Guest post by Avraham Bronstein
This past Saturday night, I made the drive from Scranton, PA, to Airmont, NY for Selichot led by the colorful hasidic music star Lipa Schmeltzer.
Lipa founded his own shul, The Airmont Shul, in 2008 following his break with the Skvere hasidic community over the contemporary style of his music, his flamboyant personal style, and, later, his secular higher education. The building features a musical motif throughout, including mezuzot cases in the shape of flutes and an ark shaped like a harp. An electric guitar hangs on one wall.
An established sensation in the hasidic and yeshivish music worlds for some time, Lipa has recently attained a following in the more modern elements of Orthodoxy, giving concerts at luxury hotels. summer camps and in modern Orthodox synagogues. He is now attending Columbia University for a long awaited BA, something denied him growing up Hasidic. He also gives a twice weekly, widely viewed “Sheni ve Hamishi” words of Torah on Facebook. Most of the time the videos are calls to tolerate, get along, and be kind. Recently, he caused a wave by calling for Hasidic women, from Hungarian dynasties, not to shave their heads as prescribed. Lipa has gotten really good press in recent months – here, here, and here.
Before the Selichot began, Lipa welcomed guests to his synagogue, which he described as “improvisational,” and briefly introduced the program for the evening. (“God is my witness, I have not prepared a word of what I’m going to say, but we’ll see how it comes out.”)
Despite the professional-quality flyer disseminated on social media and the presence of two guitarists and a keyboardist for accompaniment, Lipa explained that the idea for a large-scale musical service was only conceived several days before. Supporting this assertion was the lack of Selichot books for use in the synagogue. Some people had brought their own, and many others (myself included) quickly downloaded the text to our phones. Still others went without.
The crowd numbered about 100 people, mostly yeshivish and hasidic-looking men from the Airmont/Monsey area. Guests came from communities ranging from Scranton, PA, Nassau County and Westchester, NY, and Bergen County, NJ. For the most part, the out-of-town visitors tended to look more Modern Orthodox. The crowd seemed a bit restless at first, talking and shuffling about. Lipa stopped during his opening lines concluding “Ashrei” to ask for silence, and there was a fair amount of “buzz” and cellphone photography/videography throughout.
Lipa went fairly quickly through the standard liturgy using a fairly basic nussach (musical motif) for Selichot. The service was really based, however, around several extended singing and dancing breaks, sometimes based around words from the paragraph being read, and other times more free-form.
During the periods typically reserved for silent congregational reading, Lipa would lead a song or niggun as well. All the piyyutim were done in record time; many people just listened to his background singing.
The music tended towards the upbeat and the Carlebach repertoire, and not his own material. In the beginning, he seemed to be imitating Carlebach’s spirit in style and stories. At one point some words were sung to what sounded like a Billy Joel song and the opening of the Ark in the middle of the service was accompanied by what Lipa said was a waltz that particularly appealed to him and then Avraham Fried’s “Aderaba.” At many points, Lipa would hand the microphone to a friend to lead the singing while he circulated through the synagogue dancing and clapping to generate energy and encourage the dancing. Lipa’s enthusiasm, presence, and showmanship were infectious, and very clearly the lifeblood of the synagogue.
One thing that was not sung was the standard Ashamnu. Before the Ashamnu recitation, Lipa explained that the confessional section of the service was exceedingly personal, between each individual and God. He could not offer guidance, as he had throughout, or suggestions to guide our thoughts, so he would just play a “freiliche song” and we could each chose to silently meditate or proceed as we felt appropriate.
Lipa founded The Airmont Shul in the wake of a painful and public break from the insular hasidic community he was born into. He referenced the difficult founding of the synagogue and his painful personal journey several times. As the service began, he shared that, for him, the night would be a meditation on not judging others, something he said he still finds himself doing too often, especially in light of how he himself has so often been the subject of judgement by others.
He honored Rabbi Dov Oliver, Hillel Director of Rockland County Community
College, where he was a student before transferring to Columbia, with the opening of the Ark before the responsive singing of Shema Koleinu, calling him a mentor who helped him immeasurably as he regained his spiritual footing.
Despite their ultra-Orthodox dress and look, it was clear that many of his local attendees share similar stories of being judged or being marginal, and that being a part of his congregation was, for some, socially and politically fraught with tension.
At the beginning, Lipa asked people who planned to take cellphone pictures or video to only do so in one half the synagogue, and to respect those who expressed their desire to not be photographed by standing on the other side. (He joked, “If someone does appear in a picture, we can always say it was photo-shopped and he wasn’t really here.”) He revisited that theme before the responsive singing of Hashivenu (“Bring us back, O Lord, and we will return”) when he noted the different journeys, both spiritual and physical, that brought his diverse congregation together.
The musical selections towards the end tended to be slower and more contemplative, including a Yossi Green song for Shomer Yisrael and the now-standard Machnisei Rachamim made famous by Avraham Freid. Lipa ended the service with a blast from a shofar before the final kaddish (sung to the Modzitz melody), which led into a post-Selichot round of upbeat dancing. The entire service ran just under two hours, concluding at 1:00am.
There was a women’s section, but less than a handful showed up. One women who traveled to be there was disappointed. According to her, the women seemed like they were there to wait for their husbands as displayed by their continuous smartphone use. Also during the second hour of selichos, many men had already gone outside to smoke and socialize.
At one point before the end of the service, Lipa remarked how overwhelmed he was by the distance some people traveled to attend, and how everyone who was in attendance from “out of town” would receive a CD before returning home. True to his word, as soon as the last dance ended, he dashed out of the synagogue and returned with a stack of CDs. I received two, including his most recent album “Be Positive!,” featuring hasidic dance and electronic music.