All I Really Needed to Know I learned in Song Session

By Rabbi Paul Kipnes

The insight took me by surprise. Hanging with our faculty cohort late at Friday night at the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, I came to realize that so much of who I was, who our children are becoming, and how our family has prioritized our values derives from the songs we sang at summer camp. Growing up at URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY in my teen years and raising our kids each summer at URJ Camp Newman introduced me deep Jewish learning in the guise of fun camp song sessions. Who would have thought that the Jewish values my wife and I hold most dear, and the texts from which they arise, were embedded in our hearts at those Jewish summer camps.

Still Singing at Summer Camp

Faculty Shabbat Song Session at Camp Newman
Faculty Shabbat Song Session at Camp Newman

The realization crept up on me late one Friday night when – after an inspiring Shabbat – the rabbis, educators, cantorial soloists, artists, songleaders and nefesh staff retired to our cabin on Faculty Row. Squeezed into our mini-living room, the group of close to two dozen people (ranging in age from 18 to 67) began our late night adults-only Shabbat shira (singing). Four guitars – and Rabbi Rick Winer’s (musical?) contraption made up of a washboard with bells and cymbals attached – provided the musical accompaniment.

We began with current Camp Newman favorites. Soon enough though, we jumped back to the future, singing rousing zemirot from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The online set list from the five album Songs NFTY Sings and the many URJ Camp Swig albums guided us on our musical journey. The atmosphere was joyful; the energy high. The last participants meandered back to their own cabins just before 2:00 am.

Singing Central Jewish Values

As we sang, I was transported back to the most wonderful seven years I spent at the Kutz Camp NFTY Leadership Academy. There, first as a teenage program participant and later as head resident advisor and program director, I spent many nights in the dining hall, singing Jewish music. The shiron (songbook) displayed both the words and the source of the songs.

I was fascinated by the diversity of sources. Later as a rabbinical student, I dug deeper, noticing that the texts represented in the songbook spanned the whole Jewish canon. We sang songs based on

  • Pirkei Avot – V’eizeh Hu
  • Biblical Psalms – Shiru Ladonai
  • The siddur – Yom Zeh L’yisrael
  • The Talmud – Nefesh Echad

I once taught a course at Kutz called the “Songs NFTY Sings” in which we studied the profound lessons contained within the texts of the songs.

Raising a Family with the Songs We Sing

Back at our Camp Newman faculty song session, it became clear that many of the values that became central to my life, values which later guided the way Michelle and I raised our children, grew out of the ideals we discovered in the songs we sang:

“We taught our children to find contentment with what they had. Instead of getting caught in the endless cycle of trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” we explain (and sing): Veizeh hu asher – who is wealthy? Hasamei-ach b’chelko – the one who is content with his or her portion.

We taught our children about their dual responsibilities: to themselves and to others. As a teen singing Hillel’s famous aphorism, I repeatedly faced the need to find the balance between universalism and particularism. We taught our kids what we sang: Im ein ani li mi li – if I am not for myself, who will be for me? And uchsheani l’atzmi mah ani – and if I am only for myself, what am I? V’im lo achshav eimatai – And if not now, when? They know they must take care of both.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav taught us, through a song we sang, about facing our fears with courage and passion. Kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod– the whole world is a very narrow bridge. V’haikar lo lifached kla l– and the most important thing is not to be too afraid. Fear can shut us down. Reb Nachman reminded us to walk forward nonetheless.

I learned about love and about devotion to a loved one from Song of Songs. Dodi li v’ani lo – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. As my wife and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, we hope we have passed the lessons of committed relationship. Camp taught us the ideal of love.

B’tzelem Elohim (we all are created in the image of God) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) have become two favorite values embedded in our children’s hearts through the contemporary Jewish music which harmonizes through these values. Our children know that we value each individual and we assume responsibility for repairing the world because they know these values. Where did they learn this most profoundly? In song sessions at camp, where the music instills the lessons even more deeply than our most heartfelt conversations with them.”

Reflecting on the Truths that Define our Lives

In an ethical will to our children, in a letter to our daughter as she went off to college, and in a letter to our sons about being a man, we detailed the emet (truth) we wanted to instill in their lives. Rereading these letters, now published in our book, “Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness” (Jewish Lights), the influence of these song session Jewish lessons becomes so clear. The central values of my life came from foundational Jewish texts, many of which I learned at URJ Kutz Camp and which are being reinforced at Camp Newman.

Forward to the Past at Kutz Camp

As my youngest son remains at Camp Newman as a first year counselor, I am crossing the country to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the URJ Kutz Camp. I look forward to seeing old friends, honoring the directors Smitty and PJR who gave Kutz meaning, and recommitting myself to the engaging our Jewish youth in deep Jewish life and learning.

In the midst of it all, I will also find time to sit again in the dining hall, to flip through the songbooks, and to reflect once again upon the profound influence of these Jewish texts on my life, family and rabbinate. May the song sessions that gave meaning to my life continue to inspire and mold the Jewish future.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California and blogs at Or Am I?