Thursday, January 19, 2017


JTASaul Kaye never wanted to be a “Jewish blues” player.
In his opinion, the Jewish music he had heard growing up in Northern California’s Bay Area ranged from “really bad to horrible.”
In 2009, he was touring as a rock musician, playing hundreds of shows a year with various bands at bars and clubs. And though he had never been very religious, he experienced a bad breakup and felt the need to do something spiritually “radical.”
So Kaye decided to take a Talmud course at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel. One morning, a fellow student approached him and left him with an intriguing prophecy.
“He says, ‘Saul, there’s a reason you’re at a yeshiva and you know who Muddy Waters is — you have to figure it out,’” Kaye said. “I let that marinate for a while and I thought: Why is there no Jewish blues music? It doesn’t make sense. Our people have suffered forever, and blues is about suffering, blues comes out of the slavery experience. How come no one has put this together yet?”
Eight years later, Kaye is now seen by many as the “king” of Jewish blues, having released four albums in the genre that range from twangy fingerpicking to more uptempo electric rock in the vein of B.B. King. He plays over 100 shows a year at synagogues, Jewish conferences and festivals across the country — that’s down from the more than 200 shows he was playing a few years ago, but that’s because Kaye is now a father of two.
Kaye is part of a growing trend of Jewish musicians who combine Jewish spiritual or religious lyrics with Americana music — an umbrella term that encompasses genres such as blues, bluegrass, folk and country, as well as a distinctly homegrown, old-fashioned American sensibility.
Since Jews were viewed as immigrants in the United States for a large part of the 20th century — and are still widely seen as an ethnic “other” in American society — Jewish music and Americana, at first glance, seem an unlikely mixture.
But in addition to Kaye, artists such as Nefesh Mountain, a husband-and-wife bluegrass duo from New Jersey, and Joe Buchanan, a convert to Judaism from Houston who plays James Taylor-esque country, are gaining in popularity on the national Jewish music circuit. Joey Weisenberg, a Brooklyn-based prayer leader and music teacher, has garnered praise for his modern bluesy, indie rock-inspired takes on “niggunim,” or traditional Jewish melodies.
These musicians are building upon the foundation laid by other artists such as Andy Statman (an Orthodox, Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist who plays bluegrass with his eponymous trio), Jeremiah Lockwood (leader of the band The Sway Machinery who is also known for his virtuosic blues guitar playing) and Klezmatics co-founder Margot Leverett (whose group, Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys, combines klezmer and bluegrass.)
Of course, American Jews have long incorporated spiritual music with the popular: in the 1960s and ’70s, for example, Jewish music icons Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman turned prayers and Jewish melodies into folk songs that are still sung today.
But the signs are indicating that Americana could be having its biggest moment in the Jewish community right now. The trend follows a train of greater experimentation throughout the Jewish music world.
“For a long time, it felt like the only artists that we were representing or were out there in congregations were a guy or girl with an acoustic guitar, singing acoustic music, singing Debbie Friedman kind of music,” said Mark Pelavin, the chief programming officer for the Union for Reform Judaism, which invites groups at the top of the Jewish music scene to play for the 5,000 attendees at its annual biennial.
“I think now there’s an interest in a greater diversity of musical styles across the board,” he said. “Some of it’s funkier — more drums, bass and loops — and some of it’s twangier. There’s a lot of experimentation going on right now.”
Over the past decade, Americana has seen a comeback in the broader pop music world. The British band Mumford and Sons, which plays a combination of bluegrass, folk and indie rock, has sold millions of albums worldwide since 2009. In 2010, the Grammys instituted a Best Americana Album award. And last May, Billboard began devoting an album chart to Americana and folk records.

