On the final night of the JWA Summer Institute for Educators, we wrapped with a fun and moving final session on Jewish Gospel Music. (A genre that many of us didn’t know existed, but that we’re now all humming the tunes of.) Musician and educator Yavilah McCoy not only sang us “Adon Olam” to the tune of a spiritual, but she got us all to join in on the rousing choruses of classics like “Go Down, Moses,” “By the Rivers of Babylon,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Down by the Riverside.” I think my favorite line of the latter was “I’m gonna sing with JWA/ Down by the riverside,/ Ain’t gonna study war no more.”
It was a special experience for many of us who had grown up singing versions of these songs in one context or another to recognize them as both Jewish and Gospel pieces, and to see already beloved songs by artists like Bob Dylan in a new light. McCoy gave us the cultural and historical context for each song, and urged us to claim and love them as parts of Jewish as well as African-American heritage. McCoy also told us her own family’s history. They were the descendants of slaves who became Jews, through spiritual affiliation or formal conversion, partly because they identified with the cultural memories of slavery ingrained in Jewish tradition.
Of course, music was a huge part of the Civil Rights Movement, and realizing that how many songs of protest that activists sang during this time had Jewish roots resonated deeply with the Living the Legacy curriculum.
A night of Jewish Gospel was a very special way to end a very special week. Institute participants had many opportunities to form connections with each other during small and large group sessions, and to start conversations that continued through meals, breaks, and van rides. I think it’s safe to say that many long-lasting personal and professional relationships were formed during the week of the Institute, and singing– in Hebrew and English, to Gospel tunes– was a wonderful way to say goodbye to one another…until the next time we meet.
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