BEVERLY – Singer, drummer, composer, and producer Aaron Zev Katz turns into a one-man band as he sits in front of the stage in the sanctuary of Temple B’nai Abraham during religious school.
He and the students are performing a song about Shmita, the one-in-seven years’ time of sabbatical during which fields are supposed to lay fallow and rest. Students not only sing along to the song, they also hit bongo drums and play musical instruments. One boy taps the piano while a girl plays her cello.
For his part, Katz strums a guitar while both feet keep the beat on the bass drum and snare.
“Every seven years we put the land to rest, and remember we are here for each other,” they sing. “Shmita is the time to take a break. So put down your iPhone, ‘cause you gotta give thanks, you gotta give thanks!” they sing.
“I think it’s pretty nice,” says Ari Kepnes, about the music class. The sixth-grader at the Holten Richmond Middle School in Danvers plays the piano during the songs. “I really like to play musical instruments,” he says.
“It’s a good class,” says Sam Abelson, 12, of the Magnolia section of Gloucester and a student at Brookwood School in Manchester-by-the-Sea. “I like it and I like playing the drums because I do that a lot.”
“We got a lot of songwriting going on,” says Katz, 45, of Salem. “A lot of the kids writing about what they are learning in classes and performing together and learning to play their instruments.”
The students aren’t just performing songs Katz hands them. They are helping to create them.
Katz says the kids will learn about something in Hebrew class and then they will write a song about it together. Katz will throw out a chord and the kids will sing something, or he’ll throw out a musical idea and the kids and their teachers will provide input, and they’ll riff on that. In this way, they become invested in the music, he says.
“So we write them all together,” Katz says. “We just sit in class, so this is a perfect example,” he adds, referring to a row of drawings on the stage behind him. “We have the days of creation. This was when we were outside and we were just sitting around and creating melodies and different chord changes and this song came from it.”
When a new group of younger kids settle in, Katz has them perform the catchy tune of “Days of Creation.”
“These are the days of creation,” sings Katz as the students sing “la, la, la, la, la, la,” in the break. “On the seventh day, God said, ‘You gotta take a break!’”
“It’s amazing. He’s just amazing,” says Temple B’nai Abraham Rabbi Alison Adler. “He’s just a gift. I’m so grateful that he’s here as part of this. It changes everything. It really does. Music does.”
In addition to performing at services and working with the religious school, Katz has been rapidly expanding the temple’s musical offerings.
He started the L’Chaim Music Ensemble for adults who are interested in playing an instrument or singing. The group practices on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Katz is also running drum circles with older teens and those in grades 5-18. The Jewish Tween drum circle with Temple Ner Tamid of Peabody kicks off Dec. 12 at 3:30 p.m. at Temple B’nai Abraham.
“It’s bashert,” Rabbi Adler says of how Katz reached out to work at the temple. “It’s how it feels.” The temple had been talking about adding more music to the mix. Then Katz emailed them out of the blue.
Katz began providing music at B’nai Abraham a little over two months ago. Many familiar with the North Shore music scene may know him as the drummer and vocalist for the jam band Percy Hill. He also has his own band, The Dejas, and has put out a solo album of his own music.
For many years, Katz was a road musician after graduating from the University of New Hampshire, where he played jazz and studied music, psychology, and philosophy.
Katz’s musical roots in Judaism run deep. In his hometown of Worcester, his mother, Harriett Katz, served as cantor at Temple Sinai, now Temple Emanuel Sinai, from 1977 to 1987. She was part of the first wave of women taking on cantorial duties at the time.
For 12 years, her son served as the music program creator and director for Plummer Youth Promise in Salem, a nonprofit that works with young people in need of homes and also provides them with other services.
“I recently left there so I was looking for the next move, and this really feels right,” Katz says.
His wife, Sarah Blacker, a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, works as a music therapist. They live in Salem, and also play in a band together.
Katz’s desire to work in music in a more spiritual way was sparked this past summer when Ken Shifman, the executive director of Camp Avoda in Middleboro, invited Katz and his wife back to the overnight camp he attended as a boy to play music.
“I felt a very strong emotional pull,” Katz says after that experience. After he got back, he contacted Temple B’nai Abraham.
“It feels incredibly comfortable to be here,” he says. “It feels right.”
Now, Katz is helping to clean up a space behind the stage to turn it into a recording studio, something that would allow the kids to take lessons and record songs and prayers. It’s also a place where services could be recorded as well, he says.
Katz recently helped produce a music video of “Lean on Me” for one of the temple’s much loved teachers, Marcy Yellin, and her husband, Ben, of Swampscott, after Ben was involved in a bicycle accident at the end of September that left him paralyzed.
“We were just trying to give her a hug online, so we put together “‘Lean on Me,’” Katz says. “We got the kids all ready for that and I brought a friend of mine in from New Hampshire to edit the video, and we just recently sent that to her. We just wanted to touch her and show her how much we loved her and Ben.”