A tuneup for Jewish leaders at ‘Boot Camp’

Shira Kline leads a session Monday during Songleader Boot Camp at the Jewish Community Center. The event draws hundreds of Jewish community leaders to St. Louis each year.

By Eric Berger, Staff writer

Rabbis David Ingber and Sharon Brous have some key things in common. Not only did a founder of the Songleader Boot Camp (SLBC) label them as “rock stars,” but they also each formed their own congregations. 

Ingber started Romemu, a New York group that fuses “Eastern spiritual practices with traditional Orthodox influences”; on the opposite coast, in Los Angeles, Brous founded IKAR, a community “dedicated to reanimating Jewish life through imaginative engagement with ritual and spiritual practice and a deep commitment to social justice.”

They have also both been named among the nation’s leading rabbis by Newsweek and served as faculty members at the three-day boot camp at the Jewish Community Center in the Creve Coeur area, where more than 300 rabbis, cantors, educators and musicians gathered to learn how to better engage Jews through music.

The fact that Reform and Conservative clergy from older synagogues attended a camp led in part by Brous and Ingber served as a reminder that some leaders from various streams of Judaism are willing to embrace change. 

But the question remains as to whether older synagogues can succeed using practices spearheaded by clergy such as Ingber and Brous. 

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“I long for a day when denominations join hands under one umbrella called, ‘Non-Orthodox Judaism,’ (or) call it ‘Liberal Judaism,’ and donors come together and we have one large alliance for the renewal of Jewish life — and it’s happening when you see people in a room like this,” said Ingber, who was raised Modern Orthodox. He said he became interested in Buddhism and Hinduism and eventually came back to Judaism while learning from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement

Ingber attended SLBC for the first time in 2016. The camp features a mix of prayer, training on subjects such as living in the moment, and song sessions, including one with Neshama Carlebach, the daughter of Jewish musical icon Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Rick Recht, a Jewish musician based in St. Louis, and Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of the J’s Jewish Engagement and Adult Programs, founded the camp in 2009. They have since expanded it to offer trainings around the country and programming connected to Camp Ramah, the Conservative-affiliated summer program, and PJ Library, an organization that sends families free Jewish children’s books. 

At boot camp, Recht and others say, the goal is to try to have faculty and participants operate in a peer-to-peer format, with people from various backgrounds and leadership positions encouraged to lead songs or offer ideas. With people of all ages rocking back and forth to the music, and no shortage of guitar cases, the conference at the J’s Arts and Education Building did have the feel of a summer camp.

“It’s a really flat conference in that we try to create as many shared leadership opportunities as possible for participants to have a role in teaching, leading and sharing,” said Recht, who also founded Jewish Rock Radio, a streaming service featuring Jewish music.

On Sunday, Ingber, Brous, and Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation participated in a Women in Rock show. Musicians such as Carlebach performed songs while the rabbis mixed in teachings from the Torah.

“It was just this embrace of women’s voices in the Torah, and that was really inspirational,” said Abbie Strauss, a cantorial soloist at Temple Israel in Memphis who has toured with Recht and considers him a mentor. She also played music in the show.

On Monday, Shira Kline led a session titled “5 Essential Ingredients for Living in the Moment.” Kline has short hair with neon blue and purple waves and performs “outrageously hip Jewish kiddie rock.” 

She wore a pair of harem pants and connected tools for song leaders to Jewish words and values such as shema, which she used to describe a listening moment. She asked the room filled with educators if they provide moments for contemplation for their students, and then demonstrated how they could take a book and rotate it around the room in silence to show children an illustration.

Later that afternoon, Jewish musician and educator Josh Warshawsky led a session in the Wool Studio Theater that filled the room with Jewish songs and wordless niggunim. He has attended the boot camp each year and now is studying in Israel to become a Conservative rabbi. He said he feels like he has a responsibility to help fill “the holes in the world” through music and that the boot camp helps in that cause. 

Brous, who founded the Los Angeles group in 2004 and has delivered a TED talk with more than 1 million views, said she sees the boot camp as “part of a spiritual revolution that is happening around the country, which is the recognition and realization that a lot of these old forms of engagement don’t resonate and people have the option of either walking away or re-engaging.”

Of older synagogues, she said, “I think a lot of the synagogues would love to have that camp energy in their shuls but so many of the institutions are definitionally conservative — whether they are Reform or Conservative — the people who come every week like to have (services) done a certain way.”

Despite those limitations, older synagogues can still use the sorts of ideas promoted at the camp, said Cantor Nancy Abramson, Director of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. 

“I think people are really receptive to something like this, which really is a grassroots conference,” said Abramson, who spent decades at synagogues around New York before joining the school. 

She said she had challenged Ingber during a session the day before after he said that traditional melodies don’t always resonate with him.

“He said he’ll take a niggun and put it to a prayer,” Abramson recalled. “And I sort of said, ‘What is wrong with the tradition? Why can’t you weave the two together?’ ”