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‘Boot camp’ builds leaders through music
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‘Boot camp’ builds leaders through music

Participants in the Songleader Boot Camp get into the music.    
Participants in the Songleader Boot Camp get into the music.    

The cantor and three congregants from The Jewish Center in Princeton attended a three-day retreat for people interested in improving their leadership, teaching, and song-leading at schools in Jewish congregations. 

The center’s hazzan, Joanna Dulkin, was one of the teachers at the Songleader Boot Camp in St. Louis, which was held Feb. 15-17. Joining her were two members of her vocal ensemble, Lisa Jacknow and Nicole Soffin, and Jacob Polly, a sophomore at Princeton High School who helps Dulkin lead shira (singing) for young children in the religious school.

Dulkin, secretary of the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly, worked with Boot Camp executive director Rick Recht, who founded the conference in 2009. Through talks, demonstrations, and performances, Recht and his faculty show participants how to be better performers, teachers, and leaders in formal and informal settings.

“It creates an immersive experience that really motivates you to go back into your community and bring ruach and new perspectives,” Dulkin told NJJN. “It’s a radically inclusive, nurturing, supportive environment for people to explore, learn, change, grow into leaders, and learn how they can bring their own leadership qualities out and practice them in the Jewish community.”

For Jacknow, the conference was an opportunity to rethink her relationship with her religion. Since her grandmother’s death five years ago, she said, she has “struggled with what parts of Judaism I connect with and what I feel religiously” — this despite the fact that many of her friends think of her as a “super-Jew” because she keeps kosher.

Dulkin suggested that attending the conference might reconnect Jacknow and give her “a fresh place to start from.” Indeed, Jacknow said, “The convention was transformational and amazing.” 

“I had been feeling that something was missing but didn’t know what it was, and this weekend I felt whole,” she said. “I found that you can connect and feel part of a community without having to decide what you believe God is or where God is.”

She was particularly taken with morning prayer services conducted at the conference. “There were tons of guitars, five-part harmonies, and a lot of emotional music,” she said. “I felt so connected to everything in that moment and realized that music can make you feel religious and connected to a community.”

‘Vehicle for inspiration’

Jacob was looking to strengthen his leadership skills as he works with the young children during shira, where, he said, he and Dulkin “get them excited about their Jewish education through music.”

One workshop he found particularly meaningful taught musicians and leaders how to captivate an audience through movement and eye contact, extended hands, and a head tilt that indicates vulnerability. The class, he said, “teaches you how to interact with your audience in a way that makes them feel like they are the focus of the whole thing that is going on. It’s a great way to get an audience motivated and moving.” 

Morning services were also an important part of Polly’s experience. “The feeling you get when you are at the peak of one of the songs during morning davening is amazing,” he said. “There was so much energy in the music directed toward the davening that it changed my view of how davening is possible at morning services and how you can get even younger children inspired to pray for their whole lives by using music as a vehicle for inspiration.”

Soffin came back from the conference knowing that “music is a critical piece of what my Judaism is, and I’m trying to figure out how to include more and more of that in my Jewish experience.”

Also important for her, she said, was “talking about ways to connect with the community and to inspire people” but also “the leadership aspect in terms of connecting with what your own strengths are and how to best leverage them in whatever environment you are in.”

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