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Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach rocking NJ
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Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach rocking NJ

New program uses music to teach Jewish themes

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Randi Cohen leads the 2s class
at Livingston’s Temple Beth Shalom
in a new Jewish music curriculum. 
(Photos by Johanna Ginsberg)
Randi Cohen leads the 2s class at Livingston’s Temple Beth Shalom in a new Jewish music curriculum. (Photos by Johanna Ginsberg)

The babies perked up as Randi Cohen, early childhood director at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, strummed her guitar and started singing “Shalom to Sophie, shalom shalom. Shalom to Bryce and Brooks, shalom shalom.” Her audience was a Beth Shalom Mommy and Me class on a recent Wednesday morning.

As mothers played instruments, small babies followed carefully with their eyes, and some of the older ones tried to get in on the action by banging on drums. Cohen eventually traded her guitar for Hebrew letters on a foam board and she and the moms in attendance made the sounds of the letters as Cohen raised her hands high over her head and then banged them on the ground.

Cohen was implementing Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach, a new early childhood Jewish music and movement curriculum, into the Mommy and Me class, as well as into the preschool’s class for 2-year-olds. The program’s goal is to “connect children and their families to Judaism through upbeat, high energy music,” offering classes to families and “intertwining Jewish music and rhythm instruments,” according to its website. Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach teaches 12 different 10-week curricula that can be rotated for a total of three years without repetition.

And now the program has arrived in N.J. Last month, Cohen and representatives from three other local synagogues attended a training session at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange. The curriculum incorporates Jewish concepts and values, Hebrew songs, and Hebrew letters with specific instruments and rhythms, sounds, and movements.

“It’s using the music and the rhythm and the instruments to teach Jewish values and create community,” said Cantor Janet Roth of Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit JCC, who attended the session. She called the curriculum “active,” “amazing,” and “brilliant,” and said, “Parents are engaged; kids are engaged.” 

To get a sense of Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach, think Music Together with a neshama and a Jewish learning component. In fact, the obvious similarities to the secular research-based early-childhood music program that celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013 are no accident; Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach founder Shelley Dean, a trained Music Together facilitator in St. Louis, acknowledged that she adapted some of its components into the new Jewish program. However, she also added others, from a Hebrew word of the day to the use of Jewish niggunim, or songs. It’s also a little looser in structure than Music Together, allowing teachers to implement the entire program, or just incorporate bits and pieces into existing curricula.

Randi Cohen, early childhood
director at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, incorporates Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach concepts into the Temple’s programs.

Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach is “a joyful Jewish experience for families focused on early childhood,” said Dean, “that gets Jewish music into souls as early as possible.” She added, “It’s interactive so that it educates the parents, as well as the children, on the topic of the day.”

Dean, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and her interest in Jewish music grew out of an experience through Livnot U’Lehibanot, an immersive Israel program, that exposed her to traditional niggunim. “That was a real turning point for me,” Dean said. She started Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach when her children were in preschool to get more Jewish content into their Shabbat experience, she told NJJN, and from there it grew into a full curriculum. Ellen Allard, a prominent early-childhood music specialist, served as a consultant.

The fee for Rhythm ‘n’ Rocking is $1,000, which includes $500 for training and $500 for a yearly license that needs to be renewed annually; the licensing fee for individuals is $300.

Besides Beth Shalom, Ohr Shalom, and Sharey Tefilo-Israel, the fourth participating synagogue in New Jersey is Temple Beth Or in the Township of Washington. So far Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach has trained facilitators in seven states, in addition to New Jersey, including Missouri, Tennessee, California, Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, and Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. 

Cantor Janet Roth leads a Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach session at Congregation Ohr Shalom: JCC of Summit.

The January training session was eye-opening, said Roth of Ohr Shalom.

“I’ve been teaching Jewish music since I was in high school, but nobody ever really told me how to teach it,” she said. Even though she has taken several classes over the years, this training struck her as particularly effective, in part because the curricula are so complete, and because Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach enables her to incorporate more into a 45-minute program than she had previously thought possible. 

Cohen said that at the training she was inspired by Dean’s personality. “Shelly’s energy and her enthusiasm — her knowledge of music making — it’s just infectious,” she said.

So far, both Cohen and Roth have been incorporating pieces of the program into existing music classes. On Sunday, Feb. 24, Roth offered a free-standing Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach class that sold out within 24 hours.

At one point, Roth was singing “Bim Bam,” part of Rhythm ‘n’ Ruach’s “rhythm ride”: Children are bounced on their parents’ knees, and then the bouncing shifts to a circular motion rotating at the waist, and the movement cycle finishes with parents gently throwing their children in the air, exclaiming “whooooo!” Some of the children giggle, a few are a little hesitant. No matter. In a few minutes they’ll bid the rhythm ride “l’hitraot” and have the chance to make some music with rhythm sticks, get in some fun with a parachute, and see and touch the instrument of the day, before the nikayon (cleanup) song begins.

And then it’s shalom, until next time.

jginsberg@njjewishnews.com

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