When cellist Lynn Harrell would play “Kol Nidre” at his synagogue on Yom Kippur, he felt more than the notes and the melody. It was through the music that he discovered he wanted to become a Jew.
“It was a 45- to 50-year journey to come to the realization that all the people I really loved, married and were close to all my life were Jews,” he said. “In my heart of hearts, I am a Jew.”
Harrell, 69, converted to Judaism two summers ago, but over the years, he had always connected with the religion. As a child, every one of his friends was Jewish, and when he was a teenager, he was taught the cello by a Holocaust survivor.
In 1994, he had the chance to play “Kol Nidre” with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Vatican. The ceremony, attended by Pope John Paul II and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, was the first Vatican commemoration of the Holocaust. That same year, at the Grammys, he also performed an excerpt from his nominated recording of Beethoven’s String Trios with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman.
His former wife and current one are Jews, and he sent two of his children to preschool at his synagogue, Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica.
During the High Holy Days in 2009, Harrell decided to formally pursue conversion. “I wanted to make the journey complete, particularly for my cello teacher, who showed me his Auschwitz uniform,” he said. “It deeply affected me as a 13-year-old.”
Harrell was raised in a Christian family with a brother who became a minister. His father was the leading baritone for the Metropolitan Opera, so he was raised around music. At the age of 9, he began taking cello lessons, which he would eventually pursue as a full-time career.
He and his current wife, Helen Nightengale — a violinist and a Reform Jew — are the parents of Hanna, 8, and Noah, 6. Together, they decided that raising their children with both Christmas and Chanukah was not right, so they chose the latter holiday.
To start the conversion process, Harrell began taking classes with Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels at Beth Shir Shalom, a progressive Reform synagogue. He connected with the rabbi because the services are mostly song-based, and they are both musicians.
Through the course, Harrell learned about the history of Judaism, the parables and the life lessons. He learned how to read Torah and celebrate the holidays. The rabbi tried to talk him out of the process three times, but he persisted. When he was ready to complete the conversion, he, along with Comess-Daniels, his family and some close friends, traveled to Jerusalem, where his immersion took place in a stream under the Western Wall. When Harrell emerged, he said, he felt like a Jew.
“Before that, I was on the outside looking in,” Harrell said. “After my conversion, when it was Yom Kippur and I played ‘Kol Nidre,’ the rabbi said it was something extra special. I said that it feels different because I’m from the inside looking out now.”
Aside from being an active member at Beth Shir Shalom nowadays, Harrell celebrates his Judaism by practicing tikkun olam (repairing the world). In particular, he and Nightengale started their own nonprofit organization called HEARTbeats, which utilizes music to help children in need.
The couple have also spent the past three years putting together and recording an album, “We’ll Paint You a Rainbow,” which features the music of Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Joan Baez. Released in March, the album benefits both the HEARTbeats Foundation and the Save the Children HEART campaign, which also serves kids in need around the world. As Harrell said, “Experiencing the emotion of music is something that can heal. It can simply change someone’s life.”
And it is music, in a variety of ways, which brought Harrell to Judaism and helped him discover who he was all along. “I came to realize more and more that this is who I am and I’ve always been that way,” he said. “It took a long time.”