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Meet Jewish Musical Virtuoso Josh Nelson

Meet Jewish Musical Virtuoso Josh Nelson

Multi-instrumentalist singer songwriter Josh Nelson shares his passion for music and Judaism by organizing Shabbat happenings for unaffiliated young Jews, performing and recording albums with his band the Josh Nelson Project, presenting learning workshops around the world, and serving as artistic director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention. He does all this while raising two sons in Brooklyn and working on his doctorate at Boston University.

I asked Josh about his Jewish musical journey. How would you describe your musical beginnings?

Josh Nelson: I grew up in a very musical home, but Jewish music was not particularly present. As for my formal training, I began six years of piano lessons at age 6; after that, I was mostly self-taught. In college, my main focus was classical voice and opera.

When were you first introduced to Jewish music?

At age 19, while working at a Jewish camp in New Hampshire, I first really got to know the music of Debbie Friedman, Craig Taubman, and other contemporary artists. It was also around that time that my interests in music and Jewish spirituality meshed into a lifestyle and career that continues to fulfill me.

On stage, you often combine music with words. Do you see yourself as a teacher?

I do see myself as a teacher, but much more so as a student. I want to help bring people closer to the place where we’re all trying to go. I’ll use whatever tools I have to do that – singing, playing, teaching, conducting, or producing.

I am constantly searching. The very process of searching is inspiring. I have yet to open a door that didn’t have another door at the end of the hall.

You’ve said that music can put us in touch with the Shechinah – God’s presence – as nothing else can. Do you still believe that?

More than ever. The older you get, the more clearly you see the world. And yet, you somehow have more questions and understand less and less. For me, music is a respite from life’s perplexities and a chance to become grounded and centered again.

As humans, one of our most basic tribal instincts is the ability to communicate and experience emotion through organized sound, which transcends almost all other forms of communal uplift.

In writing about tikkun olam (healing the world), you’ve said the place to start is by “bringing people together, to share a meaningful experience in a space that feels comfortable, unpretentious, safe, genuine, transparent, honest.” Where can young Jewish adult seekers find that kind of atmosphere?

A key focus of my work is trying to create opportunities for that group to find a comfortable, relevant point of Jewish access. I wrestled for many years with my own inability to find a suitable venue for prayer and community. Eventually, that led me to found a project called Warehouse NYC, an alternative Shabbat experience for unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s.

Warehouse launched in New York five years ago. Since then, we’ve celebrated Shabbat with young communities in Boston, Washington, D.C., Denver, and Austin, TX (as part of South by Southwest).

What typically happens at The Warehouse?

Warehouse offers a powerful, fresh Shabbat experience that’s held outside of a synagogue, usually in a bar, nightclub, or industrial space. It’s an opportunity for the community to be in relationship. We feed our folks very well, offer them a cocktail, and then give them the chance to spend time talking with others, face to face in real time.  

Then, we turn the bar into a prayer space. Our hour-long service incorporates alternative expressions of prayer, including the use of relevant secular music, multimedia projection, spoken word, and a series of teachings given by rotating rabbinic guests. The only thing we ask of our participants is that they allow themselves the opportunity to be fully present in the experience.

You played the role of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the Off-Broadway production of Soul Doctor. Did that experience change you in any specific way?

Stepping into his shoes certainly caused me to reflect deeply about my own work. More so, the experience was very moving to me on a personal level; I continue to feel its residual effects in many ways, but most often in a very strong desire to give tzedakah, charity. I’ve always been pretty charitable, but after playing Reb Shlomo, I began to give in wild ways on the street and on the subway. I’m grateful to him for the inspiration each time I do.

Josh Nelson will serve as the artistic director and a featured performer at the Union for Reform Judaism's Biennial 2015, taking place November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. Register now for the largest Jewish gathering in North America.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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