When I was in cantorial school in the 90s, there was great consternation and hand-wringing about how “camp music” (used as a derogatory term) represented the dumbing-down of the rich heritage of Jewish music, and would ultimately lead to its demise. After four years of having that dire warning drummed into my head, it is no wonder that when Rabbi Jim Bennett brought Dan Nichols to Temple Beth El for the first time during my tenure here, I was, at best, skeptical. What I discovered, however, was a kindred spirit — a worship leader who planned and led services with an eye toward the experience of each and every congregant. Dan’s thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and commitment to that goal was inspiring and shattered my prejudices about “camp music.”
Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with Dan and other like-minded singer-songwriters and cantors who believe that all of the traditions of Jewish music have something to teach us about bringing alive the prayer experiences of our congregants. Temple Beth El hosted two of the gatherings of Kesher Shir, the first group of cantors and singer-songwriters (which included Dan and myself) to come together to study and compose and share the best of what has been handed down to us musically.
For the past year and a half, CJ Torcellini and I have played services together whenever we’ve had the opportunity. We have spent hours rehearsing and talking about shaping music and creating effective worship. This week, we had the privilege of spending an afternoon at the Raleigh home of the great Dan Nichols for conversation and coaching. Before a thoroughly enjoyable and rather intense session digging into our repertoire, we spent nearly an hour enjoying a spring-like afternoon on Dan’s back porch talking about what “successful” music programs looked like. Dan travels to a different congregation nearly every week, and was about to head to a synagogue where he would spend a couple of hours talking with its clergy about the “best practices” he’d seen in his travels. He has been impressed with the programs we’ve created for our teen band, vocal ensemble, and songleaders, and wondered what he should say about it to inquisitive clergy over the weekend.
Not surprisingly, our conversation quickly turned from what is involved in creating those programs to the motivation behind them. I reflected back to Dan that what I’d always seen as one of his great gifts is the strong desire and commitment to put the experience of the worshipper first. It is an attitude that says, “I will draw on all of my talents and skills and experience — not to put together a performance that others will enjoy, but rather create a prayerful atmosphere in which each worshipper can have his or her spiritual needs fulfilled.” This is a philosophy that both Dan and I believe in with all our being. Success is not measured by what we do, but rather by the depth and strength of the experience we can create for someone else.
This is a concept of success that is not measured by one’s own accomplishments, but in the accomplishments and joy and growth and success of others. This is the philosophy behind what both Susan Jacobs and I have worked to bring to our youth for the past 17 years. Whether it’s the gaggle of madrichim occupying the Religious School office or the goofiness that goes on during teen vocal ensemble rehearsal, we measure success by the faces of our kids. Success is the smiles and hugs. Success is the hard work behind playing and singing beautifully in worship. Success is in the determined look in the face of a tutor in the Religious School or the b’nei mitzvah program as they take on the responsibility to teach younger students. Success is the teenager holding the hand of a sad second grader. Success is in the eyes of a kid who has found a safe and loving space at Temple Beth El. We are a success when we can be the foundation of success in the lives of those we are privileged to touch.
*Dan Nichols will be joining us in worship and celebration the weekend of March 10-11. Plan to join Dan for Friday night Teacher Appreciation Shabbat Service, Saturday morning Congregational Shabbat Service and Saturday night Erev Purim havdalah and concert. More details coming soon.