Pilot program focuses on the wordless melody of the niggun

The niggun circle was the organizers’ way to bring people together. | Photo by Alex Krutchik

Rabbi Yosef Goldman of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg believes music is important in binding a religious community together. He said COVID has wounded communities and individuals, and wanted to organize an event to bring people together.

That event took place at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington on March 24 in the form of a “niggun circle,” communal singing using niggunim, or traditional Jewish wordless melodies, as a spiritual practice.

Goldman and New York-based prayer leader and composer Deborah Sacks Mintz were joined in a circle by other clergy and song leaders from participating organizations Bender JCC, Hadar, Rising Song Institute, Shaare Torah, The Den Collective, Ohr Kodesh Congregation, Tikvat Israel Congregation and The Jewish Studio.

Some 150 attendees gathered around them to join in song, which was augmented by drums, hand percussion instruments and guitars.


“The famous saying is that Jews are the People of the Book,” Sacks Mintz said in an interview. “We have so many texts, and our texts and our liturgy are really precious. But there’s also something incredibly freeing about sort of abandoning the text for a moment and just digging into the melody, digging into the song and seeing how that unlocks our personal prayers.”

This was not the first time Sacks Mintz had performed since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but she is still getting accustomed to it.

“It just feels incredibly rejuvenating and special to be able to sing again with other people,” she said. “Thank God I’ve been out and about a little bit, getting to sing with folks, but it still feels new. It still feels precious and really revitalizing.”

Goldman said he hoped the niggun circle could help heal the community after COVID-19 disrupted the ways in which people gather, worship and sing together.

“Many of us have not had this sort of spiritual, communal, singing experience on this scale for a long time,” Goldman said. “Our first hope is that this is a healing opportunity. In many ways, the richness of people’s communal network has been diminished and they are looking for more connection or looking to deepen the social and spiritual connection that might not have been available for some time.”

Sacks Mintz said the niggun circle reminded her how she learned from the sound of other people’s voices and that her voice “is only as strong as everyone else’s voice.”

“I hope that people are able to remember how much their voice matters,” she said. “I think singing represents the ways that we all gain a voice to contribute to our spiritual sustenance and our spiritual autonomy.”

In addition to being a rabbi at Shaare Torah, Goldman is a senior adviser to the Hadar Rising Song Institute in New York. Sacks Mintz also serves the Rising Song Institute as an artist, consultant and teacher, and will become its director of tefillah and music this summer.

One of the institute’s main missions is to cultivate Jewish spiritual community through song. Goldman and Sacks Mintz have been creating music together for 10 years. The niggun circle was a pilot program, Goldman said, but they would like to create a series where people from the Washington region could come together and sing.

Said Goldman, “Hopefully we can create something that’s bigger than any one community.”

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