Beyond the music: Summer camp performers build Jewish community, identity

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By Robert Gluck/JNS.org

As musicians who frequently perform at Jewish summer camps, Rick Recht and Josh Nelson know how to create memories that last a lifetime. 

The top-touring musician in Jewish music, Recht plays more than 150 concerts a year in the United States and abroad and is widely recognized for his appeal to youth and family audiences.

Click photo to download. Caption: Josh Nelson, a frequent musical guest at Jewish summer camp. Credit: Courtesy Josh Nelson.

When he’s not on the road, Recht is the national spokesperson for Jewish literacy nonprofit PJ Library and the executive director of Songleader Boot Camp, a national leadership development immersion program held annually in St. Louis, Mo.

Recht started playing Jewish music 13 years ago.

“It was clear to me from the beginning that when you’re playing Jewish music you’re an educator,” he told JNS.org. “The music is an incredibly powerful vehicle for sharing Jewish identity and connection. Over the years there were two areas I wanted to focus on to leverage visibility, funding and strength. They are leadership development and communication.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Rick Recht. Credit: Courtesy Rick Recht.For Recht, the most important impact of music at Jewish camp is on leadership development, and that’s why he started Songleader Boot Camp. 

“It’s not about music, it’s about leadership,” Recht said. “We have rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators who don’t play an instrument or sing. We have teens, adults, veterans and new people. We provide for them an immersive leadership training experience where they’re learning about the methodologies that the world’s top athletes, entertainers and business people use to perform at consistently extraordinary levels. We talk about how they can apply that in the Jewish world.”

A Jewish family engagement program implemented on a local level, PJ Library mails free Jewish children’s literature and music to families across North America on a monthly basis. The initiative delivered its 3 millionth book last May.

“I’ve got two children and we get the books," Recht said. “The relationship evolved over time. I do some production for them and I educate people how they can get involved with PJ and their amazing resources.”

According to Marcie Greenfield Simons, director of PJ Library, Recht is not only a great performing artist who engages audiences masterfully. His knowledge of the music industry is expansive and his experience as a producer informs and guides all of his work, she said.

“We have been honored to have Rick serve as our celebrity spokesperson for PJ Library,” Simons told JNS.org. “He shares the PJ Library vision of helping families with young children develop stronger Jewish identity and deeper connections to Jewish community. Rick transmits the joys of Jewish living in all that he does.”    

Simons said Harold Grinspoon, the founder of PJ Library, is passionate about Jewish summer camps. Wanting to merge his signature initiatives of PJ Library with JCamp 180, which enhances the effectiveness of non-profit Jewish summer camps, Grinspoon had his foundation approach Recht about producing a CD that would inspire PJ Library families to consider Jewish summer camp. Recht produced “We Sang That at Camp,” which became a hit with those families.

A multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Nelson’s music is celebrated and integrated into the repertoire of congregations, camps and communities around the world. Delivering high-octane Jewish rock, the five musicians in the Josh Nelson Project band are young, Jewish, talented, and positive role models, according to Nelson.

“Performing at Jewish summer camps is an extraordinary experience,” Nelson told JNS.org. “Helping build an identity, helping kids find safe space where they can be spiritually and socially open in a Jewish environment, for me, this is as fulfilling as any other work that I do because it provides life changing experiences for them.”

In 2009 the Josh Nelson Project released its debut CD “Lift,” built upon songs of Jewish identity and continuity. If you listen, you’ll hear razor-sharp lyrics and a progressive radio-ready sound. Recht had high praise for Nelson and plays his music on Jewish Rock Radio, the first 24/7 Jewish rock Internet radio station. 

Nelson plays at many camps, but one of his favorites is the Warwick, NY URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Kutz Camp. “It’s essentially a leadership camp for high school kids,” he told JNS.org. “The kids are some of the most driven, bright, forward- thinking young Jewish kids in America today. They’re very open to pushing the envelope. We get to do some interesting things like have a large concert and lead some prayer services. The biggest impact is on the ground, eating with them in the dining hall, hanging out at the lake and just being there.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Josh Nelson. Credit: Josh Nelson Project.

Overall, the Josh Nelson Project has so far performed more than 1,000 shows, including the Limmud Conference and the JCC Maccabi Games. Nelson also serves as the music director for the URJ Biennial Convention, a faculty member for the Hava Nashira Music Institute, and a musical artist in residence for the JCC Maccabi Artsfest. His newest venture is Warehouse, an alternative Shabbat experience for unaffiliated young Jews in major metropolitan areas.

Much like Recht, the big-picture goal of Nelson and his band, beyond entertaining audiences, is to leave them with a strong sense of community.

“On a much deeper level it is relationship building,” said Nelson. “And those relationships will stick.” 

Posted on February 15, 2013 and filed under Arts, Camps, Jewish Life, Special Sections.