A Songleader’s Journey

by Rabbi Ramie Arian

Throughout the nearly four decades of my career, I’ve been privileged to serve the Jewish people in a variety of non-congregational rabbinic roles – national director of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement for most of the 1980s, as well as vice president of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, national director of Young Judaea, and founding executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The Jewish journey of my life has been shaped and molded by many influences; NFTY was among the most important.

I joined our temple’s youth group in 10th grade, and went on my first NFTY regional event that winter. I was hooked; NFTY changed the direction of my life.

As a teen, I was drawn to the compelling discussions NFTY inspired about Judaism’s interactions with the great issues of the day. How could Jews help in the civil rights struggle? Was there a Jewish position on the Vietnam War? The nuclear arms race? The draft?

Even more, I was attracted by the sense of encompassing community NFTY engendered. This special sense of group bonding was particularly evident in — and clearly created through — the group singing we did in NFTY. Every day, we sang after each meal, and twice more during services. We sang at campfires, and at friendship circles when an event ended, and every time we could find an excuse to do so. Singing with those groups was a powerful experience.

I had taught myself to play guitar, and had heard about the URJ (then UAHC) summer camps. I applied to be a songleader at the URJ’s Eisner Camp, and, despite an extreme lack of competence and experience at that early stage of my life, I got the job. I was lucky and blessed to work with an experienced and talented head songleader, Hank Sawitz, who was a great teacher and a patient mentor.

I learned a lot that summer. I learned dozens of songs, and how to teach a song. I learned that I was comfortable and capable in front of a group. I learned how to choose the music in order to advance the program and to reflect the group’s mood.

During my four years at college, I had many invitations to serve as songleader at NFTY synagogue and regional events. Once or twice a month, I went to a NFTY conclave, kallah, or institute, and got my Jewish “fix.”

I was invited back to camp, this time as head songleader. I returned every summer, until I had been a camp songleader for seven seasons. Each time, it was a powerful learning experience.

I learned to take responsibility. I learned to supervise others. I learned to make Jewish liturgy come alive through music. During my years as a songleader, I played a role in transitioning NFTY music from the songs of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary to songs in Hebrew. Most of the new Hebrew music used melodies written by my contemporaries: Debbie Friedman, Cantor Jeff Klepper, Rabbi Dan Freelander, composer and conductor Michael Isaacson and others. Most of it used texts from our tradition, including liturgical passages or texts from Pirkei Avot.

I learned how powerful the music could be, not only in building community, but also as a teaching tool. I learned that music could help us learn Hebrew, could help us learn the prayers, could help us master traditional texts. As a leader of the music, I was forced to think deeply and carefully about how and when to apply the power of the musical tools I found at my disposal.

Slowly, it dawned on me how little I really knew and understood about Jewish tradition. Fortunately, in the URJ camp setting, there were always rabbis and cantors at hand to whom I could turn for guidance. But as I advanced through college, I came to understand that I wanted to have a great deal more knowledge, background and skill in things Jewish. Little by little, it occurred to me that I wanted to become a rabbi.

I have dedicated my rabbinate to those aspects of Jewish life that I found powerfully present in NFTY: to building Jewish spirituality through community, to deepening Jewish education, to the influence of experiential learning, and to the extraordinary power of Jewish camp.

Looking back, I am grateful to NFTY, and especially to the music of NFTY, for providing the spark that set me forth on this life’s journey.

Rabbi Ramie Arian is a consultant working with Jewish camps and other groups that build Jewish identity through experiential education.


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