Schoolhouse Rock

Dave Simon, founder and owner of  Dave Simon’s Rock School teaches students after school at Epstein Hebrew Academy.  

By Barry Gilbert, Special to the Jewish Light

Dave Simon strikes a chord at Orthodox day schools

Room 216 at Epstein Hebrew Academy (EHA) in St. Louis is filled with bookcases holding impressive sets of serious-looking bound volumes written in Hebrew, as well as paint and beads and other craft supplies, huge pieces of box board and, on Friday afternoons, music. 

About 1:30, nine students ranging in age from 10 to 13 start to arrive. The two girls and seven boys settle in on folding chairs with their choices among several electric guitars, an electric bass, two electric keyboards and a drum kit. 

At first, the room is filled with a cacophony of chatter, rim shots, guitar strums and keyboard blurts. Once teacher Dave Simon takes control, they will be a rock band. 


The kids taking the Epstein music elective are learning how to play multiple instruments, write lyrics and play together. Some have been playing instruments and taking classes outside of school; others are making music for the first time.

Shoshana Wolfe, 11, who also takes formal lessons for piano and violin, says, “I love music, and I wanted to learn how to play different instruments.”

Her friend Ilana Meissner, 10, says she took the class because “it sounded like a lot of fun” and she enjoys the tablature method (a fret-based rather than note-based system) of reading guitar music.

She also has a lot of music at home thanks to her dad, Donald Meissner, who teaches guitar, and her mom, who “makes me listen to oldies.” 

“I feel for you,” Shoshana jokes.

Simon, whose daughter Noa is a kindergartner at Epstein, and whose son Levi will attend next year as a fourth-grader, teaches music for a living. Eleven years ago, he started Dave Simon’s Rock School, where he refined the idea of teaching music in a band-setting to children with no experience. Today, Kidzrock is offered for ages 4-7, and Jr. Rockerz is available for ages 8-10. The school also offers private lessons for all ages, homeschool bands and camps.  

Now he’s begun licensing his program to schools, many of which, he says, are financially challenged to provide a music experience to their students. Epstein, a co-ed Orthodox day school, and Missouri Torah Institute, an Orthodox boys high school, are among the schools using Simon’s course. (Simon’s Rock School provides instruments, music and teachers.)

“The kids at Epstein are really into it,” Simon says. “They switch off on different instruments, and they write the lyrics. These kids are so busy, so (for this class) they don’t have to practice. They come in once a week and play in a rock band. But it’s really turned a lot of these kids on to music, which is what you hope for.”

Rabbi Avi Greene, EHA’s head of school, says Epstein has had a choir for younger students, “but we hadn’t necessarily had anything where students were able to learn how to play and use instruments in quite a while. This was something I was excited about being able to add to our curriculum.”

Greene and Simon began talking about adding Simon’s class to the EHA curriculum last year after Greene went to a bar mitzvah party at Simon’s school “and I saw some of the phenomenal things his students are able to do. … I was really impressed with what (the boy becoming a bar mitzvah) was able to do.”

“So Dave told me about a program he does for schools,” Greene says. “And we were really interested, in part because it’s always challenging to find ways where we can incorporate the arts into the curriculum, music in particular.”

The program at Missouri Torah Institute also had its roots in a chance meeting last year, when Simon struck up a conversation at a coffee shop with a yarmulke-wearing man who happened to be an administrator at MTI. (MTI did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

“I told him about what I did, and he mentioned, oh, maybe you could do something at the school, and I just thought he was being polite,” Simon says. “I didn’t really think he was going to pursue it, but he did.” 

Simon, 46, played in rock bands while at Clayton High School and Webster University. He also studied classical music and played in orchestras. 

“I devoted all my 20s and 30s to living in New York and San Francisco as an aspiring rock star,” he says. “Then I turned 40 and decided the party’s over, go back to St. Louis and settle down. So here I am.”

Bringing a rock music program into an Orthodox Jewish school came with some concern: Girls are prohibited from singing in front of boys, and bringing modern pop songs into class could also bring inappropriate themes and language. 

“I actually went to the school about the singing, because with girls I knew it had to be addressed,” Simon says. “It is OK for girls and boys to sing together, but a girl singing by herself in front of boys, there’s a Torah prohibition against it. But the school appreciated me saying something first.”

Greene says there were no objections from parents. 

“Dave and I agreed that any singing solos would be handled by boys (or Simon),” he says. “And because the focus is not necessarily singing but on playing instruments, not only have I not heard any complaints, I have kids who are excited. 

“I have girls who come to me and go, ‘This week I get to play the drums!’ And other kids go, ‘Oh, this week I learned how to play a bass guitar.’ And they’re more excited by that than anything else.” 

At Epstein and MTI, Simon and his staff provide the music and guide the students who write appropriate lyrics. “Song 4” at EHA, for example, has these lyrics: 

“Flying on a jet plane/ Shooting for the stars/ looking down at the clouds/ feel the heat of Mars/ Feeling free of my burdens/ I know they’re chasing me/ courageous like an eagle/ mighty and free.” 

Greene says popular music is not necessarily an issue as long as the themes are appropriate. 

“But I think the fact that it’s original music is really a plus in the sense that when the kids get to write their own lyrics, they’re far more invested in the song and in the program.”

Simon adds: “You’d think, ‘What kind of music program would an Orthodox day school or Yeshiva have?’ You wouldn’t think of a cutting edge rock band program. (Having a creative musical outlet) is not necessarily the driving focus of an Orthodox school. It’s getting a good secular education and learning Torah. But this provides them with a different outlet.”

Simon found a bit more concern at MTI, a high school for boys, than there was at EHA, a co-ed elementary and middle school. One of the MTI boys wanted to bring in a pop song, which might have opened a Pandora’s box for the school.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is connected to some ideas that aren’t connected with Torah values,” Simon says. “At the same time, expressing ourselves through music is a big part of our heritage. … So I reassured them that the instrumental portion would be simple music, and if we’re going to get into any singing, it’s going to be their own ideas.

“Although,” Simon laughs, “I don’t care if you’re Orthodox or not, you get a bunch of teenagers, and they all want to sing about stuff that could be inappropriate.”