Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE
URJ Director, Teen Engagement
I am not a musical person. As a rabbinic student, a mentor said to me, “Someday, Laura, you will be a wonderful rabbi, but make sure you always have a cantor.” Yet, despite my lack of musical ability, music, songwriting and singing inspire me.
Over the last month or so, many in our Movement have been saddened by the sudden death of our teacher and friend Debbie Friedman. Amongst those most touched by the loss of Debbie have been the cantors, song leaders, song writers and performers in our midst. It is like a backwards game of musical chairs. Instead of being short a chair for someone to sit in, they have an empty chair in their circle in which they expect Debbie to sit and fill the space with her voice and inspiration.
Here at NFTY Convention, many of our teens aspire to be cantors, song leaders and songwriters. They meet and learn with their mentors and teachers, people like Josh Nelson, Dan Nichols, Alan Goodis and Cantor Ellen Dreskin. I imagine it is difficult for them. While still mourning the loss of a dear friend, whom they may have experienced as a guide for them in their teen years, they must turn around and do the same for today’s teens.
I am pleased to know that there are opportunities beyond NFTY Convention for teens in our Movement to explore, develop and share their musical talents. This summer, NFTY will be offering a travel tour for musical teens, JewGlee, an elite NFTY singing group that will perform for Liberal Jewish Communities as they travel in the footsteps of our Jewish ancestors in Europe and Israel. The URJ Kutz Camp offers a songleading major that is always a transformative educational experience. Teens who participate in that track always return to their home communities with new skills, an expanded repertoire and a deep understanding of what it means to serve in a leadership capacity as a songleader.
Debbie’s journey began in our URJ camps. Due to the leadership & vision of the American Conference of Cantors, we can continue to inspire even more Jewish youth through scholarships to our summer camps.
Debbie lit and carried a torch for our community. While she may no longer be with us, her torch continues to burn brightly. It is up to today’s Jewish musical mentors to carry that torch forward, add their own spark and light to it, and pass it on to the next generation of Jewish musicians, our teens.