By Danielle Rodnizki, NFTY-STR & Kutz Alumni
By the time I came home from my first summer in the songleading major at the URJ Kutz Camp in 2007, I knew that I had found my passion in songleading – songleading and Jewish music had become as important to me as the air I breathe. I had downloaded every album by every contemporary Jewish artist and refused to listen to anything else on my iPod. I was the NFTYite who was ecstatic for every song session, no matter what the songs were. Some (OK… many) might think this was a bit excessive, but I loved every minute of it.
Fast forward to the spring of 2008. My first big songleading goal since Kutz was to audition for (and to be selected as a) “NFTY-STR Regional Songleader,” a title that was highly regarded in our region. When the day came, I played and sang my heart out, and I felt like I had done a good job of expressing my passion. To my surprise and immense disappointment, I was not selected to be on the team. I was absolutely crushed. As often happens in these situations, I began to rationalize and attributed the loss to factors outside of my control instead of considering any weaknesses I might have shown during the audition process. After all, I had worked so hard to further develop the skills I had learned at Kutz. The negative voice in my head interpreted the rejection selfishly, continually repeating phrases such as “you’re not good enough to do this.”
Looking back now, I see this “failure” as one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. At the time, I had thought about walking away (since I was so hurt), but instead I chose to stay connected. Because I had felt like I “wasn’t good enough” in that moment, I experienced a new, extremely strong drive to be deeply entrenched in the songleading community and to become the best songleader I could be. After grieving and reflecting back on that experience, I made the decision to continue attending NFTY-STR events and to return to Kutz that summer to spend another 3.5 weeks studying songleading in order to start on the road to becoming a better songleader.
Initially, due to my broken-heartedness over this situation, I wanted to do better as a sort of personal revenge – an “I’ll show them!” reaction. Fortunately, time is a great healer. My love for Jewish music continued to grow and deepen as I continued in my pursuits as a songleader. I slowly realized that the joy I got out of songleading increased the more I looked outside of myself and shifted my focus to bringing joy to others and building community through music. I strove to learn more, stayed involved, and kept working on my skill sets. If it were even possible, I became even more passionate about this important work than I was at that songleader audition. I now realize that not getting that title of “NFTY-STR Regional Songleader” didn’t hold me back from pursuing future songleading opportunities; in fact, it was the impetus for my continued involvement and growth.
As a current junior at Washington University in St. Louis, I have had more songleading opportunities in the past four years than I ever could have imagined as that disappointed junior in high school. I’ve worked as a songleader at two camps: URJ Greene Family Camp (2009) and Gindling Hilltop Camp (2010-2011). I have attended most, if not all, songleading workshops in the US including Shulhouse Rock, Hava Nashira and Songleader Boot Camp. I’ve worked as the Music Specialist at a reform synagogue in St. Louis since my freshman year of college. I have also made an effort to stay connected to NFTY in college by attending and staffing both NFTY-MV and NFTY-STR events. All of these opportunities culminated in the biggest honor of all when I was asked to songlead at NFTY Convention 2011, a rewarding and life-changing experience. Most importantly, I have been mentored by and formed meaningful friendships with many Jewish musicians, Jewish professionals, clergy members, teens and children in all of these different communities along the way. This building of community and fostering of human connection has become the most beloved part of my work as a songleader. Using music as a vehicle, we have the power to bring people together in holy ways.
This is my hope for all budding NFTY songleaders: If you don’t get selected as a songleader for your NFTY region and it’s really something you’re passionate about, PLEASE continue doing this amazing work. Don’t stop bringing your guitar – and your voice – to NFTY events. Make sure to keep studying, practicing, and learning new things. I promise that you’ll find dozens of future songleading opportunities inside and outside of NFTY if you want them – even without the title. And in the process, I hope you will find (as I do) a deepening sense of joy from using your skills to build community wherever you go.