Hazzan Asa Fradkin

Hazzan Asa Fradkin is the hazzan at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, MD. He is a native of Baltimore.
Hazzan Asa Fradkin is the hazzan at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, MD. He is a native of Baltimore.

Faith Expectations- “Jews want their Rabbi to be the kind of Jew they don’t have the time to be”

Rabbis and Cantors are known for reusing material for sermons, songs, teachings, concerts, what have you.  I usually try to avoid that if I can absolutely help it; sometimes, though, if I get in a bind, I will bring something from one presentation and use it with another group.

That being said, this throwaway line from “Keeping the Faith” ,a turn of the millennia comedy starring Ben Stiller and Edward Norton ( guess who played the Rabbi?) , sparked quite the discussion in my final Scolnic class this past Wednesday night, and I felt it warranted a bit more exploration.

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Guess what, you ARE Religious

When I was growing up in Baltimore, I had a lot of family most of whom were somewhat observant and one side of my dad‘s family that were ultra orthodox. In Jewish Baltimore, it is not uncommon to see black hatters walking down the street on Shabbat and see women with their heads covered, wearing long black skirts even on the hottest days of the summer.

In fact one section of Baltimore is so religious, that you can find orthodox men and women wearing full religious garb at the JCC gym. I’ve seen women wearing a long skirt while doing the elliptical and men running the treadmill wearing tallit Katan and a kippah.

To me, that was what religious people looked like. Sure, I went to synagogue once or twice a month, and most Fridays we had Shabbat dinner, but in no way did I consider myself religious.

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What’s in a Parsha?

If you are a regular shul goer, you may not have been surprised to hear the recent Pew Study.

Essentially, it says that shul goers are 11% more likely than their non going counterparts to be happy.
Read more here.

I could spend some solid time here breaking down the reasons that this may be the case. We know that creating community, connecting with our friends and family, and enjoying a delicious Kiddush lunch are activities that can bring us meaning and fulfillment.

The fact remains that going to shul is a deeply ritualistic experience. We practice doing the same things over and over again, which some people find comforting, but many more people find monotonous.

That is why even the shul going crowd tends to arrive later, since one can still get their fill of davening and also enjoy the communal aspects of kibbutzing, kiddushing and schmoozing in general, after the service.

So what can we do to invigorate our experience in synagogue so that, comforting as it is, we raise it to a higher level; So that we go from the comfort of our practice, to devotional prayer? Continue reading →

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Meditating with Teens

Meditating with Teens

A couple of teens rushed up to me at the last second and asked if I still had space in the class. Pleasantly surprised, I scribbled their names down on the same day registration form in my hand.

They wanted to sign up for the Yoga and Meditation as part of the inter session classes the Religious School is offering in January.

It’s the second year we are offering the class, this time I’m teaching with a talented yoga teacher in the area.

Meditation can be challenging with teens. It requires vulnerability and self awareness; concepts that are right at the epicenter of teenage development.

We meditated on Jewish identity and responsibility, the things that make us Jews, and what we can undertake during this month to embrace our Jewish practice in a tangible way.

We also took time to journal some of these thoughts and some shared aspects of their Jewish identity with the group.

We talked about the Parsha and how Moses finds the courage to overcome both his Egyptian upbringing and his speech impediment and practiced Yoga poses that provided a vehicle for our own calm and strength, practiced in deep stretching and breathing.

In the coming weeks we will delve into each Parsha, concluding with the Ten Commandments, and how we hear God’s voice.

I just wanted to give you a glimpse of 12 teenagers in a circle, breathing together, meditating on their Jewish selves and practicing their Judaism.

For the parents who sent them, Thank You, for the rest of us, they should serve as an inspiration to us to keep practicing, breathing, stretching into our Jewish selves.

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Coming this Purim: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin

You know, I heard that Aretha Franklin’s funeral was eight hours long. EIGHT!!!!!

To be fair, the program was scheduled for 6 hours, so they were only over by 25% or so.
I guess they needed time for:  Faith Hill, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder Ron Isley, Chaka Khan, Yolanda Adams, Marvin Sapp, the Clark Sisters, Jennifer Holliday and Franklin’s son.

In addition, there were speeches from President Bill Clinton, Smokey Robinson, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Clive Davis, among others.

It was certainly a funeral and tribute befitting a queen.
And so will our Megillah Madness this year, which is entitled. “A Tribute to Aretha Franklin and Motown.” Continue reading →

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A New Chorus!

The other day, Rabbi Harris came into my office during a rehearsal and said, “please quiet down, I think people are having way too much fun in here!”

Some of you may know that back in Connecticut I ran a teen choir for 9 years that performed locally at Shabbat services and traveled nationally as well.

It was featured, at one point, in a promotional video for the Cantors assembly.  https://www.asafradkin.com/watch ( look for “Singing Is Just The Beginning”

It was the highlight of my time in Greenwich and the bonds I formed with those kids remain incredibly special to me.

When I came to Beth El I was amazed that we already had our own a capella teen choir, Marak HaYom, a stellar self run group of High School kids that meet for a few hours each Sunday. Continue reading →

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Two Songs, One Message and the power of children singing

So I was sitting in my office one day with a teen who is involved in our High School A Capella group, Marak Hayom ( Soup of the Day).

