SING OUT! The Beginnings of NFTY Music: A Look at the First Songs We Sang



By Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin

I found myself (quite literally) at Reform Jewish summer camp. More than anything, it was the music that drew me into experiencing Jewish life with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my might. How did music in youth grouping touch something Jewish so deep inside me? The experience was more than nifty . . .  it was NFTY.

Our participatory musical style in synagogue services grew out of the creative liturgy of youth camps. The use of folk guitar in religious school, in the youth service, and (more and more) in adult worship can be traced back to NFTY’s roots, which were planted 75 years ago, but which evolved from earlier models.

Jewish camping has its origins in the Talmudic era with semi-annual kallot during the Hebrew months of Adar and Elul, and the Sabbaths of study that preceded the festivals. Modern Jewish camping arose out of the nineteenth-century discovery that a change in environment helps affect behavior, and that adolescence is a distinct period of emotional growth. The songs of any particular era reflected American folk and popular styles, current political sentiment, the latest appealing Jewish music, and whatever were the favorite songs of the previous summer as recalled by returning campers and staff.

Early in the history of music at American camping institutions, singing was strictly for fun, spirit building, and mood setting. At retreats in the Catskills or with the Boy Scouts of America, for instance, songs were performed and sung informally around the table and campfire, or presented with and for the group members. Singing became a natural, integral part of the communal camping experience in general.

After World War II, Rabbi Samuel Cook, then the Director of Youth Activities of NFTY-The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, began to change the youth organization from one in which adults led teen activities to one in which young members led their peers. To help accomplish this goal, Rabbi Cook set up centralized summertime “National Leadership Training Institutes” to prepare teens to be leaders. Music was a big part of the institutes; young people would then lead others in song.

Following the success of several camping models such as Samson Benderly’s Cejwin (Central Jewish Institute) camps, the Jewish Centers camps (with the original goal of Americanizing Jews) and the Ramah camps (from their inception, a recruiting tool for the Jewish Theological Seminary), a group of Reform rabbis sought to establish their own denominational camp.

The first “Union Institute” camp, designed to be a place for Reform teens to “study and pray, work and play,” was established in 1951 in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin as a retreat site for Chicago-area synagogues. One of its goals was to keep youths involved in Judaism after being confirmed at age 13 or 14, and it followed a model set not by previous Jewish camps, but by Christian camps and German Jewish youth groups.

At the time the first Union Institutes for young Reform Jews were set up in the early 1950s, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and the Kingston Trio, on steel-stringed acoustic guitars and banjos, were folk idols whose style encouraged participatory singing. While folk music was never the popular music of America, folk singers attracted a large teen and college-aged following, which is the camp demographic. Leaders of singing in the very American Reform camps copied the style and repertoire of folk singers.

Songs were sung a cappella or accompanied by guitars, banjos, and accordions, like the folk-music role models of the time. While not as portable an instrument, some singers led with piano.

In light of the relatively recent birth of the Jewish state, chalutznik songs (music of Israel’s pioneers) became popular in camp. Specifically, “Tzena Tzena” (which was also recorded by The Weavers), “Zum Gali Gali,” and “Ufaratzta” became regular camp favorites. These melodies are still sung in some Reform youth gatherings today.

Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin serves as Cantor at Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk, VA. He was a camper, Head Songleader and Faculty Member at URJ Camp Newman (Swig/Saratoga). He was ordained in 1996 from HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, where his Masters Project covered the “Music of Reform Youth.”

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