“Jews have always taken popular music and brought it into shul because that brings people into shul,” said Kaye, who has also begun leading Shabbat services on his tours. “There’s been a resurgence in coming back to more organic music because it just resonates — wooden strings in a room is a physical feeling that you aren’t going to get from techno, dubstep, house, trance or whatever other million genres.”
In the end, American Jewish music and Americana music might actually be two sides of the same coin. While Jewish musicians brought their European influences with them when they immigrated to the U.S., they’ve been forging their own American musical style for nearly half a century, according to Mark Kligman, an ethnomusicologist at UCLA.
“In the ’50s and ’60s, most of American Judaism was leaning towards trying to find its Americanness,” he said. “[Jews] took European elements — cantorial klezmer and other things — and started adapting those. By the time you have an American-born generation in the 1970s, around [the time of] Debbie Friedman … they wanted to have an American-born tradition.”
Still, for many, the juxtaposition is a bit unusual. According to Nefesh Mountain’s Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, even after two years of using the term “Jewish bluegrass,” some people still laugh at it at first.
“But what we’re doing is not goofy at all, it’s very soulful and very honest,” Zasloff said.
The group has found serious success, touring the country constantly. Nefesh Mountain is in the midst of recording its second album with some of the world’s most respected bluegrass artists, such as mandolin player Sam Bush, guitarist David Grier and banjo player Tony Trishka.
Joe Buchanan, a 40-year-old former human resources manager who grew up Christian in Houston, often recounts to his concert audiences how converting to Judaism resolved his self-esteem issues. Like Kaye, who produced Buchanan’s debut album a couple of years ago, he thinks that the country music he was raised on, along with other Americana genres, go well with Jewish culture.
“Americana is strong in storytelling, which is something that we’ve always been really good at as a people,” he said. “It’s a huge part of it; we’re always telling stories from the Torah.”
“If someone asked me how to describe Americana music, I would tell them: Imagine country music and rock and roll had a child, and it was raised by their uncle bluegrass, and their other uncle blues music and cousin folk came over and spent a lot of time — that child is Americana music,” he said. “That and Jewish storytelling is a natural fit.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Mayanot Community Comes Together In A Big Way!

Mayanot educational center in Israel is raising $2,500,000 to build a new, state of the art center to help them continue to connect young Jewish people to their heritage and future.
Mayanot opened its doors in 1996, in their warm yet modest home.

Their goal then and now, is to connect young Jewish people from around the world to their past, present and future, truly acting as crossroads of Jewish life for many throughout the years. From the birth of the Women’s Program in 1998, and the launch of Mayanot’s Birthright Israel program in 1999 to the start of the Post High School Gap Year program just last year, Mayanot has always been building the Jewish community.

Today, Mayanot is moving to the next phase, building the Mayanot World Center.

The Future World Center, located just beyond Jerusalem’s city entrance, boasts five floors and will more than double the size of Mayanot’s current facilities. With it’s rooftop, panoramic views of the city, the new center will become the main hub for many of the organization's existing programs and will be the catalyst for the creation of several more.

Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, co-founder and director of Mayanot, described it as a “Center for Chabad Outreach in the heart of Jerusalem.” The centrally located property will house a study hall, lecture halls, classrooms, internship opportunities and roughly 220 beds, offering more than “80,000 nights of Mayanot!”

The center will include accommodations for Shluchim, particularly those on Campuses worldwide. With the opening of the World Center, Mayanot will have the ability to host Shluchim and their communities for Shabbatons, volunteer programs, internships and much more.

“Our location in Jerusalem gives a unique opportunity to bring the dream to reality,” said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, co-director of Mayanot. “As a top destination for young Jewish travellers, Jerusalem is the place where the Jewish soul becomes hungry. Mayanot will be there to feed that hunger.”

In addition to the Mayanot Institute’s educational programming, the new Word Center will usher a new era in Mayanot’s offerings for today’s Jewish youth. Among the new projects, Mayanot will house a state of the art Lone Soldier Center, complete with a lounge, laundry facilities, break room and more. “Nothing is more important than giving back to those who already give so much to us” Rabbi Gestetner said.

“We are coming back to you, you who have gotten us this far, to help us move this project to the next level,” Rabbi Shemtov concluded. “Together we can do this, Let’s build it!”

