Striking a new note at the 14th annual UJA MetroWest Benefit Concert will be emerging Jewish rocker Sheldon Low, who will perform a Celebration of Jewish Camp, a free outdoor family show, at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 15, before the main event.
The first 13 UJA concerts were held at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. This year’s — honoring NJ’s “first couple” of Jewish overnight camp, Elisa Spungen Bildner and Rob Bildner, and featuring the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and solo violinist Brittany Sklar — will be presented at the Community Theatre in Morristown at 3 p.m. (see related article). Low will perform on the Great Lawn at the nearby Vail Mansion.
At 28, Low represents a new generation of Jewish musicians.
He told NJJN in a May 6 phone interview that a chance interaction with entertainer Rick Recht during high school changed the trajectory of his life.
“Here comes this really cool rocker in a ponytail who completely blends rock and pop rock with a Jewish message,” said Low. “It was totally eye-opening for me.” That encounter took place during a USY retreat, where Recht led a Havdala ceremony in the woods. Until then, Low said, he had always compartmentalized his Jewish and secular identities.
In short order he signed up for guitar classes Recht was giving at the local Hebrew high school, and Recht, who, like Low, is from St. Louis, became his mentor. And when Recht started his own Jewish label, Jewish Rock Records, less than a decade later, he asked Low to be the first artist signed. (Today, Recht and Low are the label’s sole artists.)
It was 2006, and by then, Low had started his first job as a mechanical engineer with Draper Technologies, a defense company in the Boston area. Although “the benefits and salary were amazing,” he said, he probably wouldn’t have lasted in the job much longer than the nine months he’d already been there — he didn’t love working in defense, he said.
He also realized that Jewish music was, perhaps, his “inevitable” career; it was, after all, in his “gene pool,” he said.
That genetic line included his paternal grandmother, who was a song leader who used puppets in a synagogue setting. His father was not only a song leader but also director of Camp Ben Frankel in Carbondale, Ill., as well as president of their synagogue in Kansas City, where Low lived until he was eight.
This record is just part of Low’s extensive Jewish background. He attended Jewish day schools, was active in the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, and his home life growing up was rich in Jewish tradition. “My earliest memories are walking down the hallway of the church we had rented for our tiny Reform congregation in Kansas City,” said Low. “My dad was president and he was walking down the hall too on a Friday, with his guitar already out and heading for the preschool.
“And I also remember sitting on the porch at our home in Kansas City under an apple tree, my dad playing guitar through Havdala.” As he got older, he expanded his musical menu to include artists like Spyro Gyra, Dave Matthews, Counting Crows, and Bare Naked Ladies, as well as singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Tracy Chapman. But in those earlier days, he said, he had a steady diet of Debbie Friedman, Craig Taubman, and Jeff Klepper, all Jewish singers/songwriters.
As a teenager, he said, he was not sure where Judaism fit in his life. “Despite all that reinforcement, even though I was fully within the fold, I still felt like I was not all that interested in Jewish life at 14, 15, 16,” he said.
In at last making “Judaism a significant part of my life,” he said, it was “Jewish music that really did it for me.”
As is fitting, given the focus of the May 15 event, Low also speaks passionately about Jewish camp. “There are few places in America where you can live a Jewish life, 24/7,” he said. “At camp, you can experience that. You can live Jewishly without being different, or struggling to accomplish it.”
Today, after four albums and several years of touring, he’s all about offering positive Jewish experiences. “If someone walks out of a concert with a positive Jewish experience, I’ve at least met my primary target.”
As he travels around, especially to Jewish camps over the summer, he loves to bring teens on stage to join in the act. In fact, in Morristown, three young guitar players will join him on stage for a jam during one of his songs. Ezra Brownstein, 12, of Maplewood; David Sperber, 16, of Randolph; and Matt Becker, 16, of Randolph will play during “Heveinu.”
A group of local youngsters will also join Low to sing several songs at both the outdoor and indoor portion of the day’s events.
Low, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his partner and fellow Jewish song leader Hadar Orshalimy, serves as artist-in-residence at the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.