Can you remember a time, or a scene, when music broke down barriers and brought people into that precious circle of unity?
Sometimes it takes a war to remind us we’re all one undivided nation, our mutual fate, past, and future intertwined, even if we’ve been feeling separate for so long.
And sometimes all it takes is a song.
Can you remember a time, or a scene, when music broke down barriers and brought people into that precious circle of unity?
“We’re a people who never abandon G-d and only get stronger from hard times”
The first thing that pops into my mind is, “Thank You Hashem!” which came out during Covid. People have told me that TYH was like the Covid theme song. You’d think that maybe a Tishah B’Av song would have been a more appropriate theme, but NO, Klal Yisrael always thanks Hashem. Klal Yisrael has resilience. Klal Yisrael found the good in the situation. Today, we’re seeing that resilience again. We’re a people who never abandon G-d and only get stronger from hard times. The Zohar says that when you want to get the flames going in a bonfire, you kick the wood. That’s a mashal to Klal Yisrael. You kick us, we come back stronger. And soon we’ll all be in Eretz Yisrael, serving Hashem in the highest, most significant way — with no more kicks.
singer, composer, yeshivah rebbi
It’s Never Too Late
“I felt he should be the one apologizing, while he seemed too ashamed to reach out”
I’m fortunate to spend my summers in camp. Midway through one summer, we were gearing up for an inter-camp basketball game that was expected to be fiercely competitive, so I assigned one of my assistants to prepare our team rigorously for the match. He did an outstanding job — almost too outstanding. By the end of the first quarter, the team was ahead by over 25 points. It was clear that the opposing team had little chance of catching up or avoiding a substantial defeat.
As we moved to a 50-point lead in the second quarter, I approached this assistant and, as his supervisor, instructed him to substitute the five-star players with the benchwarmers. My aim was to maintain our lead but not let the other team, also made up of fellow Yidden and fine yeshivah boys, suffer such a massive loss. But in the heat of the game, and after his countless hours of dedication to the team, my assistant snapped back at me:
“You asked me to run the team, I’m running the team. Stay out of it, Shmeely,” he said. His defiance of my direct order, in front of many campers and members of the seventh-grade team, was a moment that left me hurt and somewhat embarrassed. Despite each point feeling like a pang in my heart, I stepped back, almost starting to root for the other team, hoping they’d narrow the gap.
After the game, there were no congratulations or apologies exchanged between us. Days passed in avoidance; I felt he should be the one apologizing for defying me, while he seemed too ashamed to reach out. The summer ended, yet the tension lingered.
This past summer marked my tenth season in our camp as the seventh-grade division head. My division had never won the annual music video competition, and when my staff proposed using “The Time Is Now” by Kinderlach, I wasn’t initially thrilled about the out-of-the-box choice. But sensing their enthusiasm, I approved it, letting them take the lead.
One of the counselors, Shmuel Gewirtz, conceptualized a story for the song without explicitly sharing the details with me. It revolved around a boy accidentally pushing his friend into a creek during a forest hike. In the aftermath, they avoided each other, the boy too embarrassed to apologize, and the other unsure of what to apologize for. The song emphasized seizing the moment to mend fences.
Before the big music video event at camp, I hadn’t seen the final cut. As the video played and the story unfolded, emotions welled up within me. It felt as though Hashem was speaking to me through this music video, especially with the chorus echoing “The time is now” on the large dining room screen.
I rose from my seat at the head staff table and headed toward the junior staff table, only to meet the young staff member who had clashed with me the year before, walking toward me.
We met halfway.
Unsure of what to say, I decided to break the ice. “I’m sorry for how things unfolded at the game,” I said.
“I’m even more sorry for my reaction. Please forgive me,” he responded.
After an emotional embrace, we returned to watch the music video a second time, its message resonating deeper for both of us. That night, our division won the competition. But more importantly, I gained something far more valuable: shalom, peace.
camp division head, events arranger
Cry of Longing
“We sang the song again and again, Jews from different backgrounds united in the same refrain”
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to join Sinai Retreats (a.k.a. Moodus) as a tutor on one of their summer kiruv sessions. The entire experience was uplifting for me — it was an encounter with pure ruchniyus. Watching young college students completely change the course of their lives after two weeks of exposure to Torah was like witnessing a miracle. Shabbos was a special time in camp. The students got to watch the families of the rebbeim interact with each other and see how we celebrate the holy day, and the ruach was beautiful.
Sitting together with the students and rebbeim at Seudah Shlishis, singing Abie Rottenberg’s Yedid Nefesh, I watched adult men cry in the most genuine expression of longing. Unbelievably, men who didn’t even understand Hebrew were sobbing over the words “meshoch avdecha el retzonecha.” We just sang the song again and again, Jews from very different backgrounds all united in the same refrain. “Father, we’re all looking to be better, to do more, to come closer; please bring us home.”