On Wednesday Dec 21st, Mayanot took their cause to the masses with the 2.5 million dollar #LetsBuidlIt Campaign. The masses responded with a resounding YES!

With 1443 individual donors contributing, Mayanot was able to raise $2,870,979 in 28 hours. These contributions not only helped Mayanot beat their previous goal, but stands as a beautiful reminder, of how important the mission of strengthening the Jewish people through inspirational Jewish education is to so many people. The donations from the campaign will go directly toward funding the construction of the Mayanot World Center.

Mayanot thanks the several generous matchers & Mayanot family members, that made this campaign possible and with whose help, every dollar donated to the campaign was quadrupled.

Click here for everything you need to know about the Mayanot World Center.

Learn more on Facebook (Men’s Women’s)

Have questions or want to get more involved?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Mayanot Spotlight: An 8 Part Series, Featuring Hanna Bergman

1.      It was only after her mother embarked on a spiritual journey that Hanna Bergman learned about Judaism, not because her father is a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia.

In fact Hanna was already 13 when she learned of her father’s past. That’s when her Christian-born mother’s wide-reaching religious search ultimately led the family to the door of the local synagogue. One Friday afternoon in 1997, Hanna returned from school to a novel sight. “The table was all in white, filled with food and candle holders. My mother sat us down and said, ‘We’re Jewish now. We’re going to start keeping Shabbat. We don’t use electricity on that day and we’re going to keep kosher.’ I had to phone my friend and tell her I wouldn’t be going out with her that night.”

After an intensive year of her mother reading and learning, the next year the entire family converted. “It made my father very happy,” Hanna recalls. And that’s when they learned his whole story. Having lost his father in the camps, he had been unable to speak of his experiences. “He’d get upset when we’d ask him questions so we didn’t really probe too much”.

Hanna decided to live her dream – and her parents’ -- with her first visit to Israel two years ago, to participate in the Mayanot women’s program for three months. (She follows on the heels of her brother, who made aliyah and served in the IDF six years ago). 

In a voice that revealed her South African roots, having also spent many years in her mother’s native country of Namibia, Hanna described her own journey, including the pivotal moment when a Cape Town rabbi told her about the Mayanot program. “I only knew that I wanted to increase my Yiddishkeit in Israel and the name Mayanot kept coming up again and again.”

Hanna’s favorite class was “Halacha,” she shared without hesitation. “I’m a person who loves structure, so I love Jewish law. It’s about committing to Hashem in definite ways. I also enjoy Chassidut; it’s an inner refinement, a whole new way of looking at life, and it’s also amazing.” These are not things most of us are able to think about in our ordinary lives, she added. “When you learn how to serve G-d with your whole self, it puts your ego in the right proportion and moves you out of ruts you’re stuck in. With teachers so knowledgeable but also so open-mined and patient, here you are free to become who you were meant to be."


If you are interested in being featured, or sending us a testimonial about your experience at Mayanot, please email us at: 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Alumni Spotlight: An 8 part series with Augusta Niles

Since she was little, Augusta Niles has always been a person who’s hungered to know “the why and the how of the world-- that’s why I went into engineering, to figure out exactly how things work.” That’s also why many years later, the Vermont native landed herself in Jerusalem, for the opportunity to learn at Mayanot.

“I grew up with very little religion in my home, and I didn’t know where to turn,” says Augusta, who was in the midst of her conversion process. One day she picked up a copy of Harold Kushner’s classic, “To Life!” and following that, “A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism.” Before long she was listening to shiurim online, test-driving Shabbat and every week adding more observances and attending services at the Harvard Chabad and Hillel, all the while taking her Master’s degree in engineering and business at MIT. At Chabad, she met two women, both Mayanot alumnae, who told her that Mayanot is a “good place to grow into your Jewish skin.” 

