by Merri Lovinger Arian
I can still hear the exuberant voices, clapping hands, and stomping feet! I can see bodies swaying, sometimes setting the dining room light fixtures into motion! It was what many NFTYites described as “spirited singing,” unlike any they had experienced before. We all knew how precious those moments were. But looking back, I realize that when campers described those song sessions as “spirited,” they meant something much more profound than ‘exciting’ or ‘rowdy.’ Rather, they were remembering a truly spiritual, transcendent experience. The music allowed us to transcend where we were, fed our sense of community, and touched us to the core. Our Jewish identities were sparked by those experiences.
As a songleader at the URJ’s Eisner, Harlam, and Kutz Camps, I was reminded time and again of the central role that music plays in building camp communities. Whether it’s the spirited A minor medley of Israeli folk songs that brings the community to its feet, dancing, hand in hand, or the mellow songs that have people rocking back and forth, arm in arm, music is at the forefront, carefully orchestrated for each community it serves. Music helps us transcend our solitary existence to become part of something greater.
My introduction to the power of NFTY music was in 1967, during my first summer as a camper at Eisner. Although I had experienced music as a powerful entryway to almost anything, camp came alive for me through the music. We sang mostly in English, including the songs of beloved American folksingers of the time – Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger. The ethics and morals that we learned were reflected in the lyrics of their songs.
As we joined in the excitement that followed the 1967 Six-Day War, Hebrew began to enter our repertoire. By singing Israeli folk songs, music provided a portal to identifying with Israelis. It didn’t matter that we hardly understood the words – we were making a connection with our homeland. We felt the heartbeat of Israelis through their music. This was also the time when NFTY Israel trips, like the Eisendrath Israel Exchange (EIE) program, began to flourish. Connections were built, with music as the bridge.
As we entered the 70s, Hebrew songs became more prominent in the NFTY canon. Songleaders introduced the new music coming out of the Chasidic song festivals. Tzvika Pik became familiar to us through his “Sh’ma” and “Shehecheyanu;” both are sung in synagogues and summer camps throughout North America today. Sh’lomo Carlebach’s infectious melodies stirred our souls, and his “Am Yisrael Chai” and “V’haeir Eyneynu” were heard not only in our camp song sessions, but in our worship as well.
The early 70s saw the emergence of the American Nusach (prayer melodies), as cantors, rabbis, songleaders, and music directors began to pen their own interpretations of Jewish texts and liturgy. Michael Isaacson wrote his first contemporary jazz-style service, which was recorded on the first NFTY album in 1972. His “L’cha Dodi” helped youth learn the verses to this beloved piece of liturgy, which until then were simply not sung. His “V’ahavta” rocked NFTY, with its dynamic “lai lai” chorus! He, too, had those upon whose shoulders he stood. In 1967, Cantor Raymond Smolover had premiered his folk-rock service, the Edge of Freedom with a full band to boot!
Debbie Friedman appeared on the scene in 1972 with the release of her first album, Sing Unto God, which revolutionized American Jewish music. Debbie had her finger on the pulse of American Jewish teens. She had found a direct way into their hearts, writing music that gave them to access Jewish liturgy, combining English and Hebrew with interpretations that helped these texts live in the hearts of those who sang her melodies.
In 1974, Jeff Klepper and Danny Freelander composed their now renowned “Shalom Rav,” continuing the American Nusach tradition, for which they would become major contributors.
It became clear that NFTYites wanted a role in creating the new American Nusach being written by their counselors and teachers. In response, the NFTY National Song Competition was introduced in 1973, inviting NFTYites to submit their own compositions. Today, more than 40 years later, this competition (renamed the Anselm Rothschild Memorial Song Competition after a beloved composer from the Kutz Camp faculty), still exists. The creation of new melodies is alive and well, continuing to inspire, engage, teach, and transform NFTY, and in turn, our Reform movement.
Merri Lovinger Arian is a faculty member at the HUC-JIR Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, and a Liturgical Arts Consultant at the HUC-JIR in New York.
This article first appeared on RJ.org’s Ten Minutes of Torah.