We Had to Use Music to Change the World
By Louis J. Dobin
Recently I flew in from Israel and stopped in New York on my way to Texas to attend the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) Gala. It was a wonderful evening, and put me in touch with people from every generation of my life – those with whom I work now, those who once worked with me, and those from my past who are still working to try and change the world. What struck me about the Gala (in addition to the outstanding honorees – Paul Reichenbach, Peri Smilow, and Rabbi Kroloff), was the primacy of music in the life of modern-day Israelis.
When I first attended the URJ (then UAHC) Eisner Camp-Institute in the 1960s, camp music as we know it today was still in its infancy. Debbie Friedman was a kid at the time, Dave Nelson, Jeff Klepper, and Danny Freelander were my age. Josh Nelson and Dan Nichols had not yet been born. No one had put a guitar on the pulpit of a synagogue, and the Board of my synagogue had to vote on whether to allow me to play guitar on the bimah.
I remember our 1960s song leaders Hank Sawitz and Jerry Breiger at Eisner, and Bennett Miller and Jimmy Shulman from NFTY, strolling up and down the middle of the dining room singing songs that were primarily from the American folk movement. The songs were about coal mines and dust bowls and civil rights-themes that hinted at the social forces about to rock American society. I was a child at the time, about ten years old, but my dream was to be like those song leaders. Pete Seeger was the deity of song leading, and Tom Paxton, Peter Paul and Mary, and Paul Simon were just over the horizon. And song leading was done with a banjo!
Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, the first NFTY Songbook, published in 1966, contained all English material. By the time I went to Israel for the first time in 1968, as a 14-year-old guitar player and fledgling kibbutznik, Israeli Hebrew music was starting to appear on the scene in America. Through the Israel Song Festival and the Chasidic Song Festival, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” “Shir Baboker Baboker,” and all of the other songs on Side 2 of the first Songs NFTY Sings album became popular,
By the time 1971 rolled around (basically still the ’60s!) there was an explosion of musical creativity. Jewish kids were writing their own music, which combined Jewish themes, biblical verse, Hebrew lyrics, portions of the liturgy, good old American folk-rock, and eventually, rock and roll. The musical creativity combined the desire for change with the changed circumstances in our relationship with the State of Israel. NFTY decided that its social action project would be to fund raise to help build Kibbutz Yahel. My contribution, as NFTY’s past treasurer, with the help of a group of friends and $100 in “venture capital,” was to create the first Songs NFTY Sings record album. What followed was a second, third, fourth and finally, an entire series.
Lots of us knew that this was what we had to do – use music to change the world. It was a time when one person with a guitar could galvanize thousands of people in front of the Washington Monument. It was a time before you needed a five-piece band, back-up singers, and a light show to make an impact.
I mention this, not to wax nostalgic (although seeing everyone at the ARZA Gala certainly made me long for the good old days of my youth), but to reassure myself and to reassure you that we can still change the world with music. “Sing Unto God a New Son” is still as relevant today as it was then. So pick up your electronic keyboard, plug it into your “Garageband” app, and get going!
Louis J. Dobin has been the director of the URJ Greene Family Camp since 1978.