The “Prince of Kosher Gospel” will teach and perform Jan. 22-24 in what Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson is calling a fitting tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
New Jersey native Joshua Nelson draws on his African-American and Jewish roots in his recordings and performances, which blend Christian gospel melodies with Jewish themes. Nelson, whose African-American family has been Jewish for generations, studied at the Hebrew Union College and the Hebrew University and taught religious school at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.
“Being both black and Jewish, he represents multiculturalism,” said program chair Suzanne Gottuso. “His music is unique. We wanted our children to see that Jews come in all different colors.”
The weekend’s activities will include a Shabbat dinner in Nelson’s honor and a special oneg Shabbat where Nelson will join Cantor Marla Barugel in song.
On Jan. 23, Nelson will perform in a synagogue benefit at the Two River Theater in Red Bank. The following morning, he will lead two sessions of song and teaching — one for younger children and another for older — with religious school students.
“He’s a former Hebrew school teacher so we know he’s going to be terrific with the kids,” said Gottuso.
Nelson, who just returned from touring Spain, Italy, and Sweden, said the connection between civil rights leader King and Judaism was obvious.
“Some people may not see the relation, but it’s huge,” said Nelson, 33. “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with him. Passover is not just matza, but a holiday of religious freedom. Sukkot is a holiday where you’re supposed to dwell in a booth, which is why some synagogues do something with the homeless. The essence is sometimes camouflaged by a star of David or hanukkia, but they are just symbols.”
Nelson, who grew up Orthodox in Newark and the Oranges, was inspired by gospel great Mahalia Jackson as a child.
The Grammy-nominated entertainer has sung in synagogues and churches, as well as for presidents and prime ministers.
Nelson is now a full-time entertainer, performing 10-12 concerts a month and is expanding his message to audiences overseas, in Jewish camps, and to youth groups.
Nelson said his Jewish spin on gospel music has been welcomed by Jewish audiences.
“A lot of my Jewish fans love gospel music, but they felt guilty listening to it,” said Nelson. “Now they don’t have to feel guilty because they have a kosher counterpart.”