Everything I Needed to Know to be a Jewish Experiential Educator I Learned at a Bruce Springsteen Concert

By Billy Planer

I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from Bruce Springsteen
me with a nod to Rabbi Chanina.

I attended my first Bruce Springsteen concert in the early 1980’s and have easily been to over 100 since. Each show is a time of rejuvenation, rededication, recommitment to, and learning about, my craft, profession and calling – Jewish experiential education.

Here are some of the main tenets about being a Jewish educator that I have learned by attending a Bruce Springsteen concert:

You make up your mind; you choose the chance you take
You ride to where the highway ends and the desert breaks
Out on to an open road you ride until the day
You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay
The Price You Pay

The beginning of a Springsteen concert is more powerful than the ending of most other musicians and it just keeps going. He hits the stage at full throttle and doesn’t let up. Bruce spoke about this in an interview “There’s no cheap way to get to it! You gotta pay. The way you pay your dues on every song is by digging up the piece of you that has felt that frightened, that uncomfortable, that disempowered, that scared, that lonely, and that angry. That’s the price of admission if you want things to fly.” As an educator, I have learned to start strong and keep it coming. We must hit the students with everything we’ve got. You have to develop, practice and work your craft. Never be satisfied and comfortable but keep incorporating new skills into your craft. Keep looking for new challenges as an educator. This way you keep it fresh for you which means it will be fresh for your students. Walk the tightrope.

I learned more from a three-minute record
than I ever learned in school?
No Surrender

This lyric helps me to understand that there are so many ways to engage and educate people beyond the traditional means. Personally, I also relate to this lyric as it sums up my formal education experience. As experiential educators we are helping our students find their own way to enter the world. Springsteen’s way was with his guitar. My way is by being a Jewish experiential educator. I create my programs with the idea of helping my students find their way into Judaism. Never before have there been so many paths for them to make that connection. There has also never been a more accepting time of alternate ways to learn. As educators we need to look over our “tool kit” of skills daily. See what is still relevant, update, upgrade, dispose of what is expired and add new items and make sure you have the latest versions of what you are using. In my 30 plus years of working with Jewish youth I have used anything and everything from song lyrics, video clips, quotes, meditation, exercise, yoga, etc. to get my lessons and points across.

I’ll work for your love
What others may want for free
I’ll work for your love
I’ll Work For Your Love

At a typical arena concert, 18,000 people have paid $100 each for their ticket. This should serve as a pretty good affirmation of their desire to be there and engaged with the show. Basically, with his devoted fan base, all Springsteen would have to do to satisfy them is to walk out on stage and read the phone book. Instead, he is, with a hat tip to James Brown, the self-titled “hardest working white man in show business.” Every concert is a 3+ hour experience that is part circus, part religious revival, part political rally and he works to connect to the crowd every minute of the show by wandering out into it, sharing stories, collecting signs with song requests on them, and essentially working hard for the audience’s validation and love. He wants to make sure you are engaged and feel like you got your moneys worth by letting you see him sweat and labor.

Bruce has said, “I don’t think if I don’t play good tonight, I’ll play good tomorrow. I don’t think that if I didn’t play good tonight, that, well, I played good last night. It’s like there’s no tomorrows and there’s no yesterdays. There’s only right now.” As an educator, my take away is that there is no phoning it in. We are only as good as our last program. Collectively all of our programs and lessons will, hopefully, add up to a tremendous body of work. Individually, the success of your last program or lesson does not matter if your current one is not working. Through his constant desire to have me know he is working hard for me, Bruce Springsteen is teaching me not to take my audience (students, parents, adults) for granted. I need to go out and prove it all night, every night.

I’m thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel
and said son take a good look around.
This is your hometown
My Hometown

“In any city on any given evening you keep your ears open to what would make that evening distinctive and personal. We are here for you … that is what we like to deliver. It makes it one. There is only tonight. This is for this specific evening.” (Bruce Springsteen talking about why he chooses to do a site-specific song at many of his concerts.) More than any other musician I know, Springsteen is very aware of where the concert is happening. In America, he will perform songs from his catalogue that reference the name, culture or history of that specific city or do a cover song that is tied to that town. When abroad, he will greet the crowd and speak in the local language. While it may only be a few sentences, it really shows he is making an effort to connect locally and helping dispel the stereotype of the “ugly American” abroad. What this has shown me is the need to meet my students where they are. I try and bridge the gap between where my students are and where I want to take them educationally by literally and figuratively speaking their language, using terms, language and cultural references that the students can relate. This makes them comfortable and helps diffuse any hesitancy the students may have towards learning with me and helps create a connection.

