To those who love it, Hava Nashira is less a Jewish summer music workshop and more a calling. Even the name — translated as “come let us sing” — beckons.
Started in 1992 by Debbie Friedman and Cantor Jeff Klepper, the sessions originally intended to train camp song leaders have gone on to have a global impact on Jewish music and synagogue life.
“We want to help people become sensitized to how they can use this music in synagogues, in community centers, in all the places where Jews come to congregate,” said Jerry Kaye, director of the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, the regional camp of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in Oconomowoc, Wis., where Hava Nashira takes place.
Kaye was one of the few there at the beginning, when the program full of soulful songs drew about 50 people. Today, more than 200 song leaders, music educators, cantors and others make the trip. Do the math and the potential ripple effect is huge.
“If somebody can teach a song to Hava Nashira and make it stick, then it’s very likely that the rest of the Jewish community … is going to learn it,” said Emily Schwartz, 23, a song leader from Chicago who has been to the program four times.
True to its purpose, Hava Nashira continues to train song leaders for summer camps through intensive workshops, reviewing old songs, adding new ones and developing the artistry behind the role. This year’s workshop will be held June 1-5, with URJ camp song leaders arriving a day early.
“The first very specific goal was to make sure that there were talented song leaders to go around for all the Union camps, and to that end we have designed a separate program for the song leaders,” said Klepper, who serves as cantor for Temple Sinai in Sharon, Mass.
Hava Nashira is open to participants of any denomination, and those who come range in age from 18 to 65 and older. In the past, they have been able to study anything from composition to music for young families to the power of choral singing with a faculty that draws from the best in Jewish music today.
Mikey Pauker, 25, a song leader from West Los Angeles, said he was in awe when he attended Hava Nashira for the first time two years ago.
“All the people there who were faculty were the people who wrote the songs,” he said. “I was blown away by the talent of the people and the community.”
The sharing goes both ways, as participants learn from faculty members and each other.
“You’re in an environment that it’s sort of like a Petri dish of Jewish culture and music,” said Craig Taubman, who has been on staff for more than 10 years. “It was an opportunity for colleagues to cross-pollinate.”
Danny Maseng, chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood, said that one of his goals when he helped direct the program from 1995 to 2000 had to do with helping a new generation rediscover Chasidic, Sephardic and other cool but nearly forgotten tunes. All of this was for one purpose — “to really, really connect with the sacred through music,” he said.
“The main goal certainly wasn’t to have ‘fun’ or to have a good time,” Maseng explained. “The main point was to have a spiritual experience and, even more importantly, a transformative spiritual experience.”
Consider Rick Lupert transformed. He first attended the camp in 1996 and has been back every year since. He met his wife, Addie, there in 2002 and proposed to her at Hava Nashira the following year.
“Everything else that happens in life kind of revolves around making sure that I can make it to that in terms of scheduling,” the Van Nuys resident said.
A music teacher at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, where he also helps lead a monthly minyan and is involved in other musical endeavors, Lupert, 42, said the program is indescribably powerful.
“Music, when done right with the right people and the right melodies in the right setting, can bring you to tears,” he said.
It can even work miracles. Lupert recalls a time when the power was out at the camp and how it came back on as Friedman led the group in “Yotzer Or” — Creator of Light.
“It was simultaneously hilarious and powerful,” he said.
Lupert and others at the workshop recognize that the time they spend there is not just for themselves, although they share a strong bond with each other; they become emissaries of the music and can use it to create a larger Jewish community worldwide.
What they pick up at Hava Nashira isn’t something that can be downloaded over the Internet, said Cantor Ellen Dreskin, a faculty member since 1998 from Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, N.Y.
“It’s really easy to learn new music online, to share resources online, but this craft of song leading is so much about personal connection, about teaching people to use music to build community, to use music to build spirituality,” she said.
As with all things, Hava Nashira is always changing. Aside from growing in size, it has broadened its musical horizons from just using guitar to adding keyboard and other instruments. It also gave rise to a new program, Shabbat Shirah, which began last fall. The program with a smaller faculty focused on people age 30 and up and attracted 54 people, Kaye said.
Looking forward, there is no avoiding the topic of Friedman, the musical luminary who was part of Hava Nashira from the beginning and who died Jan. 9.
“We will miss her terribly,” Kaye said, “but there’s no doubt that she provided a kind of energy and enthusiasm that we will all look to carry forward.”
Klepper has no illusions that time stands still. Long gone are the days when he grew up learning songs at camp that had to be taught and memorized because recordings weren’t available. But the best part remains in Hava Nashira: “The idea that there is nothing as satisfying as sitting and singing with a few other people, just strumming guitars and singing and making up your own harmonies.
“It’s sort of like your music version of the slow food movement. We’re just going to put this stuff in the pot and just put the heat up a little bit and let it take a long time to simmer,” Klepper continued. “So maybe that’s why you have to take a couple of flights and a bus to get to this special camp. You have to really want to be here.”