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Building movers and shakers among young Jewish families

Abbie Strauss could hardly contain her excitement when talking about Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach, a parent-child Jewish music program created in St. Louis by Shelley Dean. Last August, Strauss was among the first class of instructors to undergo an intensive, two-day training in the curriculum, which is currently expanding to cities nationwide.

“I was blown away to find a ‘Mommy and Me’ or ‘Parent and Me’ music program that had such a meaningful Jewish component to it. There isn’t anything else like it out there, and I know, because I have looked,” said Strauss, a music educator who also serves as a cantor at a Reform congregation in Memphis, Tenn. “The depth of the program is amazing, too, the way it engages the mind, body and soul with Judaism. 

“What I also really like is how parents and grandparents are creating memories to last a lifetime with their children and grandchildren through this unique combination of music, movement and Jewish learning enrichment. It’s transformational.” 

Dean says she knew from the time she founded Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach in 2011 that she wanted to replicate it in other communities with sizable Jewish populations because, as Strauss noted, nothing else like it exists.

“I spoke to Rick Recht (co-founder of the Songleader Boot Camp held annually in St. Louis), and he said to build the program here before you think about going big,” said Dean, 45, a wife and mother of four children. “And that’s what I did.”

For the unfamiliar, Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach (pronounced ROO-ak) engages children from newborn to age 5 and their caretakers through Jewish music and movement. Ruach means “wind” in Hebrew, and with that wind Dean also brings merriment, energy and spirit to her classes. 

Watching her in action reminds me of the Pied Piper meets “I Dream of Jeannie,” though Dean eschews a harem outfit for colorful tanks and yoga pants. It’s almost as if something magical happens in her classes, with kids and adults alike losing all inhibition and allowing their fun flags to fly.

Last week at the Brodsky Library, 11 children, mostly under the age of 3, and eight adults (moms, grandmas and nannies) sat cross-legged in a circle around a cheerful tie-dyed sheet. Dean begins each class with a song introducing the group to a certain character trait in Hebrew; ours was zrizut, which means “enthusiasm.” She put the sounds and syllables of zrizut to music, strumming familiar melodies like “Wheels on the Bus” and “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain” on her guitar while the kids and adults sing or hum along.

But the real glee — and true magic — comes when Dean dips into her Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach toolkit filled with egg shakers, lollipop drums, clappers, tambourines, streamers and hula-hoops. She encourages her young charges to shake, rattle, roll and run around while she leads lively, relatable, age-appropriate tunes with a Jewish or Hebrew twist, in this case that underscore the zrizut/enthusiasm message.

“The secret sauce of Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach is the Jewish element,” Dean said, when we spoke after class. “Every week kids get to explore new instruments and a new Hebrew word. 

“I am so happy they are having a joyful, positive Jewish experience that starts at a young age. My hope is that if nothing else resonates for them Jewishly as they get older, when they hear Jewish music it will rekindle what they learned and loved about Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach.”

Dean credits Ellen Allard, a pioneer in Jewish early childhood music education, with spreading awareness about Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach and helping the program to grow. “She is well-respected (among Jewish early childhood educators) and is such an inspiration that having her endorsement was critical,” said Dean, who belongs to Congregation B’nai Amoona.

So far, Dean has trained 27 people in 10 states. I spoke to several like Strauss, all of whom were beyond enthusiastic (is that zrizutic in Hebrew?) about incorporating the Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach curriculum into their congregation’s early childhood classes, Jewish preschool and/or Jewish enrichment programs. Dean also hopes that some of the educators she trains will start an independent Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach program, much like she did.

“It’s solidly educationally based and conformed to early childhood educational approaches,” said Rabbi Yaakov Chaitovsky of BMH-BJ, an Orthodox synagogue in Denver that hosted a training last month.

“It was no random, haphazard let’s have this guy on guitar leading preschool kids in song, but rather all encompassing from top to bottom — a holistic experience that involved music, movement and Jewish values,” Chaitovsky added, saying that his shul is implementing Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach into its summer enrichment program and preschool camp. 

Parents, too, seem to appreciate the program. Anna Bukhshtaber, 29, a member of Temple Israel and part-time occupational therapist, has been attending Dean’s classes regularly for three years, first bringing her older son Bennett, 3½, and now her younger son Kai, 1½. 

“I love the Jewish themes, built around character traits, that Shelley brings to each class,” said Bukhshtaber. “I think in some ways it’s more for the adults because I am learning so much, but I also love how she engages both the kids and the caregivers. And I’ve met some other moms through the program, which has been an added benefit.”

The cost of the 10-week program is $180 per child (and adult) with incremental discounts for each additional child. A class typically runs for 45 minutes, which seems like a perfect amount of time given the young age of her audience. 

As Jewish institutions, organizations and agencies search for new ways to engage young families, Rhythm ‘N’ Ruach seems to be a no-brainer. Of course I’m no expert on Jewish early childhood education, but I do know sheer joy when I see it. And that was exactly the look on the faces of all 11 children when Dean led them into a magical universe bursting with zrizut.

For more information, visit https://www.rhythmnruach.com.

News and Schmooze is a weekly column by Editor Ellen Futterman. Email Ellen at: efutterman@thejewishlight.com