Song and prayer often go hand in hand as a way to express the celebration of one's spirituality. Rabbi Jonathan Kligler knows this firsthand as both the spiritual leader of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation Kehillat Lev Shalem and as an established folk musician. For more than two decades, he's incorporated song and creative expression as integral parts of his services. "I've been playing guitar since I was a kid—Pete Seeger's one of my heroes—and I've been leading groups in song since I was a teen camp counselor," he says. "So in my services, one of my chief pleasures is to lead people in singing. It's very informal, yet participatory."
Rabbi Jonathan is trained in the Reconstructionalist tradition of Judaism, which he explains as a small movement that understands Judaism as an evolving culture. "We participate in this evolution by drawing wisdom from the past and making it present," he says. "One goal of our congregation is to keep Judaism alive—and by alive, I mean full of vitality. We do this by not just going through the motions, but by keeping an openness and willingness to change things that are outdated. As I like to say, we're seekers—we don't have the answers, we have the questions."
Kligler, a former dance, mime, and creative movement teacher, had never intended on becoming a rabbi. After attending Wesleyan University, he began teaching creative endeavors until—like many leaders—he felt he was being called upon to do something greater. "In 1983 I was involved in Jewish life but not seriously, then suddenly had a real 'A ha!' moment: I felt a calling to go to rabbinical school. I was not thinking about it all before, but after reflection it was clear that it was a way to connect back to the Jewish world, which I cared about very much," he says.
Besides using music as an integral part of the congregation's services, Kligler incorporates the creative arts through his fund-raising CDs. "One day in 1997 I played a fund-raising concert at the synagogue, and we happened to tape it," he explains. "When we played it back, we thought it came out so well that we decided to engineer it and sell it as another fund-raiser for the congregation. People loved it so we did it a few more times." He's recorded four to date but his most prized is Let My People Go: A Jewish and African American Celebration of Freedom, which he recorded with musicians Kim and Reggie Harris. "My friend Reggie and I were talking one day and we realized the Jewish music about exodus and African music about exodus were both inspirations to our respective communities—he's African American—to strive for freedom." The successful album has allowed them to bring the music on the road to places such as Denver, Philadelphia, St. Thomas, Martha's Vineyard, and Austria. "I see it as a great way to connect two cultures," he explains. "Organized religion is not necessarily a bad thing. It's what people do with it in terms of making it exclusive or intolerant that makes it bad. But you can organize with other values in mind that are open and loving to all, and that's what we're trying to do."