Camp Sabra music leader got his start as a camper

Josh Mannis, 19, is the music director of Camp Sabra. He currently attends Indiana University and graduated from Parkway Central High School. Photo: Bill Motchan

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Note to parents whose children are attending Camp Sabra this summer: When your kids get home, don’t be surprised if they want to learn to play guitar or write a song and belt it out on stage.

If your child takes a sudden interest in music, credit Camp Sabra’s new, charismatic music director and song leader. Josh Mannis, 19, is the talented singer who will have hundreds of kids singing, clapping and stomping their feet out on the Staenberg Peninsula.

Mannis just completed his freshman year at Indiana University. He returned home to Missouri to spend the summer in a job he’s wanted since he was a 9-year-old camper in Camp Sabra’s Golan unit.

“I remember my first Shabbat dance, and the song leader back then really inspired me,” Mannis said. “I saw how he got people singing and dancing, so I started bringing my guitar to camp and getting involved singing. I played during Shabbat and during song sessions during the week.”


One year ago, Mannis was an assistant song leader at Camp Sabra. This summer, he has overall responsibility for the music program.

“I’m in charge of all music during Shabbat services Friday night and Saturday morning,” he said. “Then, I’ll run four daily activity periods for the kids. We’ll teach them songs and have fun activities. One of my favorites is when we team up with the outdoor staff and teach kids how to build a campfire, then teach them some camp songs, and then put it all together and make s’mores. It’s awesome.”

Mannis is one of the youngest Camp Sabra senior staffers. What sold the camp hierarchy was his energy and enthusiasm, said Kimberly Holtzman Sloan, assistant director.

“When it came time to interview, he brought in lists and graphs,” Sloan said. “He wants to keep the tradition of Sabra alive and make great changes. He’s coming in with new ideas. He is so ready to rumble, and his excitement excites us.

“He already has a following here at camp, from the past couple of years as a counselor, and the kids follow him. He’s got this energy and this ‘it’ factor that kids and grownups want to follow. There are staff members who have memorized the songs he’s written. He’s got this amazing quality about him that makes people want to follow him, which is unbelievable as a song leader.”

Just before his fifth birthday, Mannis asked his parents for a guitar. His favorite TV show was “Drake and Josh”on Nickelodeon.He wanted to emulate the lead — Drake, not his namesake — and be a teen rock star.

Mannis was a diligent guitar student, and he joined a rock band program at age 9. Despite his voice cracking, it was a defining moment.

“It was amazing to be on stage,” he said. “It was funny because it was the first time I heard my voice through a microphone, and I was so freaked out because I thought I sounded like a chipmunk. I couldn’t really sing yet. But I knew it was something I really wanted to do, so I dedicated myself to it.”

Practice and more practice paid off for Mannis. At Parkway Central High School, he was a member of the choir, but his songwriting and singing skills made him a solo sensation.

“For a pep rally, the school asked me to play one of the songs I wrote that most people knew,” he said. “To see a room of 1,200 students all getting into the music that I wrote was one of my favorite memories.”

College life for Mannis involves studying; he’s a business major with a minor in music and arts management. Away from the books, he’s playing open-mike nights at Bloomington, Ind., clubs and coffeehouses. He’s putting a band together with some Alpha Epsilon Pi friends.

As of Sunday (June 11), Mannis’ performances will be in front of young campers. He loves singing for kids and the joy they get out of his talent.

“Some of my best performances are at camp because of the energy from the kids,” he said. “We do a song where kids stomp their feet and you can feel the ground shaking.

“One of my favorite songs we do is ‘The Hope’ by Rick Recht. It’s a call-and-response song, and it’s so high energy. It’s the first Jewish song I ever learned on a guitar, and Rick taught me himself back when I was 7 years old and I was at Camp Emeth as a camper. He came every summer, and he knew that I was into it and taught me how to play it.”

Eventually, Mannis might want to teach music. That’s part of the role he sees for himself this summer at Camp Sabra.

“My goal is to see the kids that are just like me when I was that age, and I really work with them, I want to draw them in, get them up on stage, work with them on their guitar and their song leading, and train a future generation so they can do exactly what I’m doing right now.”

Sloan, Sabra’s assistant director, is hopeful that campers and staff will have a better appreciation for songs and prayers after experiencing Mannis’ song-leading skills.

“It’s all about your excitement because it’ll ripple through the kids,” she said. “I still remember the tunes from the songs that I learned when I was a camper in 1986. I hope they have a love for all of these songs. 

“We have kids (for whom) the only Judaic things they do are at Camp Sabra, all the way through kids who are Modern Orthodox. And anyone and everyone can fall in love with these songs and prayers and request to their rabbi when it’s their turn to be bar mitzvahed, ‘That’s the way we did it at Camp Sabra.’”

Mannis is just happy to get the immediate feedback from an audience, whether it’s a college audience or preteen campers.

“It’s the best part of it, seeing the smiles and hearing the applause,” he said. “That’s what keeps me doing it.”