The Century Ends: NFTY Music of the 90s
by Cantor Rosalie Boxt
Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong decade. I have often wondered what it would have been like to be a songleader with my mentors, my friends, and my “heroes” in the 70s. Yet, as I reflect back on the time when I was a young songleader, during the years when I was in the thick of camp songleading, I see the 90s as the most extraordinary time to have been a part of NFTY – the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, and Jewish music. At Goldman Union Camp I learned everything there was to know about songleading from the greats of community singing ― Dan Nichols, Ken Chasen, Andy Vogel, Dave Snyder. When I left there to join the leadership team of Kutz Camp in 1995, I had no idea of the scope and breadth of Jewish music. In the mid and late 90s, as a songleader at Kutz, I first became aware of the diverse and extensive camp and regional musical traditions. Before that I thought the Midwest was all there was! What became clear to me at Kutz in the 90s was that there was an entire canon of NFTY music ― a repertoire that spanned the miles and borders of state and region, of accent and weather. And yet there was also music that was specific to each region, each songleader, each camp’s particular passion in text or music.
The songleaders who came before me at Kutz had been in Israel and brought us David Broza’s “Mitachat LaShamayim” and Naomi Shemer’s “Lu Y’hi” – the new contemporary Israeli rock of which I had been unaware as a youth in the 80s beyond knowing the Chasidic and Israeli folk festival repertoire of the 70s. We also began to reap the benefits of Debbie Friedman’s new compositions around prayer, women, Torah text, and healing. I remember learning and teaching her “Devorah’s Song,” “Miriam’s Song,” and “Mi Shebeirach” as a 20-year-old, knowing then the power of these songs. I understood, most importantly, their messages of strength and courage, of allowing everyone’s voice to a part of our story, and how they would resonate for years to come.
I was impressed (and startled) by the intensity of singing I experienced at SEFTY (NFTY SE/STR) and the depth of knowledge of prayer and Hebrew of OSRUI teens. The 90s were a pivotal time for NFTY and its music; as it became clear that we needed a new chordster, a new songleading “bible.” The amount of new repertoire which had been written, or discovered and shared, had made the old orange chordster out of date ― not obsolete ― but lacking in the scope which the NFTY and UAHC (now the Union for Reform Judaism) leadership recognized had grown exponentially in the 90s, and now was needed to set the course for the next 20 years.
After college I was honored to become an employee of NFTY in Israel, and the NFTY songleader at Kutz, and to be a part of the editorial team and then co-editor of Shireinu: Our Songs, the chordster published in the year 2000. It was the dynamism of our team, the lists we voted on and culled, the songs retained and songs dropped off, the songs we hoped would last, and others we knew would take off ― that mark the pivotal moments the 90s were to our camp and songleading world.
Over 20 years later, it is thrilling to be invited to be a part of the next stage – Shireinu II – in which we will reflect on how far we’ve come, on how our music has grown deeper and wider, more inclusive of voices from many faiths and backgrounds, and always with text, Torah, humanity, and relationships at the center.
So while I was transformed by the creativity and vision of the 70s, and witnessed the dynamism and boundary-breaking of the 2000s, I was able to share so richly in the music of the right decade, and to reap the benefits of those who came before and sow the seeds for those to come.
Cantor Rosalie Boxt serves Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland and is a member of the URJ Expert Faculty of Worship and Music, and Director of Worship for URJ Biennial.