In the admittedly small world of Jewish rock, Rick Recht is something of a superstar. A popular draw on a circuit that includes synagogues, summer camps, and campus Hillels, he combines the secular pleasures of folk rock with themes of Jewish spirituality, pride, and responsibility.
More recently he has taken on another role, as a mentor to Jewish song leaders who want to learn a performer’s secrets for connecting with audiences at synagogues and other settings.
Earlier this month, 28 rabbis, cantors, musicians, religious school teachers, and teenagers (including this reporter’s son) attended Recht’s Songleader Boot Camp at Temple Israel in Manhattan.
Through talks, demonstrations, and performances, Recht and his protege Sheldon Low taught and demonstrated for participants not just how to be better performers and teachers, but how to become better leaders in both formal and informal settings.
For Cantor Joanna Alexander of Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, the Jan 12-13 workshop could have been called “how to turn yourself into a charismatic leader.”
She especially appreciated the feedback from Recht and Low and the other participants. “I don’t always take the time to analyze what I’m doing every week on the bima,” she said.
The first day of the conference, held in an overheated downstairs conference space, focused on getting into what Recht calls a “star state” — prepping oneself to perform at peak levels. He also promoted “RTKS” — the qualities of rapport, respect, relationship; translation; kavana (mindful intention); and sharing.
Recht and Low offered a tag team approach, with Recht offering an overview and Low demonstrating. After exchanging friendly banter with the audience (rapport, relationship), Low began strumming his guitar and launched into a version of Mi Kamocha, cuing the group with each line so they could join in.
Transitioning into “translation,” Low asked the audience if they knew what the prayer was about, offering its literal translation (“Who is like You, O God?”), its source (Exodus 15:11), and its context (sung after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.)
For “kavana,” he asked an audience member to share a personal family story about immigrating to the United States or Israel. By the end of the process, audience members were on their feet, thinking about the joy of arriving, marching, and singing to his music.
Recht and Low launched the song leaders’ workshop in 2009 and offer the regional workshops in four other cities: Phoenix, Chicago, Boston, and Washington. A longer, national boot camp in Recht’s native city of St. Louis includes different tracks for clergy, educators, song leaders, and others.
“I had a sense there was a need in the Jewish world for leadership,” Recht said in conversation at the end of the first day. “I looked at my own role and asked: How could I have an impact? I analyzed the tools in my own toolbox and started investigating the methodologies and skills used by top entertainers, athletes, and business people to perform consistently at peak levels and exert leadership on a superstar level.”
In addition to the techniques, the boot camp includes strategy sessions, “so everyone leaves with a plan ensuring SLBC is a start, a launch pad, and not a diving board,” said Recht.
Karen Joseph, a 10-year song-leading veteran from Temple Rodeph Torah, said she learned at SLBC to share using the whole body. “It’s not enough to just use your voice,” she said she now realized. “The spirit you bring also helps get across your meaning.”
Suzy Rosenberg, who teaches at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, said a cantor “highly recommended” the boot camp to her. “It was a really long day and we learned so so much. There’s so much in the way we communicate with a group, and that’s just one piece,” she said.
In breakout sessions, Jill Teltser Kimmelman, a member and preschool teacher at Millburn’s Congregation B’nai Israel, had her group form a circle. She chatted about favorite holidays, played her guitar, and taught a song about fruit and nuts pegged to the upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shevat — New Year of the Trees.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity to become a really fabulous song leader,” said Kimmelman, who also teaches at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, JCC MetroWest in West Orange, and Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
Recht and Low, she said, “have really analyzed what it takes to help us communicate our understanding of the music and feel the music, and to understand what our presence really means in a group. It’s really cool to realize that every gesture means something.”