Reinvest in the sounds of summer 

Thanks to Rob and Elisa Bildner’s critical work with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, we know that participation in Jewish camp is one of the most significant predictors of Jewish engagement as an adult

We also know this: Singing together makes the summer. 

“Song is everywhere and the role of song at camp cannot be overstated,” observe Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe in their seminal book on the enduring impact of Jewish summer camp, How Goodly Are Thy Tents:

“Song is used to bring order to chaos in the dining hall, to build community, to create spiritual moments. The songleaders are the heroes at camp. Sharing those tunes unites members of the camp community — like a secret society — both at camp and back home.”

And yet, the robust integration of music at Jewish summer camps led by specially trained songleaders is disappearing. At Sing Unto God, a two-year-old startup organization that trains and supports songleaders, we are currently working with three camps on the long-term rebuilding of their singing culture. For multiple consecutive springs, we have had far more requests from overnight and day camps searching for songleaders than we have songleaders to recommend.

One of my favorite camp memories is of 19-year-old Kenny Chasen leading songs in our cabin. Chasen is now senior rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. I remember working at URJ Kutz Camp as a young adult, watching Debbie Friedman and trying to understand what made her different from other songleaders so I could emulate it. Last summer, I trained teens in a dedicated songleading track at URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy; because of that training, one of them was able to jump into leading Tot Shabbat alone at their congregation in New Orleans with just last-minute notice. 

As someone whose career as a cantor was inspired by the community of great songleaders in Jewish camps, I am compelled to ask: Where have all the songleaders gone, and why has no significant funding been provided to address this communal need?

I see three discrete but overlapping challenges:

1.) The impact of singing together can’t be measured by the metrics donors have come to expect.

    For Helene Drobenare Horwitz, executive director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake for over 20 years, songleading isn’t just about music. “It’s about how you want to build your camp culture and how you want to educate,” she said in a recent conversation. “Every camp director will tell you the same thing: What fills a camp’s soul is song. Song completely changed the culture of my camp.” 

    How do you quantify the value of that? 

    “Psychiatry is not quantitative — you can’t show it in an X-ray, but the psychiatrist knows,” Horwitz countered. “A camp director knows, even if it can’t be quantified.” 

    2.) There is not adequate support — especially financial support — for songleaders year-round. 

      The decrease in local and regional gatherings of Jewish youth — especially programs that offer meaningful content connecting youth to Jewish values and tradition as well as to Israel — means fewer opportunities to sing together. Not only are teens not singing together as much, but teens aren’t exposed to songleaders. 

      The problem is a circular one: Fewer places emphasize singing, so song leaders are less necessary; and fewer trained songleaders means that both today’s and future campers won’t have inspirational Jewish role models like previous generations, short circuiting the l’dor v’dor passion to lead their own Jewish community.

      Worse, fewer religious schools, synagogues and camps are collaborating to lift up and encourage teen songleaders to lead in communities during the “off-season.” They are not providing mentorship on the ground, tracking their teens when they move onto college, or connecting them with other leadership development opportunities or teen training programs that focus exclusively on training songleaders. 

      This is not because of a lack of desire; rather, it is a function of the limited capacity of overworked congregational professionals, reduced access to support for mentoring and skill development and lack of financial support for nurturing emerging leaders’ talent, passion and commitment to Jewish community. 

      Creating the foundational experiences that fuel a lifetime of Jewish engagement is hard and deep work, as is identifying and developing the emerging songleaders who will commit to that work as professionals. The future impact, though, is exponential.

      3.) Being a songleader doesn’t pay. 

      I spoke with someone in their fifth year as a head songleader who observed: “Songleading is a craft you have to hone and work on throughout the year, but we’re not incentivized to do that work and to get better. We’re often paid the same as a ropes specialist who can learn to belay in a few hours during staff week.” 

      Songleaders begin preparing for camp in the spring (if not year-round), working on repertoire, memorizing chords and lyrics and planning content for the summer. They have to plan for how to match a song to its momen; good songleaders have to acquire a sophisticated understanding of Jewish liturgy, texts, Hebrew, and values so they can illuminate them through song. They have the most impact when they are afforded the time to meet with camp leadership on educational goals, content and ideally mentoring other songleaders. 

      Sure, they could just get up and sing anything, but that wouldn’t be meaningful or memorable. If camp directors want to have strong songleaders who are powerful collaborators in delivering foundational experiences for their campers, those songleaders need to be specially trained, utilized properly and paid accordingly.

      It is time to invest in the reprioritization of singing as an integral part of camp culture. Significant funding is needed year-round to build and sustain a self-reinforcing structure of songleader training starting with camps and extending into strong partnerships with congregations and community centers. This is a challenge that is well within our community’s power to solve. Is it easy? Of course not. Is it achievable? Absolutely.

      Sing Unto God is ready to do this work with the community. All that’s needed is a collective commitment and a willingness to put the money where the music is.

      A worship consultant, trainer of song leaders and cantor-in-residence, Cantor Rosalie Will is the founder and executive director of Sing Unto God, which seeks to elevate the building of a leadership pipeline of Jewish communal singers from summer camp to congregations and communities year-round.