It takes a leap of faith to get things going
It takes a leap of faith you gotta show some guts
It takes a leap of faith to get things going
In your heart you must trust
Leap Of Faith

“You can’t conform to the formula of always giving the audience what it wants or you’re killing yourself and you’re killing the audience. Because they don’t really want it either. Just because they respond to something doesn’t mean they want it. I think it has come to the point where they respond automatically to things that they think they should respond to. You’ve got to give them more than that. Someone has to take the initiative and say, ‘Let’s step out of the mold. Let’s try this.’” (Springsteen quoted in his biography “Two Hearts” speaking about his relationship and obligation to his audience.)

What we can infer from this Springsteen quote is that students are going to ask for what THEY THINK they want or are supposed to ask for. Our job as educators is to show them new possibilities, new ways to view the world, and give them new words to say. We can do this by giving them a little of what they want but a lot of what we think they need. The catch, in my opinion, is that the students know and expect this. It is their job to act like they don’t want what I am trying to do but, beneath the bravado and surface, they do want it. The same can be said about discipline and expectation of their behavior. We need to learn to stand comfortably in our power as educators. Be comfortable realizing that your students are going to want one thing but you know the other thing is so important and must be done. THIS IS OUR JOB!

I stopped taking my youth group on an annual trip to Disneyworld because I thought they could, and should, do something more meaningful and deeper. I replaced the purely fun Disney trip with an educationally dense journey to a different city each year filled with discussions, lessons, and even pre trip research projects. Of course, the teens immediately rejected the idea when I proposed it but we sold out of every trip. At first, I had to take a strong stance and have the courage of my convictions that I was right on my instinct that we needed to replace the Disney trip. Now, was I 100% sure of my idea? No, not at all, but I felt in my kishkes, in my gut, that I was on to something. I wanted to be the person who stood up say, ‘lets step out of the mold and try this’.”

Over the years of leading my trips and running youth groups, I have become comfortable that my style of education may not always be immediate. It is what I have termed “revelatory education.” The lessons I am imparting may not be easily consumed and digested right then and there but may sit in the back of a student’s mind and percolate until later in their life and isn’t that even better?

Show a little faith
there’s magic in the night
Thunder Road

I am often asked if I get tired of seeing the same show? To me, it is the same as why when we end reading the Torah we just start over. While the 5 books remain the same, we are different. We are a year older and can view the lessons with the new experience the past year has given us. I bring my whole being, intellect, emotion, and experience, to each show and therefore it resonates differently with me each time. I want my lessons to be the same way, I bring new insight into the same discussion I may be leading for the 20th time in order to keep it fresh and relevant to me and, therefore, it will be to the students.

What also helps keep each concert fresh is that Springsteen will mix up the song list for each night and even within the show he will deviate from the set list he prepared for that specific show. He audibles about 25% of the set list each night based on his reading of the audience and the energy and flow of the show. We, as educators, need to prepare our lessons, sharpen our tool, be focused on what and how we are going to teach and then read our audience as we start down our plan. Don’t be afraid to take a sharp left from your outline if you feel this is what is needed. Dart to the right from your set list if you feel that is going to keep your students better engaged. When I am leading a discussion, I am constantly checking on the non-verbal messages they are sending me, the weather, the events of that day, their collective energy, etc. and adjusting accordingly by speeding up, slowing down, or bringing up something entirely different and knowing that we can come back to the planned lesson.

You can’t start a fire
without a spark
Dancing In The Dark

“It is clear that Springsteen thinks a lot about being Springsteen,” wrote Josh Tyrangiel in a Time Magazine article on August 5, 2002. One of the major skills I get from going to a Bruce Springsteen concert is an understanding of how to be a performer. At a concert, I will spend time just watching how he communicates with his band and with the audience to gain skills I can use with my counselors and staff and in my classroom. I am a believer that education is performance art. As media guru Marshall McLuhan said, “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between art and education doesn’t know the first thing about either.” From the seemingly spontaneous patter to his facial expressions, Springsteen is in control of what he is doing, why he is doing it and how it helps make a point. When I worked as a counselor at Camp Ramah in New England we were taught about planned spontaneity. What seems to happen out of nowhere often needs to be planned out. It never occurred to me as a camper that water soakers always happened to be laying out by the field during very hot days and exactly when spontaneous water fights broke out. I have learned to rehearse not only what I am saying when preparing a lesson but how to say it, what am I wearing and what non verbal cues can I make to help get the point across even more effectively.

I happen to get these lessons from a musician I enjoy very much. I encourage all educators to find someone you admire and see what you can learn from how they perform. Whether it is watching actors discuss their craft on “Inside The Actors Studio” or listening to comedians talk shop on a podcast, any and all mediums can teach us new skills and new ways to be more effective with our students. My next thing to do is to figure out is how I can write off the price of the concert tickets as professional development.

Billy Planer has been working in Jewish experiential education for 30 years. He is the Founder and Director of Etgar 36, a program that during the summer takes Jewish teens across America teaching them about history, politics and activism. During the academic year Etgar 36 takes day schools and synagogue groups on Civil Rights journeys.