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‘Creating Spiritual Experiences’ with music

Beth Styles presents “The Shabbat Experience” at Temple Sinai in Stamford

By Cindy Mindell

The Jewish calendar boasts several special Shabbatot, among them, Shabbat Shirah, “Shabbat of song.” While most include an additional Torah reading, Shabbat Shirah isn’t built around more than the standard reading, so important is the “Song of the Sea” described in Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16). Soon after allowing the Israelites to leave Egypt, Pharaoh dispatches his army to bring them back. With his people trapped between Egyptian soldiers and the Sea of Reeds, Moses is commanded by God to raise his staff over the water. The waters part, allowing the Israelites to cross to the other side, and then closes over the pursuing Egyptians. Moses and the children of Israel sing a song of praise and gratitude to God.

This year, Shabbat Shirah fell on Jan. 31, with many synagogues holding special musical programming during services.

The Song of the Sea is one of only 10 true Songs (shirot, the plural of shirah) in the history of the world, according to Jewish tradition. These true Songs are not mere melodies; they are expressions of the harmony of creation and they mark monumental transitions in history. According to the Book of Isaiah, the Tenth Song has not yet been sung: it is the Song of the coming of the Mashiach, which will be sung at the End of Days.

Composers of contemporary Jewish music may not be charged with a sacred task of this caliber, but they are nonetheless committed to using the genre to create spiritual experiences.

Stamford-based producer-composer-arranger Beth Styles has focused much of her work over the last decade on that mission. The result, “The Shabbat Experience,” debuted last June at Temple Sinai in Stamford, where it will return on Friday, Feb. 13.

As a music producer, Styles has worked in studios throughout Connecticut and New York with clients ranging from Diana Ross to popular local artists. In the Stamford Jewish community, she works to reconnect people with their roots in a contemporary way and create meaningful experiences for those who otherwise might not attend synagogue.

Styles’s musical exploration reflects her own personal journey. Raised in a modern Orthodox family, she studied in yeshiva and spent several years in Israel before building her professional career in music. Several years ago, when a colleague introduced her to the world of contemporary Christian music, “a lightbulb went off in my head,” she recalls. “I said, ‘We Jews do not have anything like this.’”

One barrier to creating that visceral connection between music and emotion, Styles reasoned, is that most Jewish liturgical music is written in Hebrew – not the mother tongue of most American Jews.

In 2002, Styles began working at the Metropolitan Community Church of New Haven, immersing herself in Black gospel and contemporary Christian musical genres. She composed music for church services, keeping it non-denominational so that it might be used for future interfaith programs. In 2006, she used those compositions to create the interfaith Glory Concert at the church and a CD of the performance.

Styles sought feedback from cantor-friends. “While they appreciated and liked the music, they said it wouldn’t fly in the Jewish community because it was ‘Christian-sounding,’” she recalls.

Since then, Styles has worked to refine her vision for a Shabbat musical repertoire. She worked at Temple Beth El in Stamford with Cantor George Mordecai and produced several interfaith programs in the community. She participated in Shabbat services throughout the community and noticed a lack of young people among the attendees.

“I realized that people don’t want to come because there’s nothing to be had,” she recalls. “If you’re not religious, why do you want to sit through a service with no spirituality? When people go somewhere on a Friday night in a spiritual context, they want to be seen, known, acknowledged, and have the opportunity to talk to God or a Higher Power. They would also connect with other human beings and participate because that’s where the love is.”

Styles attended the Romemu egalitarian Jewish community in New York, which features yoga-style meditational chanting.

“I realized that this connection to music, meditation, and prayer was what I had grown up with and what was in my heart the whole time,” she says. What would become “The Shabbat Experience” began to take shape as Styles continued to write more Jewish spiritual music and weave it into Temple Beth El services. In 2011, Styles founded the multi-faith New World Chorus (NWC) in Stamford, who performed some of those selections at community events. Finally, last June, the Shabbat Experience mix of music, meditation, and prayer was ready for its debut. Directed by Styles, the program featured musicians, NWC, and Temple Sinai’s Kolot Sinai chorus, with the liturgical parts of the service led by rabbis and cantors from Temple Sinai, Temple Beth El, and the Selah Reconstructionist congregation.

“The kind of music I am writing has a purpose in mind: to create experiences for people, to push people’s buttons, and to try to get them deeply connected; it’s not just a pretty melody to a Shabbat song,” Styles says.

“Music offers the appeal of another on-ramp to Jewish experience,” says Rabbi Jay TelRav of Temple Sinai in Stamford. “What Beth gives us with The Shabbat Experience is a musical entrée that doesn’t really show its face in other ways. She has taken away some of the barriers that may exist in the normal worship experience. The music is contemporary and has a message that speaks to people and grabs their attention.”

Using repetitive melodies and very little Hebrew, Styles’s music recalls the best aspects of the niggun, TelRav says, the Jewish religious song that is often wordless or improvised. “Her modes change from what is traditionally minor-key, dreary, dirge-like music, to very positive, upbeat major chords. If people are open to it, the music genuinely lifts them.”

The Shabbat Experience led by Beth Styles, with the New World Chorus and Kolot Sinai: Friday, Feb. 13, 7:30 PM, Temple Sinai, 458 Lakeside Dr., Stamford | Info: templesinaistamford.org / (203) 322-1649

CAP: Beth Styles, right, performing her “Shabbat Experience.”

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