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Gospel Shabbat: Reviews

Tonight was very inspiring for me - it was the BEST service I've ever attended. It spoke to my heart and left me with such a feeling of community.

Amy G.

The service was magnificent. I felt spiritually connected with the music and could feel G-d's presence. It does not get much better than that.

Florence M.

Your service/music was incredibly moving, and spoke to a yearning I've had for a long time. My husband grew up in the Black Baptist church tradition, and I love attending church with him because I find the music so moving. Yet I always feel conflicted about it[...] Last night I felt that I was able to fully relax and surrender to the beauty of the music and the ways that it moves me. I felt as though I had a brief glimpse of the answer to a lifelong craving, and I only wish that every Sabbath would be like this.

Jill T.

A lot of people commented to me after the service how the "Heal Us" really spoke to them and they could feel the energy in the room and how they teared up and were very emotional at that moment. The whole evening was a truly spiritual experience.

Cantor Ilene K.

The key words in the feedback I have gotten from the folks I invited are: "riveting," "electrifying," "magical," and "deeply moving." As a lifelong church choir veteran of the uptight/"serious" Presbyterian tradition, I can say I have never had a better, more genuinely uplifting singing experience during worship.

Sarah R. - (choir member)

It felt really, really participational in ways that Jewish service don’t usually feel. Beautiful and appropriate. I don’t think I’ve ever had as good a time in a sanctuary.

Joel B.

Thank you so much for such a beautiful service - full of ruach and soulful melodies. This must catch on.

Lynn S.

At Gospel Shabbat, it was hardly the same old song and dance

by stacey palevsky

I’m just going to say it: I find Shabbat services to be boring. This is why even though I previously have written in this very space about promising to go more often, I haven’t followed through.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the prayers, because many of them I know by heart. And it’s not that I don’t like the melodies, because I do.

It’s that most services feel motionless to me. I don’t always know the meaning of the prayers I sing. My mind wanders. I feel restless and spend half of the service wondering when it will be time for oneg.

I had a completely different experience last month at Temple Sinai.

I actually whispered these words during a Friday night service: I am having so much fun.

The Oakland Reform congregation had a Gospel Shabbat service April 30. About 700 people packed the sanctuary, a feat usually only accomplished once a year for Kol Nidre services.

Stephen Saxon, a cantor and jazz musician, led the service accompanied by the harmonies from an eight-person choir, an organ, piano, drums and bass.

Saxon spent months composing eight original gospel songs based on the traditional Friday night liturgy.

The music was beautiful and joyful. People danced in the aisles, swung their hips, bobbed their heads. Some held their hands up to the sky, praising God with their bodies and their voices and their souls.

The room had a rhythm, a pulse, an aura completely unlike the gray and listless sanctuaries I’ve sat in throughout my life. For the first time, I was completely present in a Jewish service.

“More than one person came up to me and said, ‘I was more spiritually moved in that service than I had ever been in any service,’” Saxon told me a few days later.

The service was different from the get-go. For one, no prayerbooks were used. Instead, as in the gospel tradition, all of the prayers were call and response. People learned the prayers quickly because the lyrics Saxon wrote were simple and straightforward. Instead of a congregation of people looking down at their laps, everyone looked up and around, their voices projecting out, not down and muffled.

Nearly all of the prayers were in English. So when I sung “Open my lips, Lord, my God, so that my mouth may sing your praise. Open our lips, Lord, our God, and our voices we will raise,” instead of the Amidah, I actually knew what I was saying, and that allowed me to connect more deeply with the prayer.

Saxon told me he didn’t change the words to the prayers. He retranslated. Faithfully. The Sh’ma became “Listen, listen, God is one.” The Barchu became “Come let us bless the Lord together.”

In Saxon’s opinion, new versions of old prayers make the prayers richer, more alive. Like music.

“Ella Fitzgerald’s version of ‘How High the Moon’ is wonderful but it’s not the only way to do the song,” Saxon told me. “Listen to Dexter Gordon, Bobby McFerrin, Kurt Elling sing the same song. When they come up with another way of approaching it, I feel you get a more well-rounded and deeper understanding of where the song truly comes from. It’s the same with prayer.”

The fact that attendance was so high for Gospel Shabbat tells me that I’m not the only Jew who’s hungry for prayer that’s new, different and more deeply spiritual.

I know many Reform and Conservative congregations have tried themed musical Shabbats (Beatles, Grateful Dead, rock ’n’ roll, hiphop, etc.), and though these can be fun, they’re not usually a huge departure from the conventional styles and forms of a regular Shabbat service.