So after graduation, Augusta told her future employers at Amazon in Seattle that she wouldn’t see them till the fall, because she had something very important to do first: learn everything she could about what it is to be a Jew. “I remember how Rabbi Wineberg came to the Chabad and spoke about real freedom as not being free to do whatever you want at the moment but the freedom to connect with our Creator. He told us that that is the greatest joy in life.” 

Rabbi Shneur Wineberg, who regularly recruits at Harvard University, says, "Mayanot offers a chance for personal investment, something that is regularly taken for granted in today's society. Careers need investing in, but we ourselves also need an investment. At Mayanot, students get a chance to grow within themselves, learn about their own lives purpose, ask the questions that aren't addressed in everyday life but which can make a huge difference in a person’s overall fulfillment."

“My career used to define my identity”, Augusta said. “But I could see how much I had to learn about Judaism and also how much I needed a supportive community around me. All of a sudden,” she continued, “I began to realize that these things were not just more important theoretically, but that it was vital to take action and to devote real time to growing myself.”

All of which she felt she found at Mayanot. In addition to the fundamental Jewish skills she’d been seeking, Augusta surprised herself with how quickly she learnt Hebrew. “It’s incredible that a whole new language can come together in just a few weeks,” she noted. “My memory’s not very good but for some reason when it comes to Judaism, everything just sticks.” She also calls Mayanot “my first community really steeped in Judaism. I feel such a love and respect for all the girls here who come from all over, talented beautiful souls wanting to do so much for the world.” And, she added, she “didn’t realize until I came to Mayanot that if you truly immerse yourself and take the time to let the learning seep into you, you are transformed. I can see the Hand of G-d in my life on a daily basis here. I hope that, even after I leave, I can see everyone who approaches me with that same kind of baseless love.”

Help us create more stories like this one. 
Spread the word, Mayanot will be raising $2M starting on Dec 21st, ONE DAY ONLY! 
Every dollar is x4! Lets Build Mayanot! 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Inspired to Inspire

“Troubled Times” By Rocky & The Goldstein

Mayanot Men's Program Alumni Yerachmiel Goldstein and Isaac Schapira collaborated on this incredible project to bring music to the masses. Have a listen! 

Although I can take credit for the music, the lyrics of Troubled Times were entirely composed by a Mr. Isaac Schapira. The songs tells of trying times, hard earned lessons from our fathers and a simple trust in the L-rd above,
Lyrics by Isaac Schapira
Music by Rocky (Yerachmiel) Goldstein
When I was very young
My old man told me son
This whole world will put you to the test
But when things in life go bust
You must have the simple trust
That everything in life is for the best
It’s hard to stand your ground
When the wolves are circling round
Sometime I think I lack the strength to fight
But I remember my old man
Drinking beer straight from the can
Telling me that things will be alright
You’ll see troubled time my friend
And I know you will contend
With the challenges that every man must face
But if you look back on your years
You’ll see the worst of all your fears
Were calamities that never did take place
When my ship is far from port
And my main sheet comes up short
And I feel as though the wind has left my sail
Well I just sit and think things through
And remember that this too
Was a test I was never meant to fail
Man is born to strive
For as long as he’s alive
The day is short and the list of tasks are long
But when things don’t go as planned
I remember my old man
And those words of his have never steered me wrong
Now that I am grown
With some sons to call my own
I’m raising them the only way I can
And if they trust the one on high
I know they can get by
With the wisdom that I got from my old man
When harvest time begins
And my crops are looking slim
And the winter time is not so far away
I might tighten up my belt
But that snow is bound to melt
When it does we’ll see a better day
You’ll see troubled times my friend
And I know you will contend
With the challenges that every man must face
But if you look back on your years
You’ll see the worst of all your fears
Were calamities that never did take place
As seen on 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Alumni Spotlight: An 8 Part Series with Joshua Zimmerman

It took Joshua Zimmerman till he got to college to see how stunted his Jewish education had been up until that moment. “That’s when I began to see that, if you stopped your learning at your bar mitzvah, you go through the rest of your life with barely a seventh grade Jewish education,” said Joshua. “If you were an engineer, how could you do your job with barely a seventh grade education? Sorry but you couldn’t.”

