Lift Every Voice and Sing

By Fred Strober, RS President

I’m the first to admit it: I have a horrible singing voice. It’s easier for me to carry a 100 pound sack of flour than it is to carry a tune. You may not want to be near me when I sing. Your first instinct may be to move a few feet away once I’ve started.

This has led to problems over the years. In eighth grade, I wanted so badly to be in the school production of West Side Story that I made a deal with the teacher in charge. She allowed me to be in the chorus on the strict condition that I’d only mouth the words. No singing. At rehearsal, I slipped up and inadvertently let out a “just met a girl named Maria,” and quickly was relegated to stagehand. She just couldn’t take the risk—and frankly, as embarrassed as I was, I’ve never been able to blame her.

So, you can imagine my dilemma when I come to Rodeph Shalom services these days. Plain and simple, it’s just hard not to want to sing out loud. Not when the music—which is evolving into a more participatory format—is so inspiring. The only “good news” is that I’ve been up on the bimah recently and if I do sing, the only people close enough to hear me can’t change their seats.

But isolating myself from neighbors wasn’t an option during the last two services I attended, potentially leading to severe anxiety attacks. The first episode was on April 3, when, for the second time in three years, we attended services at Bright Hope Baptist Church. Rodeph Shalom’s relationship with Bright Hope is a special one. We hold several joint events each year—including Bible/Torah study classes and youth education sessions. But the highlight is the special service held in our sanctuary each January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King. The keystone of that service is the singing by both choirs, and I believe that appreciating what the Bright Hope choir does for its congregation was a key factor in motivating us to enhance the Rodeph Shalom choirs. Anyone attending the Martin Luther King services over the past several years will agree that Rodeph Shalom has come a long way in developing a culture of singing. I am very proud of how far our congregational and women’s choirs have progressed under the leadership of Cantor Murley and Jody Kidwell.

I went to Bright House this year naively believing that I could sit back and enjoy its famous choir—and never have to sing even one note. But no sooner did the service start that all my plans to stay silent went awry; and a familiar fear of having to sing came over me. In marched the Bright Hope choir—perhaps sixty or so strong—singing and clapping and imploring everyone to jump in. And to my initial chagrin, everyone did. As with our opening Shabbat songs, the lyrics were simple and repetitive, and I felt that at minimum, I’d at least have to mouth the words. Clapping is no problem. I can do that with the best of them, and while letting my hands clap to the beat, I opened my mouth wide and let air—but no sound—escape. Once the song ended, I was confident that I’d dodged the bullet and could now relax into my seat. But no sooner than the song ended, the choir began to belt out another song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and I quickly realized that there was no further ducking, that the emphasis of this song was on the word “every” and that I had no choice but to be all in. So, I went for it, and promptly found a great burden lifted from my shoulder, realizing that my voice was only one of hundreds and that everyone else was so into singing that no one could care less about how I sounded.

It was an uplifting, immensely spiritual experience, and when we finished the song, I felt the combination of a physical and emotional pleasure, maybe the kind felt by-a long-distance runner finishing a marathon. Exhausted, I just wasn’t sure if I could do it again. And then, although they didn’t know it, I was saved by two good friends: Rabbi Kuhn, who gave an inspiring sermon on the lessons taught by Martin Luther King (that week was the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination); and Jody Kidwell, who led the choir in a memorable rendition of Amazing Grace and then, ended the service with a solo from the Rodeph Shalom hymnbook.

But having done it—singing without fear and with a strong voice—I felt I might even try it again, and I got a chance five days later among a throng of people in midtown Manhattan. Our Rodeph Shalom Visioning Task Force had heard that Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue holds, on every Friday night, a music-filled, inspirational service attended by hundreds, and we went to New York to see it for ourselves. We were not disappointed. Soon after Central’s doors opened at 5:30 p.m., people began streaming into the sanctuary—small groups of senior women, families spanning three generations, young couples and young singles. When the service began at six, the entire lower level of the synagogue—a space a little larger than Rodeph Shalom’s lower level—was nearly filled. And suddenly, orchestrated as fluidly as a Broadway production, the singing began. Central’s cantor, accompanied by five musical instruments and four back-up singers, led the congregation in a series of songs similar to the ones with which we welcome Shabbat. I realized that I’d have to make a decision once again.

The music was overwhelming, the sound system calibrated so that people in the pews could hear the cantor, the choir and those around them. Without regard to how I may have sounded, I found myself joining in with reckless abandon. And I felt wonderfully uplifted. I came away impressed on how extensively participatory music seemed to have permeated this Reform synagogue, previously known for being formal and straight laced.

On the bus trip home, I reflected on my new-found comfort with singing and realized—perhaps for the first time in my life—that singing was not just a personal exercise in using ones’ voice but can satisfy a spiritual need when done in a sacred space with everyone else joining in.

Now that I’m beginning to overcome my life-long anxiety, I plan to continue to practice this new found joy. And I ask you to help me. As time goes on, I’ll feel more comfortable with my voice and who knows, maybe one day I’ll even give the choir a try. But for now, I need a crowd. At Rodeph Shalom, every Friday night, we have song leaders who encourage us to join in. The music they present is uplifting, easy to sing to and, in most cases, meant to be sung full throttle. So, please, as we become a congregation of singers, join them—and me—at our next service. Bring well oiled vocal cords to “lift every voice and sing.” Participate in your own prayers, no matter your singing skill. You’ll help me feel, again, that my voice is just one among hundreds and who knows, if you haven’t already done so, you just may find the same spiritual comfort and joy that I now find in song. See you then.

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