Just Be Myself
“It was epic to watch hundreds of public-school boys sing of their Jewish pride”
Our children should never know from war. Except for one type of war which is the highlight of most kids’ summers, the secretly planned but hardly unexpected yearly launch of color war. One year as head counselor of the kiruv camp Nageela Midwest — then located in Marshall, Indiana and now in Ingleside, Illinois — I made the unconventional decision to change things up a little bit. You see, the boys take color war very seriously, and by boys I mean the campers — but even more so, the illustrious group of tiereh, devoted, choshuveh staff of bochurim. The way the calendar fell out that particular year, our short three-week camp didn’t lend itself to a two- or three-day affair, and the overworked talent had their hands full creating entertaining songs and skits. So (here comes the unconventional part), we ended up having a one-day color war. It was as intense and geshmak as ever, but when it came to the grand sing, I didn’t hold the generals responsible to create individual songs. I commissioned the legendary kiruv camp professional and songwriter Reb Avrumi “Cheeko” Abramcyk to write one alma mater that I secretly shared with both teams to teach and perform, unbeknownst to each group. When the time came for the alma mater, I made a whole stink about which team should perform first, and finally settled on both teams performing together simultaneously. It was epic to watch hundreds of public-school boys wholeheartedly sing of their Jewish pride and their feelings for each other:
Surrounded by friends/ more like brothers to me,
Always there/ we always care/ for each other.
All my fears/ are left, behind,
Don’t gotta be/ someone else/ I could be/ just myself.
The kids were not the only ones crying during that grand sing.
—Rabbi Meir Kranczer
camp director, rebbi at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, Detroit, MI
The Years Melted Away
“In one corner is a man who cleaned up the Sinai Desert after the Six Day War. In another, a fellow who escaped pogroms in Iran”
Chanukah, 2022. If I’m being honest, I was feeling a little down. As a part-time “kumzitzer,” I was fortunate to have secured a couple of gigs here and there. A Motzaei Shabbos “Havdalah Pajamukah” party, some light background music another night, and jobs in two separate nursing homes. Thank You Hashem for the opportunities to be able to help supplement my income by doing what I love and helping inspire Yidden at the same time. But on the other hand, wouldn’t it be amazing to farbreng with some young bochurim and sing the latest Naftali Kempeh songs, or get some really geshmake dancing going at one of the lively balabatishe parties in town? A productive Chanukah yes, but a shtickel chaval that I’d be missing out on some of the “cooler” gigs.
The final date is approaching: Chanukah party at the Hebrew Home for the Aged at the exciting hour of 5 p.m. The rabbi will light some wax candles on a plastic menorah. There will be fat-free latkes, dark chocolate Chanukah gelt, and maybe some prune juice to wash it all down. I’ll be there with my guitar and a couple of other musicians singing all the “hottest” hits — “Hava Nagila,” “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem,” “Am Yisrael Chai” (okay, that one is actually pretty hot again right now).
From the outset, this gig was not looking up. My first clarinet player had to back out due to a conflict. His replacement came down with Covid. At the eleventh hour I was forced to settle for an electric guitarist who had a pedal that could make his guitar sound like a violin (I kid you not).
The big night is here. I unpack my trusty guitar, guitar/violin guy plugs in his pedal, and an older gentleman tunes up his mandolin and warms his vocals getting ready to harmonize with me to the greatest hits of 1948. One woman says to her husband, “Please wake me up when it starts.” He replies, “Please wake me up when it’s over.”
As we begin the intro to “Od Avinu Chai,” I scan the room. People are watching intently. In one corner is a man who cleaned up the Sinai Desert after the Six Day War. In another, a fellow who escaped pogroms in Iran in the 1950s. A survivor of Auschwitz, of Soviet Russia, of forced labor camps. And right in the middle is a sweet little old lady who shouts the fiercest, most resounding “Chai” back at us each time we sing it. It’s the same refrain she used to shout when she marched into combat during the Yom Kippur War decades ago.
We move on to “Chanukah Oy Chanukah,” “Light One Candle,” “Oseh Shalom,” and something amazing begins to happen. Withered hands lift in the air, people slowly apply pressure to their walkers and rise in their seats. There is singing, there is dancing, there is simchah. Real, pure, unadulterated simchah! The years melt away, hands clap, and bodies sway. You can feel an energy in the room that defies all the years, all the struggles, all the tribulations. We are Yidden, we are survivors, and we are still here!
