How a Songleading Fellowship Will Help Teens Lead the Way

By Michelle Shapiro Abraham, RJE 

The Reform Movement has a long, distinguished history of lifting souls and spirits with music – in worship and beyond. In summer camps, synagogues, and youth group gatherings, songleaders create new arrangements, borrow from beloved composers, and rock out to updated versions of old favorites. Perhaps more than anything else in the Jewish world, music has the power to bring our community together. “When we lift our voices in song, we exemplify the best of Reform Judaism: committed, joyful, and connected,” says Cantor Rosalie Will Boxt, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) director of worship and music.

Following a months’-long discovery process that included input from stakeholders from across the movement, the URJ is poised to launch a Teen Songleading Fellowship. The pilot, set to launch in September, will help us road-test the best ways to identify and support more songleaders than ever across North America. Currently, our teen songleaders number more than 200; this fellowship will not only increase that number, but also will strengthen the caliber of songleaders available to various communities. Says Cantor Boxt, “We are going to prepare the next generation to lead us in this sacred work.”

Although many URJ camps offer songleading opportunities and the annual Hava Nashira gathering provides extensive training for people 18 and older, this new model brings expert training to teens by way of online and live classes, personal mentoring, and apprenticeships in congregations. Its holistic approach combines theory with practice and expert feedback with tools for self-evaluation and reflection.

This initiative is an outgrowth of NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement’s Nashir Teen Songleading Institute, a single weekend opportunity offered a total two or three times a year at sites across North America for students in 7th grade and above. Nashir will continue, and the new year-long fellowship will build on that model, offering teens more extensive opportunities to deepen their music and leadership skills, as well as build meaningful relationships in their congregations, camps, and communities. “This new initiative will advance our mission to build strong, welcoming, inspired communities through teen-powered engagement,” explains Beth Rodin, managing director of NFTY.

According to Cantor Claire Franco, Incoming President of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC), “We are thrilled to partner with the URJ to support the training and development of young songleaders, fostering in them leadership skills and a love of Jewish communal singing – all of which will enhance our community for years to come.”

Open to 10th– 11th– and 12th-grade North American Reform students, the Teen Songleading Fellowship is a rigorous, application-only program requiring a meaningful commitment that will be well worth the effort. Teens will learn from highly regarded experts in the field, be mentored by on-the-ground professionals, and complete projects that allow them to share what they’ve learned – about songleading and leadership – with the greater Jewish communities.

“The Reform Jewish Movement has a long tradition of building community through song,” says Cantor Boxt, who developed and will lead the fellowship. “When I visit our camps or congregations, there is always a young person playing guitar and singing, looking for that push that will get them out in front.”

The fellowship will begin with a virtual meeting in the early fall, followed by an in-person programming retreat in November. During the first two months, teens will meet with their mentors and get feedback from Cantor Boxt, to create shared expectations around their project and finalize the scope of the work.

In the second phase, participants will devote time and energy to the congregational aspects of their work, supported by a Jewish professional who will serve as a mentor. Each month, students will partner with their congregational mentor to complete an “action assignment.” Examples include “observing an experienced music leader,” “leading a song participants know,” or “teaching participants a new song.”  A monthly virtual check-in with professional songleading and leadership experts, will allow participants to debrief, support each other, and consider best principles based on their own and others’ experiences.

In the final stage of the program, teens will learn about additional opportunities to enhance their songleading skills and expand the number of people they are leading in music. With support from Cantor Boxt and their congregational mentors, participants will consider summer programs, ongoing training opportunities, or deeper congregational work as ways to continue their songleading journey.

Upon completion of the Teen Songleading Fellowship, students not only will have the know-how and expertise to engage others in song, but also the confidence to mobilize groups to make positive change in the world.

For more information and an interest form, visit the URJ Teen Songleading Fellowship page. Applications for the 2019-2020 inaugural program will be available in early July. No previous experience with a URJ songleading program is required.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE, is the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of learning and innovation for youth and a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. A longtime Jewish educator, author, and speaker, she holds a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Michelle is a recipient of the 2015 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education and an active member of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ, where her husband, Joel Abraham, serves as the rabbi.

Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog