Rabbi John Linder stood on the stage of Temple Solel's social hall, which was packed with Jews — get this — on a Sunday night that wasn't a High Holiday erev.
It's true. I was there. In greeting them, he made sure to recognize all the military veterans in the crowd (it was Veterans Day, after all), prompting major applause. Then, he told them that bima, translates as stage more or less, and that this evening wouldn't be a worship service but a concert.
The question of what's a performance and what's worship is a tricky one. I personally think a holy spirit enters the room whenever song enters. To me, losing myself in music and song is to step out of this world and look into the center of existence.
That's why I signed up as a "boot recruit" in Songleader Boot Camp, a project headed by Jewish rock musician Rick Recht and brought to the Valley through his collaboration with Todd Herzog, Solel's cantorial soloist. I didn't know what I'd be getting into except that it was going to take 16 hours of last weekend, like being a full-time student for the weekend.
My fellow students ranged in age from 11 to at least my, ahem, almost-60. They came from all over the Valley and from as far afield as Portland, Ore., and Tucson. They included folks whose names have appeared in these pages before — like Rabbi Micah Caplan and Cantor Melissa Berman of Congregation Or Chadash, and Cantorial Soloist Susan Schanerman of Temple Emanuel of Tempe — and so many youngsters who lead song at camp and other youth activities.
So what did we do? We sang and danced and ate and learned and enjoyed the way that Recht and Herzog led us to elevate our awareness, focus and spirit all weekend. We participated in a particularly rich and moving Havdalah service on Saturday night. And while I can't speak for anyone else, the string of emails from attendees that has filled my home inbox since before the boot camp even closed on Sunday night suggests that as a group, we enjoyed each other and want to keep that connection going.
Exercises included applying "secrets" that help people at the top of their respective games — Michael Phelps and Mick Jagger were invoked regularly — focus themselves on the presentations they are about to make, the finish line they are about to cross, the lessons they are about to teach, or the stages they are about to rock.
Recht voiced an underlying principle that guides this work that boils down to Jews have a lot to learn from Christian music ministries about contemporizing Jewish worship music and its presentation to essentially pack the synagogue on days that aren't Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It's a theory of engagement that certainly appeals to me as someone who's had a lifelong interest and spiritual creative stake in song and music.
As guitarist and occasional vocalist in the Shabba-tones band that plays at first Friday services at Temple Emanuel, I've been on the same page for a long time, but I never articulated it as clearly as Recht has.
When I first signed up for the boot camp, I was not planning on writing about it for the newspaper. But as Recht kept emphasizing that these sessions were really not about the music so much as about developing leadership, it became all the more urgent to share something about the experience, to show some leadership rather than keep it to myself.
Recht exemplified the salient characteristic of leadership: All leaders take the spotlight, but effective leaders bring others into the spotlight with them, sharing their successes. They help others elevate their aspirations and their skills.
That example fits Jewish values very well, and it makes me think of the humility Moses showed, leading the Israelites despite his misgivings, empowering Aaron, and acting as servant both to God and his people.
The proof is in the pudding, right? That at least a half-dozen, maybe more (I wasn't counting, but I was impressed), of this group of 30 or so, were teens and "tweens" giving up a weekend to work on how to lead Jews in song is a spectacular win for the program.
That the house was packed with attendees from synagogues across the Valley representing different Jewish streams and that the audience responded as one to our work? Egad and echad.
My wife, my rabbi and my friends all told me that they can't remember when I've looked happier than on that night.
When the concert was over, the boot recruits stayed behind for the final session of the boot camp. We were asked to fill out evaluation forms and I had a very hard time naming the best moment of the boot camp, but it's come to me since then.
I'll never ever forget getting ready to enter the social hall for the concert. We jumped as Recht suggested to prepare for going through the door. The rest was pure elevation, lost in song and God.
Thanks for the opportunity.