Ashira: Music as a Jewish Experience, is the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary’s newest innovative learning opportunity. Ashira brings together prayer leaders and musicians to study the Jewish liturgical tradition, explore prayer as personal experience, and study topics addressing the relationship between prayer leaders and participants.
Osnat Bensoussan, 47, lives in Jerusalem and is a member of Ashira’s inaugural cohort. She is the daughter of Moroccan immigrants and grew up in a Jewishly observant and politically active family. She studied philosophy and English literature at Hebrew University. Today, Bensoussan runs a company that develops software for managing municipal elections and university libraries. How she came to study at SRS is a story tied to her family, her vision of Israeli society and her love of music.
Bensoussan’s family always embraced its Moroccan heritage, going to synagogue every Shabbat, eating traditional foods and participating in special Moroccan cultural festivals. She absorbed the particularly Moroccan spirit even as she struggled to define what exactly that meant. When her daughter was reaching bat mitzvah age, her father said, “I will teach my granddaughter Torah trope,” the special cantillation notes to read from the Torah. Different communities use different trope systems. Bensoussan’s father, of course, used Moroccan cantillation. But she could not find a place for her daughter to read Torah. All the Sephardi shuls that she was aware of were not egalitarian. The egalitarian shuls she found all hewed to Ashkenazi traditions. On a whim she googled “Sephardic egalitarian community” and one search result appeared — Degel Yehuda in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood — not far from where she lived.
Bensoussan became part of the congregation, appreciating the intimate meeting space, warmth and joy she felt from other members. The tunes from Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night were those of her father. She had found her place, one that shared her egalitarian values and her Moroccan heritage and began serving as a shlichat tzibur, prayer leader: “This is prayer that I recognize, that I’m familiar with. It is part of me.”
She joined Ashira after hearing about it from a friend. Ashira has three tracks: Ashkenazic, Sephardic and contemporary. With fifty students enrolled this year, each track draws participants from a range of communities that represent the true diversity of Jewish prayer spaces in Israel. The program staff are leaders in Israel’s burgeoning field of Jewish music and prayer. They aim to strengthen different pathways to prayer: both in the general public and in the synagogue. Program graduates will be active in their diverse communities – secular and religious, Orthodox, egalitarian, Reform and Conservative, Sephardic and Ashkenazic.
In the Sephardic track Bensoussan has the opportunity to learn nusach (prayer melodies) unique to Sephardim in Jerusalem as well as special nusachim tied to north Africa. Ashira is an opportunity to bring the beauty of prayer to others and explore one’s own prayer tradition and those of others. Said Bensoussan, “I can connect to my Judaism in the most appropriate way for me. People have deep respect for that which connects us, but also guard their own individual place. There’s not one right way.”
Bensoussan appreciates how Ashira emphasizes not only learning melodies but also prayer leadership: “It is important to examine the significance of prayer for the public, not just personal, but that which has importance for the community.” Being a prayer leader is challenging. It requires not only knowing the words and tunes of the prayer but also the ability to unite the congregation, to be aware of their mood and to try and bring them together to a higher plane. Before coming to Ashira, Bensoussan did a lot of praying and prayer leading and now that she is in the program, “I know how much I don’t know.” She is exposed to parts of her tradition of which even her learned father was not aware. She is studying piyyutim, liturgical poems: “I learned them, but to learn the “Rashi” of the poem–” the deeper meaning and interpretations behind them. Although many tunes she heard as a child, it is only in Ashira where she has learned the background, structure and history of different musical approaches. Bensoussan is a link in chain of tradition: “Until today I learned bits and pieces… and operated superficially. Now I’m sitting with somebody who knows piyuttim and when and how to pray them. [I have] the ability to be part of the link in that amazing chain of tradition.”