Renna Khuner-Haber

The morning after the election, several people reached out to me with the same question – can we sing? In the days after a tragic death in my extended community, close friends of the dearly departed called me – can we sing? I recently received an email from someone thanking me for two hours of singing at Nigun Collective, sharing that he feels isolated, suffering from this disorienting political time, and that in the depths of a song, he started crying. The song allowed him to let go of some of the pain that was blocking his connection to community.

Nigun Collective is a monthly song space where community comes together in harmonious wordless melodies nestled between sounds of silence. Co-created by Jana Jett Loeb and Nat Rosenzweig in 2013, this gem was lovingly handed over to Zach Freidman and myself in the fall of 2015. What was once simply a place to sing together and learn new nigunim (dayeinu!), Nigun Collective has evolved into a resource that holds people in times of grief and healing, creates a transcendent and spiritually rich prayer experience, and convenes large Shabbos gatherings and shabbatons in the woods. Nigun Collective is a beautiful, overflowing container where kedusha and kehilla intersect in magical, expansive ways.

Nigun Collective has an extremely low barrier to entry. All you have to do is show up. No knowledge of Hebrew necessary. No need to make awkward small talk with people you don’t know (some people show up after singing starts and leave before it ends). No need to sing, even. No need to be Jewish, either – though the flavor of the melodies activates Jewish ancestral memory (primarily of Ashkenazi descent, I want to acknowledge, though we aim to expand the diversity of the melodies to more fully honor Sephardi and Mizrahi roots). Nigun Collective creates instant community, a feeling of belonging.

Each song takes us on a unique journey where emotions in the room are palpable, ranging from joy to sadness, from tears to celebration. In the span of one evening we might say the shehechiyahnu to honor someone’s first time starting a nigun, remember the loss of dear ones with the recitation of mourner’s kaddish, celebrate life with ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ dance and clap in ecstatic joy, send blessings of healing to friends and family, weep and hug as we hold each other close and release our grief. And make community announcements – there’s always time to find out about other compelling ways to get Jewishly involved.

Nigunim are a gateway to the soul. And they’re also a gateway to further exploration of Jewish spirituality and involvement with Jewish community.

The Nigun Collective represents just one of my roles as a Jewish community organizer and lay leader. There are many other ways that I am plugged into Jewish community – from homegrown gatherings in people’s living rooms and around backyard fire pits, to Jewish nonprofits that unearth profound ways to connect to Jewish tradition and community, to involvement with longer-standing Jewish institutions and synagogues.

In addition to the four propositions put forward by Schwarz, it is also incredibly important that we pay attention to who is in the room forging the path forward on initiatives that re-inspire and reinvigorate Jewish individuals and communities and also sharing their wisdom, experiences, insights, and scholarship.

We need to raise up the voices of our leaders with minority gender identities; Jews who identify as LGBTQ; Jews of Sephardi and Mizrahi descent; Jews of color; Jews in interfaith relationships and families; Jews with disabilities; working class Jews; and other Jews who are so often erased from the Ashkenazi-centric narrative of American Jewry.

I am deeply connected to Jewish community and highly engaged in Jewish life. I participate in programs run by Jewish non-profits, teach and daven at an established denominational shul and have a good sense of the who’s who and what’s what in the Jewish institutional world. I feel a sense of belonging in a way that so many Jews of my generation do not.

And yet, I find myself on the brink of turning away from so many of these institutions. My values and politics are not reflected by the leaders of many of these groups. I feel marginalized and made invisible by the masculine energy and heteronormative assumptions that dominate the room. I feel deep pain when the histories and experiences of my Sephardic and Mizrahi friends are erased. My heart breaks when leaders and institutions assume a collective love of and support for Israel, when the call for justice and human rights falls short of Palestinian liberation.

As a wave of youth and young adults are newly politicized in this era of “he-who-shall-not-be-named”, Jewish leaders and institutions need to be thinking ahead of the curve. It’s only a matter of time until the next generation will jump ship because the mainstream Zionist narrative, the deep-seeded patriarchy and masculinity of our Jewish tradition and modern Jewish institutions and the unhealed ancestral trauma of anti-Jewish oppression further distance Jews who already feel like they don’t belong.

We need to educate our teachers, spiritual guides, and institutional leaders to broaden how they discuss Israel-Palestine, to explore their power and privilege, and to confront and heal their internalized anti-Jewish oppression. It is time to listen to the powerful voices that are often sidelined and bring their knowledge, passion, and commitment more fully into our future work of chochma, tzedek, kehilla and kedusha.

Renna Khuner-Haber is a lay leader of Jewish ritual, song, and community in the San Francisco Bay Area through initiatives such as Nigun Collective. Renna received her undergraduate degrees from Barnard and JTS, holds a Master’s in nutrition, is an alumna of Adamah, and was the first staff member of Hazon’s inaugural satellite office way back before JOFEE took the Jewish world by storm.