Gospel Shabbat was wildly different. It made me yearn for more creativity and risk-taking in our liturgical tradition.

If every Friday night were like this I might go to services more often. I left Temple Sinai feeling happy, introspective and grateful. These emotions are often not mined during the typical Friday night service because I’m usually too bored to have any kind of revelatory thoughts.

Bravo, Temple Sinai and Stephen Saxon. Thanks to Gospel Shabbat, I now know what it is to be inspired, moved and elated by Jewish prayer.

Stacey Palevsky lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at

Gospel Shabbat!

By Ilana DeBare

Wow! Blog readers, I wish you had been there tonight. My synagogue had a special Friday night service – the first-ever performance of a Gospel Shabbat composed by Stephen Saxon, a cantor and jazz musician from Oakland, California. 

It was amazing. While a typical Friday night service might draw 50 to 100 congregants, the sanctuary was packed with about 700 people, both Temple Sinai members and visitors. It felt like a high holiday service: Our rabbi even joked, as he introduced Saxon, that it was time to sing Kol Nidrei

Saxon was accompanied by an a cappella choir called Flying Without Instruments, as well as a quartet of gospel musicians from nearby Oakland churches. He had basically set an entire Shabbat service to gospel music – taking each major prayer (the Barchu, the Sh’ma, the Amidah, the Mi Shebeirach etc.) and creating an English-language gospel version of it. 

He got the whole room singing immediately with an opening “Hallelujah” composition. In between the musical numbers, he introduced and explained each part of the service. People were on their feet – swaying, singing, clapping – for much of the evening. 

It felt slightly jarring to hear familiar Hebrew prayers sung in English to music from such a non-Jewish tradition. I wished there had been a little more Hebrew — more “Adonai” and less “Lord.”

But it didn’t feel compromised or heretical – the Hebrew translations were accurate in meaning if not literal, and Saxon’s introductions also made clear that this was all in the structure and context of a Jewish Shabbat service. Overall it was uplifting and inspiring, and engaging in a visceral way that doesn’t often happen with more traditional Reform services. 

Sometimes it’s good to take familiar things and put them in an entirely new context. 

And the gospel context is so rich – the legacy of African-American oppression and transcendence, the great music, the way you are caught up and carried along in the rhythm and choruses. 

Classical Reform Judaism is often focused on “head.” This added epic doses of heart, gut, and even hips. 

Rabbi Steven Chester – our senior rabbi, with whom I’m doing my Bat Mitzvah studies – added a political context during the closing benediction when he spoke about Arizona’s controversial new legislation allowing police to stop anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. 

He noted that both gospel and Jewish traditions stand against oppression and discrimination, and he read a statement by the Reform movement opposing the Arizona law.

But I’m straying afield. Back to the Gospel Shabbat – it was moving, uplifting and inspiring. I’d love for our temple to host  it again, maybe several times a year. And I could easily see this receiving an enthusiastic welcome at both synagogues and churches across the country. One of Saxon’s aims with the service, in fact, was to deepen interfaith understanding and connections between Christian churches and Jewish congregations.

Dozens of people stayed after the service officially ended, swaying and clapping and continuing to sing the final song, Saxon’s gospel transformation of Oseh Shalom.

I was one of them. I went home singing it

Saxon has a web site with some of his music, and you can listen to his Gospel Shabbat compositions here.  But a caveat — the online versions are him singing solo, and they are a pale shadow of how things sounded at temple with the live choir, the band, and a sanctuary full of hundreds of people singing.

Listen, but add your imagination.

The Sh’ma goes gospel: Cantor blends Jewish liturgy with old-time spirituals

by stacey palevsky, staff writer

Twenty-five years ago, before Stephen Saxon became a cantor, he walked into a Baptist church in Chicago during the congregation’s evening service. He and several friends were there to hear, or rather to experience, the 60-person gospel choir.

Saxon was in awe: Some 1,000 people clapped, stood or danced in the sanctuary as the choir belted out gospel harmonies. People in a state of euphoria fell down in the aisles; nurses were on- site to assist those writhing in the aisles, overcome by the spirit.

 If God was anywhere, Saxon thought, he or she was most certainly in that building on that evening.

