Song of myself



August 17, 2018

Maybe learning something new is more difficult than learning something where you’ve already got some experience. But I imagine there’s a curve where learning becomes much more difficult again when it’s in an area where you’ve got expertise. To return to a topic as a learner when people have looked to you as the expert or professional can be a really challenging. I found that Hillel’s Dwell gathering this summer did that for me on two topics, taking me to a place of discomfort from which I really grew.

One of the two significant pieces around which I got to return to learning had to do with music. Starting in high school, I’ve played guitar and bass in rock, jazz, blues, funk and folk groups in North Carolina, Israel, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. I’ve played studio sessions for other musicians, as well as gigs in front of thousands of people.

What I’ve never done is serve as a Jewish song leader. And truth be told, I’ve never liked my voice all that much either, since I’ve never been able to sing anywhere near as well as I can play.

Dwell brought me out of that comfort zone for the first time in over a decade. I sang in a session called “Anyone Can Be a Song Leader” with Rabbi Pesach Stadlin. Dwell’s musical instigator, Zack Mayer, asked me to be one of his singers at the front of the room for the tisch at the end of the gathering. Against my judgment and my own sense of comfort, I agreed.  Against my expectations, I loved it. I hadn’t sang with such joy and abandon since I was in high school.

The other place where I stepped into being a learner was around Shabbat, as part of the WorkshopShabbat initiative of Hillel International. This was also not an easy thing to step into. Through rabbinical school and my serving a congregation, I’ve spent over a decade professionally leading, crafting, and hosting Shabbat.  But in the WorkshopShabbat group, I found myself in a group tasked with decorating and design— neither of which would I consider a strength of mine.  

Working with other Hillel professionals, we put together a Shabbat room that was beautiful, and evoked a deep sense of peace and rest. It wasn’t a task that I found comfortable, but throwing myself into it, I found it exhilarating, with an end result that I couldn’t believe. I found myself marveling at the way in which design could refocus the experience, when my attention had been so captured by ritual and liturgy for so many years.

Both music and Shabbat are parts of my life where I’ve got over a decade of amateur or professional experience.  

As such, it was really hard to set aside my experience to focus on aspects that I found most uncomfortable — singing niggunim (Jewish wordless melodies) and song leading, as well as focusing on aesthetic design of Shabbat.

Adopting a posture of humility to enter into productive discomfort isn’t easy. But I’m even more impressed by the way in which Hillel created an intentional space at Dwell to provoke that. Creating spaces in which we can turn and return as learners, setting aside years of experience and success to play as children, was revitalizing.  

Turning and returning to that kind of deep learning struck me as an incredible gift that I’d like to bring to my own students and learners. As senior Jewish educator for Hillel at the University of Delaware, I’m excited to bring this kind of learning and revitalization to our students. I know many will be entirely new to Jewish experiences and community. For others who feel a sense of expertise and ownership, I look forward to helping them find the places of creative discomfort from which they can grow most deeply and soulfully.

Rabbi Nick Renner is the senior Jewish educator at Hillel at the University of Delaware. He lives in Wilmington with his wife Kimmy and son Isaac.