Rabbi Danielle Upbin was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She is a prayer leader, teacher, inspirational preacher and singer-songwriter. Originally from New York City, she currently resides in Clearwater, FL, where she and her husband serve as the spiritual leaders of Congregation Beth Shalom. Chanting Hebrew prayer in a joyous and soulful manner is Rabbi Danielle’s passion. She has studied meditation, Jewish mysticism, and yoga and strives to interweave uplifting teachings from Judaism into her presentation of chant. She is actively involved in a local interfaith coalition, and is a regular presenter in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Clearwater’s monthly gathering called “Festival Ruah: A Multicultural Spirit Experience” along with musicians, dancers, artists and spiritual leaders from around the globe.
Rabbi Danielle released her first CD towards the end of 2012, entitled, “Reveal the Light”, an eclectic collection of spiritually oriented songs and chants in Hebrew and English.
1. How long have you been singing and making music, and how did you get started in the first place?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: I have been singing since I was a kid in my mother’s kitchen. She taught me all kinds of show tunes and 40’s music. Singing was a huge part of my world for as long as I could remember. In high school, my friends and I would walk around singing harmonies to everything from the school bell to complicated pop songs – particularly, Madonna songs. I was in the chorus and musicals all through my school years and continued singing and performing through college. I was in an a cappella group at Columbia University and sang back up in my friend’s Jewish music band. I don’t think there was ever a time in my life when I wasn’t singing.
2. Who were your first musical influences that you can remember?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: My mother and grandmother, certainly, who had a varied Yiddish repertoire that I always enjoyed. Also, my best friends’ father was the Cantor (prayer leader) at Park Avenue Synagogue where I grew up attending weekly, on Saturdays. His voice was like an angel, and was particularly powerful when joined by the organ and choir. Even as a child I found his voice and the sacred music to be very stirring.
3. Who do you consider positive role models in today’s pop music industry and why?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: There are so many artists out there doing great things with their talent. I particularly like the witty pop/folk vibe of Jason Mraz, who is not only an incredible wordsmith, but also a talented guitarist. I also appreciate the way Kelly Clarkson was able to break out of a seemingly tight “made-for-TV” mold and created her own unique resounding voice and style.
4. Which calling came to you first, the passion to be a Rabbi, or the urge to make music?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: I have always been a deeply spiritual and religious person. I didn’t particularly feel that I had a “calling” to be a rabbi, but I always knew that my faith would be central in whatever I did. My rabbinic training was focused on text as a platform for teaching and sharing the wisdom of our people. Because I had a particular passion for Hebrew prayer and chant, I felt fortunate to find a way of blending the role of rabbi/teacher with my love for music.
5. How do you conciliate your mission of faith, with your talent for singing?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: It has been a common practice, even in ancient Israel, for the spiritual leaders to embrace music. When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, a high class of musicians accompanied the offerings. Music was an integral part of their Service to God. After the destruction of the Temple, music retained its centrality in religious life through the privileged role of the prayer leader. I believe that I am an inheritor of that rich tradition of having a leader devoted to the sweet songs and prayers of the House of Israel. I take my role one step further in that I believe in the shared chorus of multi-faith prayer. My experience is that when people of different faiths and backgrounds come together to pray, recognizing our varied cultural and spiritual expressions, we raise ourselves to a higher level of consciousness. God speaks through all of us. When we bring our voices together in peaceful harmony, we can get closer to that vibe and appreciate a deeper truth – that there is more that unites us than separates us.
6. Is singing most of your songs in Hebrew part of a marketing plan, just something you feel more comfortable doing, or is there any other specific reason?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: When I sing and chant in Hebrew, I feel that I am tapping into a very deep place of spiritual expression. I enjoy singing in English, but my strength and sincerity comes out more through my Hebrew voice. In the market of “world music”, I think that our ears are trained to be open to more than just what we can understand. I personally find great value and have been deeply moved by songs sung in languages that I don’t understand. I think that the open ear can take in the emotion or intention of a song, even when we don’t literally understand what is being sung.
