JCC hosts three-day program for Jewish songwriters

St. Louis Jewish rocker Sheldon Low teaches a class during the Jewish Song Leader Bootcamp held at the Jewish Community Center last week. The three-day program drew songwriters and performers from around the country

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Dozens of Jewish song leaders from day camps, early childhood centers, synagogues and religious schools around the United States and the world converged on St. Louis last week for a unique Song Leader Boot Camp led by some of the biggest names in contemporary Judaic music.

The inaugural event, hosted at the Jewish Community Center, attracted roughly 40 participants, including about a dozen St. Louisans. They came for three days of intensive music training with performers Rick Recht, Sheldon Low, Todd Herzog and Recht’s wife, Elisa Heiligman Recht. Funding from J Associates, the Messing Family Scholar-in-Residence Fund and private donors backed the initiative, in which instructors presented lectures, hands-on activities, question-and-answer sessions and interactive exercises for as much as nine to 14 hours each day.

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Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of the Helene Mirowitz Center for Jewish Community Life, called the camp a “first-of-its-kind event.”

“There are other things on the national level but nothing like this,” he said. “It’s innovative. It’s new and it’s needed to have an impact on Jewish educational settings around the country. I’m proud that St. Louis can be at the forefront of this.”

Topics for the camp included classes on songwriting, vocal exercises, equipment, Jewish interpretation and meaning, guitar techniques, and business logistics. Strategic road-mapping workshops to set skill development goals were also on the agenda.

“There are practice breakout sessions,” said Rick Recht, “where participants are divided into smaller groups with instructors where they have a chance to actually practice the skills that they are learning here so they don’t just have it in their heads. They’re doing it right away.”

Recht, a native St. Louisan who specializes in contemporary Judaic music, has become well-known around the nation for his unique sound. As artist-in-residence at United Hebrew Congregation and creator of the “Shabbat Alive” musical synagogue service concept, Recht tours the world playing about 150 dates a year. Though he didn’t start in Judaic music, he has since released eight albums in the genre.

Sheldon Low is another local face who has hit it big on the Jewish music scene. Now living in New York, Low, who has cut three albums, is a Solomon Schechter Day School graduate who grew up at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel. He said the idea to do this kind of camp is a unique one that looks to other successful genres to draw lessons about the nature of song leading.

“That’s a whole other element of what we are trying to do here,” he said, “to really elevate Jewish music and take some nods from the Christian music world, saying what can we do to make this as accessible and exciting?”

Jonathan Goldstein, a religious school music teacher from McKinney, Tex., certainly found it accessible enough. He called the sessions “life-changing” and “phenomenal.”

“We play in our communities and it isn’t very often that we get to interact on a national scale with our song leaders and musicians and get together to share experiences, learn, grow and step up our game,” said Goldstein, 36. “We stand in awe of Rick and what he’s achieved, what he brings in to a room. He commands it. We all kind of wonder, ‘Wow, can we get a piece of that?'”

Cantor Hollis Schachner of Wayland, Mass., said her congregation was revamping its tefillah program and this experience would help guide her through the process. She said the main thing she had learned was that song leading is a worldview not just an activity.

“I had thought it was about picking up a guitar and learning some songs but it’s really about establishing relationships and teaching Torah through music holistically, not just communicating a song or a text,” said Schachner, 36. “It’s about transforming your community through music and leaving an imprint, not just teaching a song but leaving them changed.”

Some participants were from closer to home. Karen Sher, a Clayton resident who teaches children at Temple Israel and Central Reform Congregation, said she was initially terrified to play in front of adults but quickly discovered that part of the session to be her favorite.

“It gives me a better sense of how to be in the classroom, how to engage and take it to another level,” said Sher, 42. “Now I have a community of other songleaders that I can go to ask questions, to learn from, to grow from. The relationships are huge.”

Another local participant, Rabbi Justin Kerber of Temple Emanuel said that he also enjoyed doing presentations, especially the round robin exercise in which students were able to try out the techniques they learned in front of the group.

“The most surprising thing about this is how little it has been about musical technique,” he said. “To an amazing extent, it’s about the physiology and psychology of the leader and the way the leader can use presence to convey respect and leadership upon the group.”

That accounts for some of the more unorthodox teaching formats which include everything from chanting periods to an eight-minute “jump, dance and shout” session set to loud music three times each day. Recht also said the workshops made an effort to convey the most important part of being a songleader – leading.

“A lot of Song Leader Boot Camp is designed to be participant-led so that the song sessions that happen after lunch and after dinner are not led by instructors,” he said. “This gives [participants] the chance to exercise the skills that they are learning in front of their peers and get feedback from their community in a safe, encouraging environment.”

Organizers said the event was such a success, it spawned a follow-up session. Set for this week, the follow-up will focus on 15 local teenagers who weren’t able to be included in last month’s event.

JCC President Michael Staenberg said the boot camp should be back next year – hopefully attracting even more participants. He also said it dovetailed nicely with the JCC’s mission and that of the newly revamped Arts & Education Building.

“It reaches out to kids across the United States and brings them to St. Louis,” said Staenberg. “I think it shows why we developed the new J. It’s about Jewish programming.”