Meet Aaron, Jewish Songwriter of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / February 21, 2024

The GatherDC blog strives to present a holistic portrait of the DMV’s Jewish community, sharing a wide variety of Jewish voices and perspectives. If you have a 20- or 30-something to nominate as our Jewish Person of the Week or for a Spotted in Jewish DMV feature, please email us!

Aaron and I connected one brilliantly sunny January afternoon at Takoma Bev Co. Braving the cold (and, out of the blue, an incredibly noisy construction site roaring to life), we chat about leaving — and returning to — the DMV, seeking out a Jewish space of your own, music as a Jewish practice, Aaron’s Heartbeat project, and the best live music in DC.

Aaron with his guitar in a wooded space.

Samuel: Thanks so much for joining me, Aaron. Tell me about what brought you to the DMV!

Aaron: I grew up in the DMV. One of the supposed few, though there’s more of us than we’re given credit for. I moved away for seven years, mostly living in Jerusalem before coming back here for graduate school. I studied social enterprise, learning how to build sustainable peace-building organizations. My wife and I started having kids, and got planted. 

Samuel: What’s kept you here for the past ten years? 

Aaron: The simple version is that we love the community. We have great friends. I’m excited about the work I’m able to do and, as we build more roots, it feels more vibrant.

Samuel: Thinking about building that community, what was it like to grow up here, move away, and then return? 

Aaron: My dad’s a rabbi. I grew up immersed in the communities he was leading, Kehila Chadasha and Am Kolel. That was home base for me, Jewishly. Then, I went to Israel and got very involved there with Nava Tehila, one of the leading musical innovation congregations and communities in the world. I was able to find this exciting, new “home base” to express Judaism in a very soulful, musical way. When I moved back for grad school, got married, and was back and forth between Jerusalem, I didn’t really invest much in building my own Jewish community. We would do Shabbat dinners with friends, and celebrate holidays with my dad’s community, but we weren’t actively seeking out our own Jewish spaces. 

Aaron playing music with his father.

Then, one fateful night, I was backing my dad up at Sixth & I’s Simchat Torah celebration. Someone from Sixth & I said: Hey, you’re young! You’re a musician! We work with young people! Want to come do music with us more regularly? I began – that was nine years ago – and I’ve been leading music for services [since then].

I hesitated to do Jewish music as a career path; as a young person, there’s a need to distance yourself, to find your own path. But, I feel like the universe has pushed me in that direction, showing me that it’s meaningful, fun, and energizing. I dove deeply into it, and now I’m leading services at Sixth & I, as well as Adat Shalom and DC Musical Shabbat.

Samuel: Why do you think music has been so central to the Jewish practice and community you’ve created for yourself? 

Aaron: It’s the language of Judaism that I know. The power of music to hold space and to meet people where they are, helping them express what they need to express, that’s been a language I’ve learned since I was a little kid. There are so many ways to express and experience Judaism, and I love it all – but the tool I have is music, and that’s where I focus my energy. 

Samuel: What does an ideal day look like for you?

Aaron: I’m a proponent of the Daily Personal Victory. I want to wake up as early as I can, before the kids. Get in some reading – learn something. Get in some journaling – write something. Then some exercise, some coffee, and get the kids to school before I take the dog for a long walk in the woods. When the weather’s nice, I’ll bring a camping chair and set up near Lake Needwood. I’ll write some music, work on my computer for a few hours, and the dog will splash around in the water. Then I’ll pick up the kids, play with them, have dinner and a post-dinner dance party with the whole family, put the kids to bed and then record some music. 

Samuel: As someone whose work and education [Editor’s note: Aaron studied Social Enterprise at American University] has been closely related to peace-building, how have the last few months landed for you?

Aaron: Close to 15 years ago now, I started an organization called Heartbeat, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian youth musicians, mostly high schoolers, to have dialogue and create music together as bands. It’s been more on hiatus as I’ve been [in the United States], but I’m still plugging away, writing grants and having conversations with folks about how to bring it back in a healthy way, especially given the challenges right now. We haven’t figured out, as a society, how to listen to each other, to respect one another, and to understand the futility of war. I feel really passionate about those things, and they often come up in my music.

A Heartbeat band performs at Middlebury College.

It’s complicated; there are so many issues that are tied together in these horrible knots. October 7th was so traumatic. When trauma hits, so many of us go into fight or flight mode, draw red lines and put up walls. There’s a sense that we’re in conflict with one another, even inside the Jewish community, and it’s been really painful because I do think that, deep down, so many people want the same thing. A lot of people are tied to one strategy or another but, if we can actually talk about it in a healthy way, we’ll realize that we mostly all have the same goals: safety and freedom. There are so many tools available to us that have not been tried, and I believe we need to embrace the massively creative and powerful tools of peacebuilding.

I want to find ways to open the conversation more in the [American] Jewish community because, even though we’re far away, we do have an influence. We’re in this terrifying moment where American Jews, especially younger American Jews, are asking: What’s our identity as a people? What are our values, and how do we stand for them? It’s complicated to hold compassion for everyone, but it’s so important to do it.

Samuel: A few quick ones to close. What’s something you’re bad at? 

Aaron: I struggle with saying no to things. Often, I get excited about projects and want to be everywhere at once. It’s been a great learning curve for me, learning how to say no and build better boundaries.

Aaron's dog!Samuel: What are you feeling proud about right now? 

Aaron: I’m almost afraid to say it out loud. I made this leap of faith to pursue my dream of doing music more fully and here we are, a year into it, and it’s working…thank God, and I hope it continues. I have the flexibility to pursue music, to create, to share, and to have time for my family and social justice projects. I’m grateful.

Samuel: What’s something in the DMV that more people should know about? 

Aaron: Bossa DC in Adams Morgan. They have amazing musicians from all around the world, both touring and local, and it’s just an incredible collection of music in a vibrant place. 

Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner. Who are they and why? 

Aaron: Valarie Kaur, John Lennon, and Moses. They’re all revolutionaries. 

Samuel: Is Lennon your favorite Beatle? 

Aaron: No, Paul McCartney is. I love Lennon too, but I resonate with Paul’s energy. John is more radical and punk rock, but Paul is so heartfelt and earnest. 

Samuel: Last one. When Jews of the DMV gather…

Aaron: Magic happens.

Aaron and his guitar.

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