7. Looking at the path you’ve followed so far, do you consider yourself a better Rabbi or better singer?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: Hmmmm…. I think that I do both pretty well.
8. On which song on the Cd Reveal The Light, do you personally feel you delivered your best performance and why?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: That is a great question. I think “Amar Rabbi Elazar” is my favorite. I composed the music for it and felt connected to the message of the liturgy. I also like “hashkivenu” because of its very “raw” feel.
9. Which ingredient do you think is most essential in making Rabbi Danielle Upbin’s music, sound and feel the way it does?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: At my best, I am a “soul singer”. I go really deep and express what is there. I don’t think I have ever sung a song the same way twice. I try to keep it real.
10. With the release of the Cd Reveal The Light, which goals and aspirations are you hoping to achieve?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: I want to get the message out there that Jewish chant can also be universal chant. I hope that my music will be an opening into prayer for the listener, of whatever religion, to be able to break out of self-imposed spiritual boundaries. There is so much that divides us. I hope that my CD will be a catalyst for dialogue so that people of all religions can pray and sing as one – to the One. There is a lot of Jewish music out there – from many rich backgrounds and traditions. I hope that my CD will stand out in its willingness to reach out to people of different faiths and invite them into the journey of spiritual awakening.
11. If you were forced to choose only one, which emotion, more than any other drives you day after day to be a mother of 4 children, a wife, a Rabbi and a music artist?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: Wow!! Probably Love. “All you need is love da da da da da da…” as the Beatles once sang. What drives me is love- love for my partner, for children, for a future, love for people, for humanity, for earth, and for God. But…. if I could pick another emotion, I would use a Hebrew Mystical term called “hitlahavut” – which is like a passionate drive to live and to serve. I think that I have some of that, too.
12. What aspect of being one, or all of the above roles, excites and encourages you most and which aspect of being one, or all of the above roles, disappoint and discourage you most?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: Parenthood. Need I say more?
13. How involved are you in any of the creative, producing, and marketing processes involved in your music.
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: I was very involved in the production of my first CD, but I also relied on the wisdom of my producer and friend, Jay Klein, who had a lot of experience in the music business, and I also was guided by my friend and spiritual brother, Fred Johnson, who helped create the direction of the CD and of my current path of Jewish leadership and musicianship.
14. In your life thus far, what is the best piece of advice you actually followed, and one you didn’t, but now know for sure that you should have?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: Best advice is not to pay too much attention to what others have to say about you. Do what you think is right and it will shine through in the end. I try to do that, although, I struggle with it sometimes. Advice that I know for sure that I need to follow more is- to listen. Don’t be quick to speak out of turn or be impolite. I learned both of those things from my Dad.
15. Egoistically speaking, over and above you being a Rabbi, how far are you actually prepared to take your musical career?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: Well, I am open to the journey wherever it brings me.
16. Performing live in front of an audience, or the creative processes of recording in a studio, which do you prefer and why?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: There is value in both. I like the live experience because I truly believe that the music of the moment is what it should be, what it is meant to be. I also like interacting with the audience. But the value of the studio experience is that you can take your time to create “the perfect moment” and improve upon the performance with that magical thing called “technology”.
17. How do you deal with criticism and who is your biggest critic, if any?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: I am my biggest critic – so far. I deal with her in meditation, yoga and running. Oh yeah, and in therapy.
18. Would going Platinum or winning a Grammy be important you? And if you were forced to settle for only one choice, which of the two would you go for, and why?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: I have not given that much thought. I would gratefully accept either if one came my way. But, I am not in it for that.
19. What are your family and your congregation’s thoughts on Rabbi Upbin…the singer?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: They don’t know me any other way!
20. Tell us about your projects or any ideas you have in store for the near future?
Rabbi Danielle Upbin: Fred Johnson and I have done some performing together in Florida and in New York with other world-class percussionists and world musicians mainly for spiritually inclined audiences. I think that this is an important moment in history for us to join together in performance to help bringing healing to a fractured world. On a personal level, I would love to create another studio recording of ten inspirational songs – a compilation of some of my favorite English songs of all times and maybe one or two in Hebrew. I hope to make that happen.
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