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A Synagogue and a Gospel Choir Are Making Beautiful Music Together

A Synagogue and a Gospel Choir Are Making Beautiful Music Together

A Conversation with Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein

Posed photo the The Soul Children and director Walt Whitman posing with the staff of Am Shalom synagogue

Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein, who has served as senior rabbi of Am Shalom on Glencoe, IL, since 2002, is the author of two books: For the Love of Being Jewish (2010) and For the Love of Israel (2012).

I sat down to talk to him about his special relationship with Dr. Walt Whitman and his celebrated youth gospel choir, The Soul Children of Chicago, which will be performing at the upcoming Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial. Am Shalom released its “Soul Shabbat” album earlier this year, featuring the congregation's rabbis and cantors, along with Grammy Award winner Dr. Walt Whitman and his Soul Children of Chicago gospel choir. How did the idea for creating this CD come about?

Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein: For the past 18 years, Dr. Walt Whitman and his gospel choir have sung at our congregation’s social justice service honoring the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it’s always highly anticipated and hugely popular.

People often asked me if we’ve ever made an album of The Soul Children singing songs from their Jewish repertoire, so this year we decided to record our social justice service as a gift for the congregation, for members of the gospel choir, and for attendees of the URJ Biennial, which is the largest Jewish gathering in North America.

How did Dr. Whitman build his choir’s Hebrew repertoire?

Shortly after I met Walt 23 years ago at an Anti-Defamation League Freedom Seder, he told me he was looking for some help mastering the pronunciation of the words of “Oseh Shalom,” the Jewish prayer for peace, and was working with Cantor Aviva Katzman. The result was a riveting, uplifting rendition of the prayer.

We encouraged Walt to include more Hebrew songs in his repertoire, and, after the choir participated in the Zemirah song festival in Israel, he added “Bashanah Haba’ah” and Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.

When Cantor Andrea Rae Markowicz joined Am Shalom, she inherited our Social Justice Shabbat programming and added to the choir’s Hebrew liturgical playlist – so one year they learned “Hashkiveinu,” another year “Sanctuary-Bar’chu,” and so on.

How has your personal relationship with Dr. Whitman deepened over time?

We get together to celebrate each other’s birthdays. About seven or eight years ago, we realized that the only Passover seder Walt had ever attended was that ADL Freedom Seder where we had first met. So we quickly changed that.

Walt is now a regular at our family’s seder table. He brings relatives, friends, and one or two of the members of The Soul Children, making for an amazing experience.

Recognizing your longstanding friendship, can you share what Dr. Whitman has told you over the years about his role as the director?

Soul Children is Walt’s ministry. He is an inspirational and masterful mentor to his talented choir members, who range in age from 7 to 17. Every morning before school, they all join him on a conference call to pray for each other and for strength and healing of those who are having a difficult time.

His mission is to enhance the lives of these children through prayer, music, discipline, and education. The choir is their path to experience a world far removed from their inner city neighborhoods, worlds they might otherwise never have known.

They’ve performed nationally – on The Oprah Winfrey Show, at Michelle Obama’s Kids’ Inaugural concert, and at the inauguration of President Barack Obama – and in many countries abroad, including Israel, Holland, and Spain.

How has Am Shalom’s 18-year relationship with The Soul Children impacted both your congregants and the children under Dr. Whitman’s wing?

We’ve become like an extended family, ready to assist one another whenever possible. One year, for example, during the High Holidays, Walt graciously agreed to conduct our temple choir, inspiring us with his lively arrangement of an Am Shalom favorite, “Blessings Are Falling,” which is the CD’s concluding song.

Some gifts come about in unexpected ways. Another story: Three years ago, at a dinner following our annual Social Justice Shabbat Service, the choir was on stage ready to sing, but Walt couldn’t get the music on his phone to play. He needed time to get an adapter.

“Stall for a few minutes,” he asked me, so I invited the seniors in the group to come forward and share with the congregation their educational aspirations. I was so moved that, when the four students were done, I had a kind of Oprah Winfrey moment and said, “In your honor, Am Shalom is delighted to give each one of you a $500 scholarship to help you attend college."

In the time that it took the choir to complete its first song, three individuals came forward and matched the Am Shalom pledge – so what began as a time-filler is now an annual $15,000 scholarship fund, supported by more than a dozen of our families. 

The Soul Shabbat CD, co-produced by Cantor Andrea Rae Markowicz, will be distributed free to URJ Biennial delegates. What is the intent of this gift?

We want everyone coming to Chicago to see the city at its best. To me, Dr. Walt Whitman and The Soul Children of Chicago represent our city at its best, so any time groups like the Central Conference of American Rabbis or the American Conference of Cantors convene in Chicago, I try to make sure the organizers know about these extraordinarily talented kids.

Listen to "SOULcial Justice Shabbat Shira," Am Shalom’s album with The Soul Children, available now on SoundCloud.

The Soul Children will be a featured performer at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial, the largest Jewish gathering in North America, from December 11-15, 2019, in Chicago, IL. Register now or watch select sessions online to join thousands of Jews from around the world to learn, pray, share ideas, dance and sing, hear from inspiring speakers, reunite with old friends, create new connections, and more.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. He holds an M.A. and honorary doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg.

Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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