The Prince

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horizontalPhotoEducators and clergy at Beth El Congregation are gearing up for a visit from a very special guest. In recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the synagogue will host the Prince of Kosher Gospel, Joshua Nelson, and his five-piece band for a concert on Saturday, Jan. 19.  Nelson, an African-American and a Jew, has built an international reputation for bringing Hebrew liturgy to life through his unique blend of African-American gospel music and Jewish lyrics and meanings.

The concert represents the culmination of a two-week collaborative program between the Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center for Lifelong Learning at Beth El and the congregation’s Berman Lipavsky Religious School that included a Day of Learning on Saturday, Jan. 12 for religious school students and parents. Participants studied the theme of Jewish heroism as personified by civil rights activists Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.


After they studied, students created superhero capes and shields and discussed ways in which they could be “superheroes” in our own world.

Nelson, who is in his late 30s, grew up attending a black Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is fluent in Hebrew and taught religious school at a Reform synagogue in New Jersey for 16 years. As a child, Nelson loved listening to his grandmother’s Mahalia Jackson records. His voice, in fact, has often been compared to that of the iconic gospel singer. While studying in Israel at 19, Nelson came up with the idea of pairing gospel music with Hebrew prayer.

“I sing about all aspects of Judaism and all the Jewish music that is familiar to us,  Adom Olam,” “Hinei Ma Tov,” but in a gospel style — it’s very soulful. Both traditions are about call and response,” said Nelson. “Jews kind of strayed from that form with the German Reform Movement, which was less participatory. This kind of brings us back to our roots. It wakes people up.”

Nelson, whose ancestors hail from Senegal, is somewhat impatient with those who assume that all Jews are white.

“There are black Jews all over the world. In 2013, if people don’t know that being Jewish is not a race, I don’t know what to say.”

“Joshua Nelson uses music as midrash,” said Rabbi Faith Cantor, who created the curriculum about Jewish heroism for Beth El’s religious school students. “You will never be in a concert with the energy that Joshua Nelson brings,” she said. “From pre-schoolers to seniors, people are all dancing in the aisles.”

“As a professional musician, when his name came up and I listened to him on YouTube, he was the first one I suggested because he was so magnificent,” said Dr. Eyal Bor, Beth El’s director of education and director of the Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center for Life Long Learning. Bor, as well as Cantor Thom King, will  perform with Nelson at the concert.

“One of the things we share with African-Americans is our love of music,” said Rabbi Cantor. “And both communities have a narrative of slavery. This is a way of sharing something that is sacred to both communities,” said the rabbi, who noted that clergy from the area’s African-American churches were all invited to the performance.

“Martin Luther King Day is not considered a Jewish holiday,” said Nelson, “But it’s like Pesach, about freedom. It is very comfortable celebrating it in synagogue.”

Regarding his own identity as an African-American and a Jew, Nelson said, “In a world where everyone puts one another in different categories, I find myself walking outside the perimeter. Musically, I try to pull us together.”

For tickets or more information, contact Ellen Marks at 410-484-0411 or email ellenm@bethelbalto.com.

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