Nava Tehila is Hebrew for “beautiful praise.” But the term is much more than that for the Israeli music ensemble of the same name that comes to the Washington-Baltimore areas next week for the first time.
On May 25, the spiritual group founded in 2005 by Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan will perform a free program for Lag B’Omer at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville. On May 26, it performs at Kol Halev in Baltimore. And the group will be in residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington for Shabbat, leading Friday evening kabbalat shabbat and Saturday morning Shacharit services.
The group resembles many of the Jewish Renewal chavurot, or independent spiritual communities, that blossomed across North America in the 1970s and 1980s. Nava Tehila is in the forefront of a similar movement that is growing across Israel, composed of mostly secular Israeli Jews who are seeking a spiritual and communal experience wholly within the Jewish tradition, but with a more contemporary and egalitarian outlook than traditional Judaism.
Singer-songwriter Daphna Rosenberg’s path is emblematic of many of these present-day Israeli seekers.
She was born in Montreal; her Canadian mother and Austrian father made aliyah when she was an infant. She grew up in a liberal, modern Orthodox family and like many Israelis, spent time — in her case seven years — traveling the world following army and university. “I thought it was going to be six months but it ended up being seven years,” she said.
Her involvement in Rainbow Gatherings — 1960s-style communal gatherings in natural settings with no amenities — was part of her search. “Thousands of people come together and just spend a month out in nature,” Rosenberg explained. “They support each other. It doesn’t cost. We live with no electricity, nothing from the outside. It’s a self-sustained community … with lots of music and … it’s very special.”
Her journey also took her to a community of Franciscans where she led prayers in Hebrew to Buddhist and Hindu communities.
At a Rainbow Gatherings event, she first picked up a guitar. When she eventually returned to Israel, Rosenberg discovered like-minded seekers, including her mentor and mashpi’ah, or spiritual guide, Rabbi Kagan. Soon the two were collaborating on modern liturgical settings and nigunim — wordless chants — for Shabbat services. Today, Nava Tehila has more than 300 regulars attending Kabbalat Shabbat and other services and programs in the basement of Kol Haneshama, the Reform synagogue in Baka, Jerusalem, for the group long ago grew out of Rabbi Kagan’s living room.
“Spiritual groups have been growing in Israel for decades,” Rosenberg said, “but not necessarily Jewish spirituality.” She explained that when she was growing up, there were only three ways to be Jewish in Israel: ultra-Orthodox Chasidic; Orthodox; or secular. Now she is part of another way. “Spirituality has been growing in Israel as people have been traveling back and forth to India and the Far East to look for spiritual paths and journeys. There’s nothing new about that,” she said. “What’s new is the liberal path in Jewish, not in secular, Israeli society.”
This movement is just 10 to 15 years old in Israel and she sees many of these modern spiritual communities rising all over the country.
“People are interested in a connection and Jewish roots,” she said, “although not necessarily as part of the Jewish Orthodox world. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be spiritual. You’ll find many chavurot coming up in Israel and they are doing kabbalot shabbat: it’s focused on the family and the singing and the eating together. Ask them if they’re religious and they believe in God, and they will say, ‘no.’”
The public programs this week in the Washington and Baltimore areas will include both Shabbat services and programs of spiritual song and chanting led by Rosenberg and her co-leader Yoel Sykes, fellow guitarist, composer and vocalist. For Rosenberg and her musical compatriots in Nava Tehila, 21st-century Judaism is no longer solely a religion for “people of the book.” Modern Jewish spirituality is now for people of the song and chant. That is exactly what will happen at the public programs: encouraging both congregants and audience members to sing and chant with them.
“Connecting our musical world, our spiritual world and our Jewish world all together is very powerful,” said Rosenberg. “The power of music is the language of the spirit and it’s beyond everything.”
Nava Tehila, May 25, 7:30 p.m., concert, Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville, call 301-348-3778; May 26, 7 p.m., concert, Kol Halev, 6200 N. Charles St., Baltimore, call 410-299-7967; May 27, 6 p.m. kabbalat Shabbat, May 28, 10:30 a.m. Shacharit, Washington Hebrew Congregation, 3935 Macomb St. NW, Washington, call 202-362-7100.