Since he figured he wouldn’t have adequate knowledge to be able to accept or reject something he didn’t understand, Joshua knew he needed to learn more about his own religion. Fortunately, at the University of Central Florida he encountered a rabbi named Chaim Boruch Lipskier, who had a profound impact on him, inspiring in him the desire to become more observant and wear a kippa every day. More than four years ago he became Shomer Shabbat and, when he finished his degree in archaeology and film three years ago, he began seriously considering a yeshiva experience in Israel, something that would take his learning even deeper.

“It was another culture at Mayanot,” Joshua said who was 23 at the time. “Mayanot is a bit like Hogwarts (the academy featured in the Harry Potter novels). The same way wizards in Hogwarts are learning wizardry, we as Jews are learning Jewry. We’re learning how to become our best selves.”

One example of the “best self” is from his Jewish Ethics class where he learned that, in marriage you don’t marry a person but the other half of your soul, “that it’s up to each of us to find a person who can help each of us become a better person.”

Joshua’s favorite classes were, Jewish history, certainly and of course Talmud. “Talmud is the basis of what it means to be a bachur, a student.” Calling the learning at Mayanot “absolutely amazing,” he added with a sigh that “I really don’t want to go back yet. I see this as my last real chance to have the taste of yeshiva, to really grow Jewishly in such an incredible environment.” Joshua is determined to put his training in film and new Jewish learning together, with a project he calls “Endless Shabbat,” documenting Chabad Emissaries hard at work all over the globe.” It’s going to highlight how a Jew can go anywhere in the world, and because of the vision of the Rebbe, find a home.”

Sunday, December 4, 2016

You'll never guess who made Aliyah

We are very proud of our Alum who recently made aliyah and was featured on

Shayna Driscoll, originally from Brooklyn and now in ulpan & living in Jerusalem, attended Mayanot in 2012 and made aliyah in 2016.

Shayna grew up as a self-proclaimed “Rosh Hashanah Jew”– reformed and secular, with Israel totally off her radar. That changed after coming on Birthright and returning for seminary at Mayanot, but Shayna still wanted to “fit the mold”– to get a job in New York, pay off her student loans, and eventually settle down. But that was not the path her life took. Shayna made aliyah this July, leaving a great job at the United Jewish Federation of New York as a Development Associate and her beloved parents, who are now reluctant empty nesters. Shayna chose to go against the grain and fight for her long-held desire to move to Israel. Now, Shayna is focusing on her Hebrew learning at Ulpan Etzion in Armon Hanetziv, making life-long friends, and soaking up Jerusalem’s energy, which she calls “ very much her vibe.”
Israel was not on Shayna’s radar until she began college at Binghamton University, where her friend convinced her to go to Chabad for some free food before heading to the bars. There, she learned about Judaism and about Israel. She signed up for Birthright not long after and began to learn more about Hasbara, Judaism from a cultural and spiritual perspective, and eventually, from a religious perspective. After her Birthright program, she left Israel “kicking and screaming at Ben Gurion Airport,” not wanting to leave. “The madricha told me that she knew my type and knew I’d be back.” The madricha was right– Shayna came back to Israel nearly every summer following on free trips, “obsessed” with Israel. After she graduated from college, she came back to study at Mayanot’s Women's Learning Program. She hoped to do the army and get a masters, but decided against it because she felt it wasn’t was she “should do”– she chose, perhaps for the last time, to “fit the mold” by getting a job and paying off her student loans. When she got a prestigious job with the Jewish Federation’s Wall Street Division, she found meaning in her position and gracefully took on hefty responsibilities, including managing a Wall Street dinner where $28 million was fundraised, with a whopping 1,700 guests who she seated and managed. At her job, Shayna was working with millionaires and billionaires and was following the path that her UJA mentors took to reach their coveted positions. But Shayna couldn’t ignore the fact that she felt something was missing.
At a Birthright fellowship conference in Chicago, her feelings came to a head–she found herself emotional after hearing from Israeli speakers. “I want to be these Israelis,” she recollected. “I want to be the one working for a Jewish organization, flying to America and teaching others about Israel, not vice versa.” When Shayna called her mom, who wanted to keep her only child nearby, she protested, “Shayna, you have your aliyah voice on again!” But this voice only intensified a few months later when the פיגועים began almost exactly one year ago. “It was a turning point for me when Ezra Schwartz died. I felt like, what the heck am I doing here [in the U.S.]? Israel is really important to me! Where do I want to be if I die tomorrow? Do I want to be in a cubicle on Park Avenue?” In a last ditch effort to follow the “normal path,” she applied to NYU and left to staff Birthright on the same day, but within 24 hours of being back in Israel, she made up her mind. “I even began telling people on the bus. I wrote a letter to myself then to make sure I wouldn’t go back on my choice.”

