2016-06-30
A Boston band with a distinctive rock sound is proving there's a new day in Jewish music.

Yom Hadash, Hebrew for "the new day," plays spiritual music with a Jewish twist, breaking new ground religiously and musically.

"Our target audience is teens and college kids," said co-founder Jon Nelson, 29. "What we're trying to do with our music is to make kids aware of the fact that Judaism can be cool. That there's a new movement out there. And that we want other kids to form their own bands and do the same thing."

The group's work feeds into the growing genre of contemporary Jewish music, which includes performers such as Craig Taubman and David Broza.

Yom Hadash's goals are similar to those of early Christian contemporary musical artists -- now part of a booming commercial market -- who sought to recast faith in modern musical form.

"There are a lot of similarities, singing about faith and singing about spirituality," Nelson said. "The main difference is, we don't have the fan base. There aren't as many Jews. If we could get Jewish people excited about their heritage and about music that reflects that, I think we could grow."

Yom Hadash strives in lyric and melody to reach the already observant Jew and the religiously unaffiliated.

"We played a gig in New York; probably three-quarters of the people there were young adults who never go to synagogue," Nelson said. "If we can turn them on to Jewish rock, they may reconnect. We're trying to give them something that is universal, that is spiritual, that transcends -- something Jews everywhere from all movements can unite and listen to."

Nelson and his younger brother Josh, 22, both sing lead for Yom Hadash. Jon, who plays bass and acoustic guitar, devotes more than half his time to music, and also works as a youth director at a Conservative Jewish synagogue in Boston. Josh plays keyboards and rhythm guitar for the group, and is a professional musician working in the Boston area. Rounding out the band are drummer David Lefkowitz, 29, who owns a Boston music studio, and guitarist Adam Dehner, 29, who teaches special-needs students in Boston schools.

Jon Nelson, Lefkowitz and Dehner have been friends since childhood, playing together in bands during their high school years.

The first songs with a Jewish message, early versions of the group's now popular "Jerusalem" and "Hallelu," were written and performed by the Nelson brothers. After discussing the music's potential to reach other young Jewish adults, the brothers enlisted Lefkowitz's help to cut a demo CD.

Initial performances were followed by more bookings, and the group's members realized they needed another performer to do the music justice. Dehner, as committed as the others to his Jewish heritage and to quality music, became the fourth member, filling out the group's sound with tight harmonies and individualistic guitar stylings.V Yom Hadash got its start at international Jewish youth festivals such as United Synagogue Youth's annual convention, and at colleges and universities, including Harvard and Brown. Its debut CD, "When We Were Young," was released in late 1997. The group's lush harmonies, resonant vocals and upbeat, modern sound quickly brought more bookings.

In April 1998, Yom Hadash made its regional mark at the "Israel 50th Jubilee" on the Boston Common. In August 1998, they went to San Antonio to perform at the Coalition for Advancement in Jewish Education conference. Encouraged by other Jewish musical performers, they left more committed than ever to music celebrating their pride in, and hope for, their ancient religious heritage.

Beth Rosenwasser, education director at Congregation Beth Am in Houston, said the group is "hitting a market that up until now the Jewish community has not been able to reach spiritually." She saw Yom Hadash perform in Columbus, Ohio, last summer.

"Kids were standing up and hollering and screaming because the kind of music that they do is Jewish music, but it's not folksy. This is the first group that has taken it to the next level, incorporating the style the kids are accustomed to," Rosenwasser said.

Yom Hadash members write some lyrics in Hebrew, some in English.

Songs such as "Bashanah Haba'ah," a traditional Israeli tune sung in Hebrew, are reconfigured with different beats and rhythms. Others such as "Take Me Back," written and performed in English, reflect the group's reverence for Jewish tradition: "Take me back to long ago when people formed the history we now know. I wish that I was there to see traditions passed along to me."

The style attracts Jewish young people who may feel distant and dislocated from Judaism, Josh Nelson said. "It's hard for kids to talk about spirituality, and it's hard for them to discuss anything that is not Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync," he said. "A lot of kids come (to a concert) for the social aspect. We'll come on, and they'll feel the vibe."



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