“Zol soyn kumen di ge’ulah—May our Salvation come.”
“Moshiach kumt shoyn bald—The Messiah will soon be heard.”
In the midst of an almost 150-year-old church building, the congregation of the United Parish of Brookline joined Cantor Hollis Schachner of Temple Shir Tikva in singing the chorus of this Yiddish poem. It was the closing song of their Sunday morning worship, and the power of the moment was evident for all who were present. A Christian community in Brookline was singing a poem written by Shemerke Kaczerginski to raise the morale of Holocaust survivors in displaced person camps with a composition by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Cook, the first chief rabbi of Israel. The hope for salvation and a messianic age felt tangible in that moment.
For several years, our communities (Temple Shir Tikva and the United Parish in Brookline) have joined together for an annual shared weekend of worship. Members of the church come to Wayland for a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service, and then members of the synagogue visit Brookline for their Sunday morning service. At the heart of this collaboration is the friendship and partnership of Cantor Hollis Schachner and Minister of Music Susan DeSelms. The two were introduced shortly after Hollis moved to Massachusetts, and they started working together as Susan became the choir director at the temple alongside her responsibilities at the church. This led to a beautiful friendship that started with them and spread quickly to encompass both communities, with the choirs frequently collaborating for services and concerts.
For the past two years, our communities have been forced to gather digitally, unable to host one another physically in our respective sanctuaries. This has not stopped the choirs from finding ways to share their musical gifts with each other via videos that Susan orchestrated, recorded and arranged, adding a further qualification to her burgeoning service-leading resume. This year, we were finally going to be able to be back together again.
Against this backdrop, the United Parish in Brookline has embarked on a fantastic project around the singing of Negro spirituals in their services. These songs, written by enslaved Black Americans, have become a staple of American culture and an important part of Christian (and, in some cases, Jewish) worship. But the composers and writers are unknown, and the songs have been used without compensation or royalties for generations. Since October 2021, Susan and the United Parish in Brookline have been working to give the creators of this music recognition and to pay long-overdue royalties by donating the church’s plate offering to Hamilton-Garrett Music and Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to passing on and preserving the legacy of Black music. (You can read more about this wonderful project in this article from NPR.)
In the lead-up to this year’s joint service, Susan shared the story of the Negro spirituals project on Temple Shir Tikva’s digital bimah during a Shabbat service, and there was clearly a strong desire to make that a focal point of the shared weekend of worship. To truly share our traditions, there was a need to find a Jewish parallel to offer alongside the spirituals. For Hollis and Susan, the answer lay in Yiddish music and some of those prayers and songs that were composed in the face of tragedy and suffering. This Yiddish music contains within it the parallel sound of hope in the midst of despair, resilience in refusing to be broken and a faith that things can and will be better.
This was how we came to be in Brookline, listening to a church community singing a Yiddish poem as the closing song of their worship service (you can view it here). As I looked around this historic sanctuary, I was overcome by the sight and sounds of this community joining in singing these Yiddish words. I wondered what Shemerke Kaczerginski would have thought of his morale-raising poem having been transported from displaced person camps in Europe to a church in America. In the past few weeks, I have read a lot about the rising levels of antisemitism and hate in this country—it paints a bleak picture. And yet here I was, joining with a community of my Christian brothers and sisters, singing a Yiddish poem about imminent salvation and the Messiah coming. This, too, is America in 2022, and this is the America that I want to celebrate, that I want to nurture and that I want to live in. And these are the stories that I want people to read about—to know the ways in which communities are coming together, celebrating our differences and diversity, united in hope and faith that things can and will be better.
“May our Salvation come. The Messiah will soon be heard.” The Yiddish words of this poem rang out in a church in Brookline. And in that moment, it wasn’t a promise for the future; in that moment, I think everyone was able to get a taste of what the messianic age will really sound like, and let me tell you—it was beautiful.
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