It’s Sunday morning at Temple Beth Am in Seattle, and instead of sleeping, watching TV, or doing whatever else teenagers tend to do on Sunday mornings, five high school students are enthusiastically strumming guitar and singing “Lecha Dodi” to a room full of 2nd graders.
The teens were participants in NaShir, a nation-wide songleading conference created by the Union for Reform Judaism and NFTY, the Reform movement’s national youth group, in partnership with Temple Beth Am. Thirty 8th-12th graders — mostly from the Seattle area but with guests from up and down the West Coast and as far as Oklahoma and Virginia — gathered to build their songleading skills.
“This is really born out of the URJ’s campaign for youth engagement, as well as responding to a lot of teenagers around the country who are really passionate about songleading,” said Jewish musician and Temple Beth Am scholar-in-residence Alan Goodis. “Many of the teenagers in this country who songlead are sort of discovering and figuring out songleading on their own.”
Despite being the largest Jewish denomination in America, the Reform movement suffers high attrition rates, especially among youth. At the same time, the movement inspires its members with folksy renditions of the liturgy popularized by Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper, Danny Freelander and others. At Kutz Camp, in upstate New York, guitar-slung teens “major” in songleading every summer.
“I think that so much of the music that Reform congregations sing…comes from camp,” said Goodis. “Kids who go away to Reform Jewish summer camps…[want] to come home and have that same experience when they’re at temple.”
Temple Beth Am started its own songleading conference in 2006. Shir B’Yachad was the Northwest answer to Kutz for musical teens who couldn’t make it to New York for the summer. According to Beth Am’s youth director Dorothy Kahn, hundreds of kids get songleader training through the temple’s music madrichim program, and today the temple has about 23 songleaders. It was only natural that NFTY should reach out to them as a conference partner.
This was NaShir’s second conference; the first was in August at Kutz. Goodis says he does not know where or when the next one will take place.
Participants attended workshops over the weekend of January 4–6 on repertoire, prayer, engagement strategies, and leadership led by a faculty of rabbis, cantors, and educators from Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Temple B’nai Torah, Congregation Kol Ami, the Seattle Jewish Community School, NFTY-NW and Temple Beth Am. On Sunday, as the culmination of their weekend, the teens broke into groups and shipped off to area temples to lead religious school children in prayer and song.
“I love watching cantors and rabbis just, like, connecting with kids, especially through music,” said a participant named Rebekah. (NFTY does not allow participants’ last names to be disclosed.) “I really want to be able to do that when I’m older.”
Of the approximately 15 teens who spoke with JTNews in a group interview, a handful said they aspire to become rabbis or cantors. All of them are involved with music — in bands, musical theater, and the like — and almost all consider music an inroad to their Judaism and an adhesive to a community.
“At my temple, NFTY barely exists anymore,” said Claire, “so I want to be able to use my knowledge of NFTY-style songleading and tefilah and bring that back to my temple to sort of inspire younger kids to come.”
“I’m at NaShir because I songlead at my home temple,” said Natalia. “I really wanted to learn new songs and just grow as a songleader.”
According to Goodis, songleading is an engagement strategy that will succeed if paired with mentorship at home congregations.
“It’s not someone saying, ‘Oh, you should songlead,’ but ‘We’re going to make an investment in you and send you to this conference,’” Goodis said. “The ones that will have the greatest success are the ones that are going to have opportunities to return to their communities where they have chances to really share their skill.”