We were discussing their upcoming repertoire for the year and I asked if she’d heard this version of Hashem Melech by the Y-Studs A Capella group.

I start to  play the video and she says “This sounds familiar”. I say “Yeah, it came out a few years ago as an Israeli pop song by Gad Elbaz.” She says “ No, I’m pretty sure I had to learn this song for a 7thgrade Spanish class.”   After I rearranged my puzzled expression , she said she was pretty sure it’s a Mark Anthony song. Continue reading →

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Everyone is buzzing

Congregational Singing

It’s the “it phrase” for Hazzanim looking to get a good job out of school and the trend that veteran Cantors have needed to embrace in order to stay relevant.

It’s the title of a book by Joey Weisenberg, the musical director of Kehilat Hadar, a vibrant spiritual community in Manhattan. It’s also a movement that’s been around since the 1960’s, when the first Chavurah was established in Whittier, CA.

The whole idea of the Chavurah was to reject the large scale synagogue and its formalized worship with Cantor and Choir, which came to be seen as a performance and not engaging enough to the congregation. A staple of these groups was increased congregational singing.

Nearly 60 years into this paradigmatic shift, the synagogue service has become, in many places, a formalized version of the Chavurah.

Congregational melodies are central to the experience, and the Cantor usually davens without a choir, with few moments of Hazzanut, or ornamental and artistic renderings of the text.

But something in this great swing of the pendulum has been lost. What of the congregations whose musical life flourished under the traditional Cantor and Choir?

How did they “participate” before the days of commonplace congregational tunes?

It turns out they often participated without “singing” at all.  A tradition of accompanying the Hazzan with a drone of humming underneath has been practiced in shul for centuries. Dating to medieval Germany.

We did this on Rosh HaShanah. And at times, it was very very powerful. I sang long held notes, and you hummed the chords beneath me. You were the choir. A choir of 800!!

Change is good, change helps us grow. People love singing the tunes they know, I love hearing the whole sanctuary sing B’Rosh HaShanah together.

But we need all of ourselves in the communal davening. When we hum along, filling in the nusach, it’s magical and it keeps us all constantly present and engaged. Not simply waiting for the next familiar tune.

We have started something really amazing, or perhaps revived? I heard we used to do it at Beth El in the 50’s.

So as Yom Kippur approaches let us continue to buzz and to hum and tell each other, Hineni, here I am. I’m ALL IN, ready to give myself to prayer.

Shabbat Shalom

Hazzan Fradkin

Sent from my iPhone

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And now for something completely different.

And now for something completely different….

A reflection on the High Holidays and a new RH 2nd night Mindfulness Service.

The High Holidays. The pinnacle of our yearly davening experience. It is the moment when thousands of us gather to offer our prayers to God with a communal magnitude that only happens 2 or 3 days each year.

It’s a tremendously powerful experience filled with memory, longing, fragility and loss.

On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are to remember all that has transpired in our year while hoping that God remembers us for another year of life ( Zochreinu L’Hayyim).

We experience so much in a year, and the Yamim Noraim- the days of awe- are the only time our liturgy overtly asks us to remember and to learn from the totality of this year.

Yes, the liturgy instructs us to do tshuvah for our sins, but the holidays are more than just a plea for clemency, they are an accounting- a Heshbon Nefesh- to see how our souls are faring.

And we come before God broken, knowing that we have failed and cannot even approach the perfection of the divine.  This is reflected in the liturgy as well. ( Ki Hineh KaChomer)

But it’s also in the the fragility of our bodies, our minds and the losses we endure. We are human and we must continually strive to be holy and pursue God’s likeness.

These struggles are all contained within the enormity of our HH experience. Between the meals, the family, the kids and the long hours of davening, when do we have time to reflect on the sacred nature of the Days themselves?

I offer you the opportunity to join me this year on the 2nd evening of RH to do just that. For an hour, we will put away all that clutters our lives and spend time reflecting on the year, ourselves and finding a way to seek renewal during these days of awe.

They should indeed be that; days when we can look at ourselves, at the heavens and be in awe of it all, experiencing every emotion we are blessed to call human and knowing that in these days we have uplifted ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom

Hazzan Fradkin 


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Davening in Sicily

Naso, Italy

You know those postcards with impossibly beautiful scenery, meant to inspire awe and jealousy in your friends and family?

Well, living in Sicily for two weeks is like waking up every morning inside that mail sized marketing campaign. No picture, video, spoken or written word can prepare you for the beauty that awaits you each morning, the sweeping views of the mountainside, valleys, and blue-green Mediterranean sea.

By the way, did you know there’s a Bracha for seeing the mediterranean? It’s Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam SheAsah Et HaYam HaGadol.

Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the great sea.

There’s actually a debate over whether the blessing should end with “the great sea” because that is normally reserved for oceans. Some say it should be “Oseh Maaseh Breishit” Creator of the works/wonders of creation.

As you might have guessed, there isn’t a terrifically large Jewish population in Sicily any longer, although before the expulsion in 1492 there was a community in Palermo dating to the beginning of the modern era.

In our tiny town of Naso, there was even a small synagogue before WW II, as some of the residents recounted to me. But in 2018, there isn’t even a minyan left, so I took up davening next to my bed, looking over the mountains of Sicily. We were only 20 miles from Mt Aetna. Continue reading →

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