Diverse community taps the power of song
When Nat Bottigheimer and his wife, Eve Ostriker, moved to Princeton, they were looking for a Jewish community similar to their Washington, DC, synagogue, Tifereth Israel.
“It was lay-led,” Bottigheimer told NJJN. “Kids were part of the service but didn’t dominate the service.” And then, integral to his shul experience, was the Shabbat oneg, where people stayed and socialized.
After trying out different services in the area, the couple found Zamru, a musical Friday night service that meets monthly at the Jewish Center in Princeton. Led by several volunteer leaders, who are guided by guitarist Dan Nadel, Zamru draws 80 to 100 participants of all ages, largely from central Jersey and Bucks County.
Zamru “is very heimish,” Bottigheimer said. “It’s lay-led, people eat together, and they are serious about Judaism and getting a Jewish practice that works in the context of all these other things. It is something everyone serious about Judaism grapples with: How do you fit it together with a regular world?”
But Zamru’s attraction also had to do with the nature of the service and the community. “We liked the learning, the equality, the singing, and the people, who are enormously friendly and welcoming,” Bottigheimer said.
Pam Edelman, Zamru cofounder and part of its leadership group, talked about what Zamru has accomplished in its first five years. “Zamru has succeeded in creating a very unique musical, participatory prayer experience in Princeton,” she told NJJN. “We’re dedicated to engaging in heartfelt prayer through music.”
The group is independent and entirely volunteer led. “We are a community of people who feel Zamru is ‘we,’” Edelman said. “We are a community of participants, participating by singing and clapping, by learning melodies that are a completely new experience for us — and by bringing delicious food for potluck dinners.”
Central to Zamru’s success is the service itself. “Part of what makes Zamru so special or creates the kind of aliveness of Zamru is that it is not a static service,” said Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University and a Zamru cofounder.
She noted that the push for musical experimentation came from Nadel, who teaches liturgical poems from the Moroccan, Yemenite, and Iraqi traditions. Thanks to him, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures sit comfortably together at Zamru.
“It is an interesting thing in the 21st century to be exploring how to bring together different origins and take ownership of them,” said Nadel. “The point is not just that they are beautiful melodies but can you explore them as a gateway in a spiritual sense.”
Nadel has immersed himself in flamenco music over the past decade, explaining that the roots of the Spanish folk music and dance include “music and poetry that Jews and Arabs left in Spain before the final exile and also [that of] Jews who converted and kept the traditions in secret.”
New music challenges the leaders and helps the entire community grow, he said. “Singing exactly the same melodies month in month out is not a fair representation of how humans feel,” he said, adding that a static service creates a spiritual culture of obligation and less reflection.
The February Zamru service initiated an experiment — the introduction of kavanot, or meditative introductions to prayers, said Roth. “They are not explaining the prayers, but opening a window to prayers, showing something of what their essence is spiritually or emotionally that lets you focus on this moment in time — how do the words and your life experiences tickle your aspirations spiritually, Jewishly, and humanly,” she said.
Zamru has also begun to sponsor occasional programs outside of the Friday evening service. Last fall, a Jewish meditation program featured Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, a teacher at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.
Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton University, was attracted to Zamru’s participatory approach. “The congregation is there to actively engage in the davening or the singing, unlike typically in larger congregations, where you feel more like there is an audience and a clergy,” he said.
Zamru has also welcomed graduate students and other younger adults. For Anna Liebowitz and Daniel Schwartz-Narbonne, now living in Brooklyn with their baby, the pull to Zamru remains strong. Liebowitz particularly appreciates the diversity of ages. “Daniel and I met at the CJL, but that is all students, no kids, no older people, no middle-aged people.
“It was lovely at Zamru to have such a big range of people to talk to,” she said.
Ziona Silverman, a retired hospital administrator from the other end of the age spectrum, agrees. “I see it as kind of a rainbow of ages, of people of different backgrounds. A rainbow is a happy experience when one sees it, and this is an opportunity, as a rainbow, of being part of something joyous. Even the young children — and they are our future — are so happy to be part of and participate in the service and seem to love this exposure.”