Musical welcome suits a rabbi steeped in jazz

Musical welcome suits a rabbi steeped in jazz

At his installation ceremony at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue, Rabbi Greg Wall holds aloft the silver yad he received from congregation president David Landis, left, and chairman Matthew Pace.
At his installation ceremony at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue, Rabbi Greg Wall holds aloft the silver yad he received from congregation president David Landis, left, and chairman Matthew Pace.

Jazz merged with Judaism at an East Village synagogue as saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer Greg Wall was installed as its new rabbi on Oct. 31, the night of his 50th birthday.

Wall, who resides in Livingston, will move his five-member family to Manhattan on weekends to be within walking distance of his new post at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue.

The installation at the 70-year-old Orthodox shul began with a Havdala ceremony led by guitarist Seth Glass, assisted by the rabbi’s seven-year-old son, Abie.

Abie joined the rest of Wall’s family — his wife, Rona, daughter Martha, and older son Sam — in front of the ark as congregation president David Landis and chairman Matthew Pace presented their new rabbi with a gold yad.

Wall held the Torah pointer aloft and referred to it as “the fickle finger of fate,” signaling the start of an evening filled with humor and informality.

“I can’t support my family as a rabbi so I’m lucky to have something secure, like being a jazz musician, to fall back on,” he joked.

The bima became a bandstand, as the rabbi, a well-known figure in jazz, klezmer, and world music circles, took turns performing on soprano and tenor saxophones, then clarinet. He was backed by an ever-changing array of musicians, including a hasidic accordion player and a trio of African Muslim percussionists.

“It was really one of the high points of my life,” Wall reflected a day after the ceremony. “It was the nexus of a lot of things I’ve done that all came together.

Wall — raised in a Reform Jewish home in a Boston suburb — said he was moved to a more observant religious life after hearing the spiritual message of the 1965 album A Love Supreme, saxophonist John Coltrane’s homage to “a higher power.” The rabbi also lists Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Colman Hawkins, and Raasahn Roland Kirk among his musical influences.

His formal move to Orthodoxy began after his children enrolled in Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston about a decade ago. He intensified his own studies, entered the Livingston Community Kollel at the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center, and, in 2006 and 2007, received ordination from two Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem.

In the musical world, Wall cemented his reputation as a member of two hybrid avant garde/traditional ensembles, Hasidic New Wave and Later Prophets and through his playing with such artists as Neshama Carlebach, Klezmerfest, and The Piamenta Band. Locally, he served as the artistic director of the JCC MetroWest New Jersey Jewish Music Festival.

Wall said he believes that “spiritual pursuits and jazz are not incompatible at all.”

But, he told NJJN, some members of the congregation’s search committee were “very, very skeptical” when he applied for a position he really didn’t expect to get.

“I thought my first rabbinic job would be 10 years hence in East Podunk or Des Moines, where I could get some experience and they would be happy to have a rabbi with a pulse,” he said.

Now that he is officially its religious leader, Wall wants to make the Sixth Street Community Synagogue a center for the arts.

“We can focus on the intersection of Jewish culture and the arts in a way that reflects the demographics of the Lower East Side with a modern cutting edge. I can’t imagine that we will be doing a lot of programming that’s done in more traditional Jewish communities. We’re not into a lot of ‘oom-pah, oom-pah’ stuff,” he said.

The rabbi defines his new congregation as “eclectic Orthodox. People come with all sorts of differences. I don’t ask people to show me ID and I don’t care how Orthodox they are in their practice. Our synagogue is governed by Jewish law, but we welcome people from all different traditions, and we are creating an environment where all people feel comfortable.”

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