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Andy Dennen - News & Reviews
Friday Night Live at the Synagogue
May 31, 2007
By LINDA BLASER Staff Writer

Home-grown in Lindenhurst

At Congregation Am Echod in Lindenhurst -- a 111-year-old congregation that started in Waukegan and moved farther west five years ago -- Friday night musical services are self-made.

"I looked for musical accompaniment within our congregation, because I didn't have grants or big sums of money to pay for the music," said Rabbi Ze'ev Harari, who brought the Friday Night Live concept to Am Echod. "I found a number of congregants who are excellent musicians. It's all home-grown."

Am Echod musicians include two guitarists, a flute and clarinet player, a percussionist and a vocalist, in addition to Harari, who sings harmony throughout the rousing almost camp-style service.

Lead guitarist and vocalist Andrew Dennen of Gurnee smiles broadly throughout the Shabbat service, his foot tapping constantly and his laid-back style inviting the worshipers to participate.

The Shir L'Shabbat -- as the Friday night musical services are called at Am Echod -- draws a regular crowd of 90 to 100 worshippers, which is a significant amount considering the far northwest Lake County congregation has only 140 families.

"We know we're doing something right, because people are coming," Dennen said after a recent Friday night service. "See those girls over there," he said, pointing to a group of 12- to 13-year-old girls. "They're here every week."

And some of the synagogue's oldest members attend regularly, as well.

"That's the phenomenon," said Dennen. "We're attracting older couples, too."

During the service, Dennen -- sounding like a folk singer from the 1960's, encourages the congregation to sing along, but it doesn't take much chiding.

"La, la, la, la," Dennen sings. "Just like that. Good. Anybody here who doesn't have that down, raise your hand."
Dance hall

The congregation chuckles and Dennen adds: "Feel free to dance."

A mother and daughter hold hands and dance, as if they are at a wedding, which in fact they are, as the Friday night service in the Jewish faith is held to welcome in the Sabbath bride.

The rest of the congregation, already standing, begins to clap their hands and sway in time with the music.

"This is where we're going to split the room up," Dennen says. "First the women. One, two, three, four. Now the men."

After the service, Lisa Shultz of Gurnee stops to reflect on why she attends.

"I am the most unreligious person," she said. "But the singing here -- it's a warm feeling."

Katie Robinson, 13, of Gurnee never misses the Friday night services.

"I come every week," she said. "I know everything by heart. I definitely learn something new every week from the stories."

"It goes by really fast," said her friend Rebecca Teplitz, 13, of Gurnee.

"I think it's great. The music really gets me excited," said Charlie Nudelman, 10, of Gurnee.

Rich Gordon of Round Lake Beach plays guitar for the Am Echod services. His son Jonathan provides percussion.

"This is my way of praying," said Gordon, motioning to his guitar.

Dennen agrees.

"It's just something I like to do. It's my spiritual journey. I work with the rabbi, and I like doing that. It's vision. I'm channeling," said Dennen, who has written some original pieces for the service.

"We try really, really hard not to perform," Dennen said. "We are a community. I tell (the congregants), 'You are the choir. You must sing with us.'"

And that is an aspect of the service that drew Stacey Robinson of Lake Villa to offer her talent as vocalist to the group.

"Usually, there is a choir and you watch them perform," she said. "But here, it's all about engagement and participation."

Even some of the oldest members of the synagogue have been drawn into the service.

"At first, I didn't think I'd like it because it's so untraditional" said Lorna Goodman of Waukegan, a 53-year member of Am Echod. "But I love it."

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