the way of meaningful group experience. I have learned to trust the capacity of a group and to employ tools that create the potential for rich and interconnected musical experiences. These skills are essential to the communal and spiritual goals of The Rising Song Institute. 
For more information about Goldsmith, visit www.rebekkagoldsmith.com.