The Jazz Rabbi has a new gig. Saxophonist Greg Wall, who spent three years making klezmer and jazz concerts a staple at an East Village congregation, has a new pulpit in Connecticut. On August 1 Wall began work at Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport and Norwalk. The shul, which has 65 families, is located in Westport and is described as a traditional Orthodox synagogue with a very diverse membership.
“They are excited about a rabbi that could bring arts into their community,” the 53-year-old rabbi told the Forward.
Wall’s official installation will take place Saturday, November 23 and while there may not be angels with trumpets heralding his arrival, Wall promises the evening will include a musical blast with performances by the Unity Orchestra, Later Prophets and possibly Jon Madoff’s Zion 80.
Wall learned that the Westport shul was looking for a rabbi from a regular at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue in the East Village who grew up in Westport. One of three finalists for the job invited to celebrate Shabbos with the congregation, Wall walked into shul and saw Ricky Orbach, founder of the Jewish arts group Joodayoh Inc., who helped Wall land his first pulpit at the Sixth Street synagogue.
During the time Wall spent with the East Village congregation, he organized arts programming four nights a week but every musical event was paired with a class that furthered Jewish literacy. He did it while commuting from New Jersey and continuing his life as a professional musician. He says he left the Orthodox shul because “I could no longer afford to be the rabbi there.” The Sixth Street Community Synagogue’s finances took a serious hit as a result of costly litigation with the rabbi Simon Jacobson, whose Meaningful Life Center was renting space with the shul.
“I learned about creating community there,” Wall says of the three years he spent with the East Village congregation. He also learned that a rabbi needs to live with his congregation, something Wall says he couldn’t afford to do in the pricey East Village. That won’t be a problem now that he has moved to Westport, which isn’t exactly known for its affordable housing.
In the year between pulpits Wall was gigging, recording and touring more frequently. He conducted high holy day services at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut and was scholar in residence at the Carlebach Shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“They don’t want me to duplicate what I did at Sixth Street,” Wall says of his new Westport congregation. He plans on starting up a Hebrew school with a beit midrash model in which every kid has a tutor, and inaugurating something called Shul of Rock, in which young people — and adults — can come to jam but also have some sort of a Jewish experience at the same time.
“It’s another way to combine things rather than compartmentalize,” Wall said.