Unlike for many olim chadashim, for Shayna, the hardest part of her aliyah process didn’t happen in Israel– rather, it was telling her parents that she was moving. As an only child, it was “horrible” telling her parents. In January, she told her mom. In April, she told her dad. In July, she made the move. “My dad didn’t call me for four months after I told him. It was the worst time of my life,” said Shayna. Her dad began to understand once terrorism around the world increased. “I think it put it in perspective for him that I wanna be where I wanna be,” and Israel isn’t necessarily more dangerous than any other place. In fact, Shayna feels the most safe in Israel where “safety is not scary or intimidating, but there is a subtle feeling of security.” And anyway, physical danger isn’t as scary to Shayna as other dangers. While she spoke about ulpan friends from Turkey and France who couldn’t wear kippot in the street or had to sneak in Kosher meat from the butcher, Shayna said her motivations for aliyah include an escape of ideological and emotional nature more so than an escape for safety reasons. “Americans are fleeing from a sense of complacency and apathy towards Judaism. To me, that is scarier than ISIS, because you can’t bomb apathy.” The result, for her, means she doesn’t have to struggle to identify Jewishly when living in the Jewish State. “Here, you can be who you are. You can wear pants and cover your hair if you want. You can really be whatever you want.”

Even with the hardship of skeptical parents, Shayna feels she made the right decision. She loves ulpan, where she has found “the most incredible friends” in what she calls a “very soft landing.” Shayna loves walking around, looking at old street signs, finding new restaurants, being outdoors, and exploring nature. To her, Jerusalem is the “heart of Israel” and says she “needs to be in the heart,” even though most of her friends live in Tel Aviv. “I love history and I am a spiritual person so I love the energy here in Jerusalem. Sometimes if I’m bored, I’ll just go to the kotel,” she said, laughing. Her Hebrew learning is also coming along. Even though it’s easy to speak English outside of Ulpan, she has found ways to practice, such as “learning all the names for the vegetables from the guy at Jachnun Bar in the shuk- I go there all the time,” she tells. “After all, I didn’t move to Israel to live in the upper west side!

In terms of struggles, there are many, as always. She cites the language as the biggest challenge and resulting in funny mistakes like when she answered “שתויות רק” instead of “שתיות רק”” when asking if she wanted anything else at Aroma. There are also those not so funny mistakes, like paying for 20 24-hour bus tickets instead of 20 tickets on her Rav Kav because she asked for “פעמים עשרים” instead of “נסיעות עשרים.” While she is “very much a New Yorker” and “doesn’t let Israelis walk all over her,” her strategy for getting by in Hebrew speaking environments is to just say, “okay, okay.”

Now is another critical time for Shayna, who is beginning to think about what is next for her: nonprofit work or starting something completely new. But one thing is certain– like many olim have proven before her, with a mix of her American positive outlook and Israeli don’t-take-no-for-an-answer grit, Shayna’s future is bright in Jerusalem.

We wish you much success and nachas here in Jerusalem, Shayna, and hope you will come back and visit us from time to time!