Musician steps into starring role at Neve Shalom

Will Soll teaches a Yiddish version of a Passover song at a Shaare Emeth Yiddish Club meeting.

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Rabbi James Goodman recently stepped away from Neve Shalom, the congregation he founded 29 years ago. 

In January, Goodman and his wife, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation, lost their daughter Adina Chaya Talve-Goodman. 

Goodman took a leave of absence, eventually deciding to make it permanent. 

Neve Shalom, which meets on the Millstone Campus and is affiliated with the Renewal stream of Judaism, has turned to Will Soll, a longtime member who has played music with Goodman, to head the congregation. 

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Soll, 65, leads a band (Will Soll & the Youngers of Zion) and holds a doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Vanderbilt University. A mandolin and tenor banjo player, Soll can point to the exact moment when he decided “to get deeper into klezmer and Yiddish culture.”

Goodman is also involved with Central Reform Congregation and is the director of Shalvah, a Jewish group dedicated to helping people in recovery from alcoholism and other addictions. Soll spoke with the Jewish Light about his love of klezmer  and what it’s like to move from Goodman’s sidekick, a description both he and the rabbi have used, to his successor.

His responses have been edited. 

How would you describe Rabbi Goodman as a leader of Neve Shalom?

He combines a love of learning and interest in a remarkable variety of sources with a really strong and gifted sense of the potential of imagination in the arts to give voice to Jewish insights, Jewish soul and Jewish healing. That may sound like a cliché. We all know that the arts can do that. The difference is that Rabbi Jim really is an artist. And what he has done at Neve Shalom over 29 years is created a community that feeds off of what the arts can bring to Judaism. That and a strong love of Torah study. 

How does a congregation move forward without its founding rabbi?

There are two things: We go back to what Jim left us, and we go back to ourselves. It’s kind of like Deuteronomy. Moses has been with the people all the way from the Exodus. And now they have to look to themselves and say, “What has he taught us?” He was great. There is not going to be anyone like Rabbi Goodman, but what has he taught us? How can we carry it on? 

Tell me about your musical background.

I was a singer-songwriter before I met Rabbi Jim. When I saw what he was doing, I really wanted to be a part of it, and he was generous enough to let me learn with him, to let me play with him. And then in 2005, I decided that I wanted to get deeper into klezmer and Yiddish culture, and that has become a mainstay for me. 

What happened in 2005?

I came to a realization that I wanted to do music that was broader based, that wasn’t just me expressing myself, as good as that is, and I still write songs. But that had roots in the broader culture and in the people as a whole, that combined aspiration but also earthiness. I thought I would find that in klezmer, and I was right. 

What’s it going to be like doing High Holy Day services without Rabbi Goodman?

Rabbi Jim has always done a lot of music on the High Holy Days, and I intend to keep up that tradition. We have members of the congregation who will be reading Torah, chanting prayers. And he put a siddur together for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and we will continue to use them. He met with me last week, and it was really good to meet with him because it reminded me again of how similar our approaches are. 

Obviously that’s going to happen because he was my rabbi for 18 years, but I think it’s more than that. There was something I gravitated toward. He really has a way of bringing out the essence of what we are doing in a prayer and I hope that I can continue that sensibility. 

Neve Shalom meets in the Chai Apartments Building, 6 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information, visit neveshalom.org or call 314-222-9864.

Soll will be performing at Sababa, a Jewish arts and culture festival, on Oct 14 at Washington University. For more information, visit Sababastl.com.

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