36 Under 36: Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 34

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Jewish Week, Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 34

Independent minyan leader pushing for new worship style

After graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer searched New York City for somewhere to pray. "We were looking for a place that would basically express our ideal davening community," says Kaunfer of the impetus for starting Hadar: An Institute for Prayer, Personal Growth and Jewish Study (mechonhadar.org). The organization,  includes an independent minyan that has spawned a network of independent minyanim across the country, as well as the first egalitarian yeshiva for lay people in America, is going on its second summer this year.

Ordained at JTS and a graduate of Harvard University, Kaunfer's vision for an ideal prayer community included a participatory, spirited, non-denominational service, a place that would include men and women equally while drawing on traditional liturgy —"something that would move your kishkes." Kehilat Hadar has become a model for other independent minyanim, and Kaunfer hopes Yeshivat Hadar will grow to be a full-time program for people who "desire to be empowered by Judaism and live in an intensive Jewish community."

In the next few years, Kaunfer hopes to see the expansion of independent minyanim and yeshivot across the country and to turn his summer yeshiva into a full-time program for lay leaders. This he will do with money from the Avi Chai Fellowship, of which he was a recipient this month. Kaunfer says of the yeshiva, "Institutionally it certainly has been a dream that reflects the values and community that I would like to be a part of. It's the yeshiva I wish I had gone to."
A post-denominational Jewish world:  "People are less concerned with denominational labels and more concerned with finding an appropriate intensive community to become empowered Jews." Coolest gig:  Kaunfer worked as a corporate fraud investigator, cold calling the likes of Enron employees to discuss their wrongdoings. He also investigated corruption in the New York City public schools, which on one occasion required him to wear a wire.

—Carolyn Slutsky

Joey Weisenberg, 26

Reviving ancient nigunim in Sabbath services

For years, young Jewish musicians in search of an aural history have turned to klezmer. Weisenberg, a mandolin player, is no exception. He plays in several klezmer revival groups today (good ones too: Michael Winograd Klezmer Ensemble; The Amazing Frosen String Quartet). But, Miller says, the klezmer revivalists "kind of gave it all to us. We didn't have to work so hard."

So he looked for a deeper musical tradition, and found it in centuries'-old  rabbinic hymns. Now, as music director for Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, he incorporates these hymns into Sabbath services centered on group participation. He calls his service "Joey Weisenberg's Spontaneous Jewish Choir," and has been expanding the practice by visits to synagogues throughout New York City. He also leads courses at the Jewish Theologocial Seminary and the University of Pennsylvania. "I want Jews to be comfortable dancing. I want them to be comfortable singing," he says.

Just don't call him Sholomo Carlebach, the storied American rabbi who also revived communal songs. "He came along and developed melodies that were so beautiful that people forgot the old ones," Weisenberg says of Carlebach.

Weisenberg's own service "takes melodies that are far older." Chiefly, he uses nigunim, wordless melodies chanted in repetition. They date as least as far back as the early-1700s, with many tunes attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidism; "songs that transcend syllables and sound," is how the rabbi described them. To be sure, Weisenberg's service isn't just old melodies. He includes plenty of prayer service classics — Adon Olam, Eliyahu Hanavi — but puts them to forgotten tunes. "Sometimes, people need the words to hang on to," Weisenberg says.

Musical inspiration: Ferus Mustafov, a Macedonian clarinetist

Favorite childhood memory growing up in Milwaukee: Watching car demolitions at the Miller Compressing pound with his grandfather

—Eric Herschthal