Hip-Hop Shabbat brings youth back to religion

"We get young people into Judaism and the older generation into hip-hop."

hip hop shabbat (photo credit: Courtesy)
hip hop shabbat
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To rejuvenate and revitalize Reform Judaism, a 30-year-old American from California is merging traditional Shabbat prayers with hip-hop in an effort to connect the contemporary generation with centuries-old prayers. The "prayerformace," aptly dubbed by Hip-Hop Shabbat is a modernized version of the Shabbat service, which combines the traditional Friday night prayers with rapping and dancing, backed up by pre-recorded hip-hop, reggae, electronica and dub beats. "We get young people into Judaism and the older generation into hip-hop," says group leader Jonathan Gutstadt, "because we are speaking a language both of them can understand." "Contemporary music is a good medium for young people since the energy is contagious," Gutstadt said Tuesday while attending the fourth-annual ROI Summit in Israel, a gathering of 120 young Jewish innovators from 29 countries around the world. Gutstadt, who was raised in a Reform Jewish home, got reconnected with Judaism at university after attending Shabbat services at the University of Oregon's Hillel, where, he said, he "felt natural" leading prayer services. "I came up with the idea [of combining] Shabbat with hip-hop," he said, and after taking some time off after graduating, Gutstadt produced a CD dubbed Hip-Hop Shabbat with a group of four childhood friends from Oakland, which included spin-offs of traditional Friday night liturgy such as "Shalom Aleichem," and Jewish songs like "Oseh Shalom." In the nearly five years since releasing the CD, Gutstadt and his primary rap partner, Judah Ritterman, have performed Friday night services at about 60 predominantly Reform synagogues, university Hillel houses, day schools and summer camps, mostly in the California area. They are also planning on releasing a new CD some time this year. Intended for weekday prayer services, the new CD dubbed Modeh Ani, after the morning Jewish prayer, will not include women singing in order to reach out to non-Reform sectors as well. "We are being exclusive in order to be inclusive," he said, noting that attempts to sell his original 2004 CD at a LA Judaica store were thwarted because of the fact a woman was part of the original group of five singers. Gutstadt also conducts hip hop high-holiday services and performs at other holiday events. The young music producer, who will perform on a popular talk show on Israel's Channel 10 TV on Thursday night, said he found Israelis were surprisingly open to his concept. "I didn't think it would go over so well over here because of the ultra-orthodox but I have found that Israelis are hungry for Jewish pride and even need a spiritual boost like everyone else," he said. The one-time disobedient Sunday school attendee also said he sees hip hop as a way to becoming more connected to Judaism. "Hip-hop is the impetus for me to being more spiritual," he said. "Without the fun we would not care. The kids I am reaching out to is the kid I was. "American Jews can't appreciate how great it is to belong to a spiritual tradition because they are so afraid of being different," he said. "They only realize later how beautiful it is to connect to God."