Finding a Jewish Identity Through Music
Written by Robin Kopf
Illustrated by Jessica Fischman
My first summer and my subsequent eleven summers at URJ Camp Newman changed a lot of things about my life, but it mostly changed my view of my personal relationship to Judaism. I grew up in a gently religious, Jewish household, raised by a classic “Jewish Mother.” If Judaism was important to her, it was going to be important for her kids. I groaned when my mother told us that we would be going to Friday night Shabbat services, let alone for the high holidays. Until the fourth grade, most of my relationship to Judaism was spoon fed to me like matzo ball soup without salt. My Jewish experience for the first 10 years of my life was largely flavorless and uninteresting to me. That first summer before fourth grade was like a much needed sprinkle of salt.
I remember standing on the basketball courts, wearing white for Shabbat with my cabin mates, counselors, and friends. We jumped and we clapped and we stomped our feet and we sang until our throats hurt. At the center of the basketball courts, on a flimsy, metal stage were two songleaders. They wielded guitars and sung into microphones what we would then sing back to them. More songleaders, sometimes also campers, milled around with their own guitars, interacting with the crowd. They had the chaos of the hundreds of campers and counselors dancing around the asphalt totally under control with smiles and beads of sweat on their faces.
They were also the people that changed services from a place to sit quietly until dinner to a place of connecting with a culture that was starting to inspire me just by singing its melodies surrounded by a community of friends. Every day they led us in prayer and in song sessions and every day I watched them with total fascination at the way they exuded confidence and joy. I grew to love not just the melodies of the prayers that we used at camp during services, but also the songs that we learned to just sing and have fun with. These songs were usually in Hebrew or combined Hebrew and English sections. This was not the kind of music I was used to hearing on the radio, but I still felt connected to the songs we sang.
These songleaders looked, walked, and acted like rock stars: they were the coolest people at camp to me. They led services for a short hour each day, led song sessions and closed out every day with songs and prayers before bed. They were the beginning of my personal connection to Judaism. It was as if the music we sang together bridged the gap from the boredom I used to feel to the feelings of connectedness and spirit that I got at camp. They salted the soup. I decided that I wanted to be just like them someday. I picked up a guitar and as the years and summers went on, I went from leading youth group services for 20 people to leading services and song sessions for upwards of 200 people with not just a smile and a few beads of sweat on my face, but with confidence that I had never felt before.
It took me becoming a songleader to learn that Jewish music is in itself a whole market in the Jewish world. The Jewish community has its own rock stars that fashion the melodies that are sung at Jewish summer camps and synagogues across the country. They record albums, sell their music, and hold concerts the way secular musicians do and many of them make a decent living out of it. The difference that sets them apart is that they write music based on religious texts, often using a Hebrew text and then translating it in a way that is meaningful for themselves and hopefully others. They do the work that inspires people through a combination of faith and music.
This market within the Jewish community started with the place that made me love Jewish music. Debbie Friedman, an American Jewish singer and songwriter, was once a camper at a Jewish camp, like me and millions of kids around the country, and she became the first songleader. In the 1970s, the music used in synagogues was mostly played on an organ, which can be hard to relate to if you are a kid or teen in the 1970s or pretty much any other era. She started writing her own melodies of prayers at camp on the guitar with the intention of writing Jewish music that sounded more like what she heard on the radio, in a more personal way than with an organ. This was the spark of a movement in Jewish music and over time her music changed the way Jews at summer camps and at synagogues pray. Friedman and other Jewish musicians, like Jeff Klepper and Dan Freelander, wrote music that is still used at summer camps and synagogues today, and changed the way that Jews in the reform movement experience music.
Jewish musicians and songleaders at camp, much like the young Friedman, continue to write music that is similar to the kind of music they like to listen to outside of a Jewish context. Where modern Jewish music doesn’t sound the same as Friedman’s sound that at the time was seen either as revolutionary or inappropriate, it continues to grow and change with the kids that listen to it and grow up to sing and write the Jewish music that inspires them. They continue the work that Friedman started by making the music that will inspire the next generation of kids to keep singing to the tunes that they love in the tradition that they love.
I’m glad that I grew up to be a songleader because it taught me to be confident in myself and my skills, which was what I initially wanted, but it also made me want to spread the same joy that was spread to me through Jewish music and this effect keeps me song leading outside of camp. I believe that Jewish music is a way to give flavor to a spiritual practice that often feels outdated and that has the power to get uninspired kids into the traditions that have been passed down to generation upon generation. It has the potential to help people like me that used to not care about being Jewish at all learn to connect with it in their own way, a way that made me want to learn and understand more than sitting bored in a sanctuary waiting for services to be over.
Jewish music made me want to be Jewish and it has taught me that song can be used as a tool to make kids and teens, that connect so easily to music, connect with Jewish life. Camps have known this for a long time, and synagogues are implementing camp songleaders into their schools to teach their children about Judaism through music. In my experience as a camp songleader and then a religious school songleader, I have learned about the power of music as a learning tool to teach kids about Jewish culture, Hebrew and the more faith involved aspects of Judaism. It lets them get up and be silly, but also sit down and think about Judaism as a tradition. Most of all, it gives flavor to Judaism; it salts the soup.