“It was something that this Jewish kid from California had never experienced before,” said Saxon, who grew up in Oakland and still lives there. “I had never experienced that kind of emotional and spiritual intensity in any Jewish service I’d been involved with and I wondered what was up with that. That’s when I really started wondering: How could you get that kind of spirit into a Jewish service?”

After years of considering how to merge gospel music with Jewish liturgy, Saxon has composed a number of original gospel songs based on traditional Friday night prayers.

The songs will debut during the erev Shabbat service April 30 at Temple Sinai in Oakland. The service is free and open to the community.

Saxon has rewritten the Amidah, Aleinu, Hallelujah (Psalm 150), Bar’chu, Sh’ma, Mi Chamocha and Hashkiveinu. He’s still working on a gospel version of L’cha Dodi.

 “Stephen has exceeded my expectations,” said Ilene Keys, Temple Sinai’s cantor. “The pieces are beautiful and very accessible, which is what gospel is all about. It’s music for the people, by the people, get-down-into-the-kishkes music. … I think it’s going to be really powerful.”

 Saxon’s friends in the gospel community will join him on the bimah of Sinai’s 96-year-old main sanctuary. A group of a cappella singers, Flying Without Instruments, will also lend their voices. Singers will be accompanied by a rhythm section of a Hammond organ, piano, bass and drums.

Saxon first approached Keys in September about creating gospel Shabbat liturgy. He thought a Reform congregation would be the optimal place, and that Sinai in particular was a good fit because of its urban setting and diverse, progressive congregants and staff.

The service will be a precursor to an even larger-scale gospel Shabbat in 2011 in honor of Rabbi Steven Chester’s retirement. The veteran rabbi loves gospel music, Keys said.

There will be no prayerbooks at the April 30 gospel Shabbat service. Saxon not only wanted the congregation to sing gospel-style, but to pray gospel-style, which means call-and-response instead of reading lyrics from a siddur.

As such, Saxon wrote songs with repetition and lyrics with some rhyming so that congregants could easily learn the music on the spot.

“Without books, text, something to hold — there will be nothing to stop you from participating,” Keys said. “It’s a hands-on experience that gives people ownership of the music and lets people feel very empowered. It’s what the gospel spirit is all about.”

Saxon has been a cantor for more than 20 years, including eight years at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. His first experience merging gospel and Jewish prayer came in 2006, when he worked for Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo and integrated a professional gospel choir into the retirement service for Rabbi Alan Berg.

“Some people were kind of slack-jawed, wondering what’s going on, but more people were just completely digging it,” Saxon recalled. It gave him the confidence to create a more elaborate merging of the two music traditions.

Saxon is also a jazz singer, trumpet player, klezmer musician and composer. He is the bass singer for the award-winning a cappella jazz quintet Clockwork, and has performed or recorded with Chet Baker, Chanticleer, Bobby McFerrin, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, David Grisman and Frank Zappa, among others.

He started composing the songs for gospel Shabbat in September 2009 and is not quite finished. He began each composition with a key phrase. For example, “listen,” for the Sh’ma, which evolved into the song’s chorus: “Listen … listen … listen … God is one.”

He then wrote the melody for this key phrase and wrote the music for the verses. Finally, he composed lyrics for that section of the music.

In his home studio in Oakland, he recorded the songs four times, in four different harmonies, and then mixed them together to create a huge chorus — of which he is the only singer. The music is available at

Saxon is paying the musicians and singers himself. He’s making the investment because he has faith that something good will come of it.

He believes it has the potential to revitalize Jewish communities and reach out to unaffiliated or interfaith families — and he’d love to see other congregations try gospel Shabbat. Saxon also thinks gospel has the power to link Jewish congregations and churches through the commonalities of the prayers.

Nothing is planned yet, but “in my heart of hearts,” Saxon said, he’d love to see synagogues nationwide pair up with gospel churches for Friday night and Sunday morning services, an initiative that would bring together their choirs, musicians and congregants.

“I’ve heard it said that music is the communication of emotion,” Saxon said. “Gospel music in particular is a very emotional music. What I’ve found is that in the world of synagogue music, emotion can be somewhat lacking. I think our music is generally much more head-centered and much less heart-centered … and there’s more emotion involved in gospel music than in any of the other music I’ve done.”

Gospel Shabbat will begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 30 at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St. (corner of Webster and 28th streets), Oakland. Information: (510) 451-3263 or

Not to get too carried away, but this is the sort of thing that makes me proud to be an American. I think we did something very important Friday night and I was glad I could be a part of it.

Gareth L. - (choir member)


Ethel L.