How being ‘silly’ can deepen connections to Judaism

Shelley Dean (second from left) leads a recent Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach class at the Brodsky Library. To her left is Shira Dean and to her right are Sami Goldenberg, Bobbe Weintraub, Christina Wise and Yehuda Dean.

BY HANNAH BOXERMAN, St. Louis Jewish Light

Shelley Dean sat barefoot on the floor of the Brodsky Library, strumming her guitar.

“If we’re doing anything that makes you feel silly, you’re doing something right,” she said to the group of parents and eight children gathered on a rug around her. “The sillier you feel, the more your kids are getting out of it.”

Dean leads classes at the library as part of Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach, an energetic parent-child musical program that seeks to “introduce the joy of Judaism into the souls of children and families.”

Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach is now in its third session of classes at the Brodsky Library, but the program began when Dean and her husband Jeff saw something missing in the way synagogues connected children to Shabbat services. The couple has four children of their own, which inspired their strong wish for a more constructive Shabbat activity for families.

“There was babysitting for kids, but if there ever was a kids’ Shabbat it was really watered down,” she said. “My husband and I felt like we wanted to provide a Shabbat experience for families and engage them through music and drumming. Music is just such a valuable added component; even if children don’t know the words, they can be involved in the service.”

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Dean and her husband began leading Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach Shabbat classes, but she felt like she could do more. A member of the Brodsky Library Commission, she pitched the idea of Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach classes for parents and small children to be held at the library during the week. 

Barb Raznick, the library’s director, said that the commission loved the idea.

“I thought it would be a perfect fit for the library,” Raznick said. “We do a lot of things for young families, and this fit in with our mission.”

Dean begins each class with a song introducing the children, who are usually under the age of 3; she then asks volunteers to make whatever sound they’d like, relating that sound to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each song the group sings, even one closely resembling “Twinkle, Twinkle”, is given a Jewish or Hebrew connection.

She encourages parents, who sit cross-legged in the circle with their children, to drum, hum, sing and dance with no inhibition, saying that even adults who didn’t consider themselves musical possess an “innate rhythm.”

Dean said that the main goal of the classes was to instill a positive spiritual connection to Judaism in young children that would last throughout their adulthood, when she said one’s link to their faith could often wane. 

“When it comes to Judaism, a kid may come to see their faith as a restrictive thing, something just full of rules,” she said. “Music, however, produces emotion. And I believe that when we hear Hebrew music it touches our neshama (soul),the one that we’ve had since we were in the womb. It touches us in a way we couldn’t access just through Hebrew school; a spiritual, subconscious way.”

Dean’s own Jewish identity, she said, was a result of the music she had learned as a child. 

“I think a lot of adults after confirmation just sort of let Judaism go,” she said. “But one of the things that will pull you back to your Jewish roots is music. That’s why I’d like to start the learning at an early age; it then has a stronger anchor.”

Fran Milsk, who attended a Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach class with her two grandchildren, said that the connection that the music made in kids was easy to see.

“It’s fun to watch the kids appreciate it and come into it on their own,” she said. “But I love doing it too.”

Dean said this was what she hoped to accomplish with Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach.

“I want it to be something where both generations can say that they both had a quality experience and it was something beneficial towards their culture and religion,” she said. “Parents want to ensure that their kids have a connection to Judaism, and we want it to be a positive one.”

 

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