When it comes to expressing the reason Jewish music in St. Louis is so special, Joanna Dulkin doesn’t hesitate. Standing in a hallway at the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex, the former cantor of Shaare Zedek gestures at the man standing to her right. 

“This is why,” she said with a laugh. “What Rick does is allow each person to tap into that special part of who they are that makes them unique which is then able to be translated into [their being] a leader.”

With his cheery enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy, Jewish rocker Rick Recht can indeed have that effect on people. After all, he’s the reason Dulkin, now a hazzan for a New Jersey synagogue, is visiting St. Louis. He is a driving force behind this week’s Songleader Boot Camp (SLBC), a unique three-day gathering that kicked off its seventh annual iteration Sunday attracting some 250 participants from around the nation and the planet. Dulkin is one of those who taught at the event. Meanwhile, other projects associated with Recht, like Jewish Rock Radio, the venture he helped found in 2009, continue to be a success. His rationale for that enterprise could read as a philosophy for much of what he does.

“Our mission is to strengthen Jewish identity and engagement through the power of music,” said Recht. “We know that music is an incredibly effective vehicle for inspiring and connecting people.”

 

‘A culture of innovation’

Recht may have gotten the ball rolling but it seems the Gateway City’s influence in the universe of Jewish music is growing even beyond the St. Louis native’s impressive star power and developing an identity in its own right as an emerging force in the genre.

“In terms of sheer impact, there are people in every camp in St. Louis, in almost every synagogue, every walk of Jewish life that share these languages, methodologies and strategies together,” said Recht who notes that SLBC also has regional conferences in cities around the country. “We have this common language in St. Louis that is not just ours now. It is a language we are sharing with people all over the world.”

That’s been Recht’s hope for some time and the dream seems to be bearing fruit. Dulkin, who moved to the East Coast three years ago, said that the area is becoming a hub of musical creativity.

“I lived here for seven years and there is an incredible culture of innovation in St. Louis that is very special,” she said. “If you are not from here, you don’t realize how special this is.”

In fact, it is special enough to pull in important names from elsewhere. David Ingber was honored as one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America a few years ago by Newsweek. This week, he is enjoying his first visit to SLBC but he’d heard of the event even before meeting Recht.

“From all four corners of the country, people are coming together in Missouri,” said Ingber. “The truth is that I came from New York City to come to St. Louis to participate in what I think is radically important leadership training that affects Jewish leadership at every level and in every area.”

Ingber, rabbi of Romemu, a New York synagogue, is a keynoter for the event. He said the Gateway City is growing in national prominence noting that what he terms “the St. Louis experience” shows the flourishing of Jewish life outside cultural hubs on the East and West coasts. 

“This is what I’m going to go home and tell my community,” he said. “In St. Louis there’s a conference that isn’t just inspiring people to be great leaders but is actually inspiring them and instructing them. Those two together – that’s what we need.”

 

From music to leadership

That’s indicative of an ongoing evolution in SLBC itself from training in songleading to a broader focus on leadership skills. Recht notes that many of the participants in the event have little to do with music but are simply associated with leadership roles in various parts of Jewish communal life.

“Putting energy into that can have an exponential effect – the idea of teaching teachers and leaders, sharing the skill sets that are necessary for other leaders whether they are day school teachers, religious school teachers, rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, teenagers, song leaders,” said Recht. “All of these are Jewish educators and when we help expand their skill sets, we are putting them in the position of having major, profound, long-term impacts on our community and on this entire Jewish world.”

Recht, executive director of the event, has had quite an effect himself. Not only is SLBC attracting attention but St. Louis-based Jewish Rock Radio (JRR), his 24/7 internet radio station, continues to rake in listeners. About 75,000 have downloaded mobile apps associated with the station which Recht said remains the biggest of its kind in the nation. A new initiative of his launching this spring will distribute free digital copies of Jewish tunes to thousands of young adults associated with groups like YPD, Hillel and Birthright.

 

A center of Jewish music

As host to SLBC, the Jewish Community Center has played an important role as well, according to Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of Jewish Engagement and Adult Programs at the JCC.

“I think St. Louis definitely has become a place where people look for inspiration and leadership when it comes to Jewish music,” said Horwitz, an SLBC co-founder. “Gradually over the last 10 years through programs like Songleader Boot Camp and other efforts that go on in our community, the people who have been touched by Jewish music want to bring it to other people. It snowballs.”

Meanwhile, SLBC has continued to grow – as has its hosting facility’s imprint on the national scene.

“St. Louis is certainly a JCC that has made a substantial commitment to Jewish music,” said Dr. David Ackerman, director of the Mandel Center for Jewish Education at the New York-based JCC Association of North America which had seven different teams attending the event. “It is a JCC that has recognized the power of music in Jewish life, the power of music to affect people socially, emotionally and spiritually. They have really demonstrated leadership in the field to the Jewish community at large and to the JCC movement by accepting responsibility for helping to create opportunities for people to make music wherever they find themselves.”

Local participation is high as well thanks in part to 50 scholarships supported by the local Jewish Federation, Gladys K. Crown Foundation and various private donors. Dulkin said she regularly sees a blend of local and out-of-town faces at the event.

“I think this is a natural spot because we are literally in the center of it all,” she said of St. Louis. 

Zoey Fleisher, 17, is one of those participating from the St. Louis area.

“I’ve learned a lot about the importance of music in building community and I’m constantly relearning how that plays into my life,” said the Central Reform congregant who hopes to become a music educator when she’s older. “Every time, it is something different and something new and there is always something new to learn and new people to learn from.”

Her 15-year-old friend Zoe Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation also hopes to improve her skills as a song leader, a role she has with NFTY-Missouri Valley.

“From SLBC, I’ve really learned how to bring a presence to the music that I play,” said the Parkway Central sophomore. “I’ve learned that it is not just about sitting at the front of the room or even walking around from person-to-person to engage them. It’s more about getting each and every individual into the music and the song session.”