What happens when a New York native, based out of Canada, sings Jewish songs with African instruments?
The result is a musician who has played for audiences ranging from a classroom of kids at Jewish day schools to an audience of 5,000 at the recent Union for Reform Judaism biennial.
Rabbi Noam Katz has recorded three albums of English and Hebrew melodies, including his second album, “Mirembe, Salaam V’shalom,” which features musicians from Africa and the Middle East as well as his Ugandan-inspired version of “Am Yisrael Chai.”
Katz, who lives in Toronto and works at the Reform Leo Baeck Day School, is spending this weekend at Temple Isaiah in Howard County as a musician-in-residence.
“I grew up at the Eisner Camp,” said Katz, 37, who spent more than 15 consecutive summers at the Massachusetts-based Union for Reform Judaism summer camp. “I was always mesmerized by the work of the song leaders to get up in front of the camp and start leading everyone in communal singing. There was great power and energy, ruach, in that ability.”
It was at camp that Katz fell in love with Jewish music. He described the moment he fell in love with Jewish prayer as “sitting on a hill at camp [listening to] a 19-year-old song leader in shorts, sandals and a tie-dye shirt playing folk melodies.”
If you are helping to create positive and memorable meaningful Jewish moments for people, that’s what brings me great satisfaction as both a rabbi and musician. — Rabbi Noam Katz
Rachel Kessler is a family educator at Temple Isaiah and met Katz at Eisner Camp in Massachusetts and Kutz Camp in New York.
“I’m so excited that he’s coming, and I think it’ll be an amazing weekend for the community,” said Kessler. “I’ve known him since I was a kid, and it’s been great seeing him grow as an educator and as a rabbi.”
Although Katz did not become a rabbi until later in life, he saw the possibilities of music to help teach Jewish values and text early on.
“The greatest feat of an educator is to teach without students realizing they’re being taught, and music is a medium to inspire and energize while you can educate,” said Katz. “When I travel to communities, I get to expose people to melodies, texts and core Jewish values, but I do so through music, conversation and story-telling.”
Aside from cultivating community in North America, Katz spent three months in 2003 in a small African village in Uganda with the Abayudaya Jews. While the Abayudaya have since become more well-known to North American Jews since his visit, Katz was told he was the third long-term volunteer to visit the community.
Katz took inspiration from the Ugandan community two years before he visited when he was able to meet one of its leaders, J.J. Kaki, in Boston at a mutual friend’s house.
“At the time, [Kaki] was one of the first of the Abayudaya community to come to the United States,” said Katz. “That was the first time I heard their history and community.”
He explained the Abayudaya incorporate elements of their language, Luganda, when they sing Jewish melodies in Hebrew. Most of the time this means ending words on an open vowel sound. That same night, Katz created his version of “Am Yisrael Chai” using what he learned about combining Luganda and Hebrew.
Temple Isaiah Rabbi Craig Axler has hosted Katz before at a previous congregation in Philadelphia and was eager to do it again when the opportunity arose.
“He brings an incredible sweetness and mensch quality to what he teaches and leads,” said Axler. “That incredible sweetness is what you notice most about him, and his powerful music draws you into participating with him.”
Katz said transitioning from a large crowd, such as the biennial, to a comparatively small one at synagogues makes little difference to him.
“If you are helping to create positive and memorable meaningful Jewish moments for people, that’s what brings me great satisfaction as both a rabbi and musician,” said Katz, who also referenced Yoda, a character from the popular movie franchise, “Star Wars,” as an influence. “Yoda said, ‘Size matters not.’ There is a Yoda puppet on my desk, and I tell people his name is the same as the Hebrew word for knowledge. He’ll always be one of the gurus of our time.”