For the grand finale, we launch into “Those Were the Days,” the most Jewish secular song out there. I continue to scan the room as we reach the final refrain of “lai lai lai lai lai lai.” The chaplain and his wife are waving their hands in the air with the most lichtig, beaming smiles you have ever seen. Walkers and wheelchairs are rocking, hands are clapping, nurses and residents alike are shouting “lai lai lai” with all their might.
“One more time!” I shout as we begin the final refrain. But it is not enough. How can anyone possibly put an end to so much simchah? I quickly shout “Two more times!” and people chuckle at the joke and join in for another refrain. “Three more times!” We keep going. This is ecstasy, this is the highest of the high, this is simchas Yom Tov, achdus, ahavas Yisrael, and Jewish pride all rolled into one. We could have continued that refrain for eight nights and it would not have been enough.
I know exactly which gig I’m most excited for this Chanukah. Am Yisrael Chai!
Make Us Peace
“As the women in the room raised their voices, the myriad differences between us didn’t matter”
On October 11th, when everything was still tremendously raw, Ruchi Koval posted on the chat for former members of a band we were in together years ago. Her voice note went as follows: “Hey ladies, good morning, hope you are all well considering the terrible situation Klal Yisrael finds itself in. I would love to organize a kumzitz for the women of the community on Motzaei Shabbos, to come together to sing songs of chizuk and solidarity for our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael….”
Everyone was in, at least in spirit. Those of us who were able to be there in person came up with a set list. We decided to end with an “Ani Ma’amin.” Perfect, we thought.
Motzaei Shabbos came and the room slowly filled up. There were women from every corner of our Cleveland community, from every school, a number of shuls, and many levels of observance, including those from Ruchi’s kiruv community. We sang, we cried, we connected, but when it was time to end on the “Ani Ma’amin” we had planned, the energy just wasn’t there. I don’t remember who led the decision, but somehow we knew we had to go back to the classic “Oseh Shalom,” written by Israeli composer Nurit Hirsh in 1969. As the women in the room raised their voices, the myriad differences between us didn’t matter. At that moment, we were just Jewish women, joining together in this plea for peace for our nation.
Cleveland Heights, OH
All the Same Song
“The Siyum included all parts of the community, getting together to show kavod haTorah”
In 2005, at the 11th daf yomi Siyum HaShas in Chicago, the soloist from the previous siyum, Reb Shimmy Ray, suggested that instead of him singing solo, we put together a choir from all segments of the frum community. I had the zechus to be part of this choir. We were all told to come to the siyum wearing our regular Shabbos clothes, so that there were some of us in our black hats and some in their kippot serugot. The siyum included all parts of the community: Chassidish, yeshivish, Chabad, Modern Orthodox, and everyone in between, getting together to celebrate the Torah and show kavod haTorah. Of course, we sang “Siman Tov Umazal Tov” and then the Torah songs. Then, we sang the Holocaust tune to “Ani Maamin,” and the community just came together with one heart.
The Final Hour
“We hugged each other and supported each other like we were best friends for years”
Back in November 2018, I called my good friend Mordche Zev Breuer a”h to see how he was doing. His wife answered, telling me that I should come and visit because he has a matter of hours left in This World. With Moshe Tischler, I ran to his home in Monsey, and we played together for him for a couple of hours. We sang the “Mi Bon Siach” and “Mi Adir” that Yossi Green composed for Mordche Zev in the zechus of his recovery, and we sang a lot of Shabbos songs. I met people there who I didn’t know, yet we hugged each other and supported each other like we were best friends for years. At 6.23 a.m., while we were all around Mordcha Zev’s bed, his neshamah left him.
I still keep in touch with so many people from that experience.
Composer/director of Zaltz Band
No More Suffering
“The first responders were especially broken about what had happened”
When Liel Namdar was hit by a drunk driver at an intersection in the Five Towns while returning from a camp reunion on a Motzaei Shabbos a few years ago, the community was shocked and shattered by the sudden tragedy. The Thank You Hashem team wrote a beautiful song called “Mi She’omar,” asking Hashem to put an end to all our tzaros and suffering, with the moving chorus “genug shoin tzures Tattah, genug shoin treren Tatteh…” and I was asked to produce a music video. Naturally, the first responders were especially broken about what had happened, and I worked with the Hatzalah members who were on call that night. The song and video really touched everyone in the community and brought an almost-tangible sense of togetherness, l’illui nishmas Liel.
MB Video Production
What Can I Give in Return?
“I had always thought it was beautiful, but I never realized it had a hidden power”
A few years ago, as part of my work with NCSY, I had an end-of-the-year barbecue with our chapter. As always, I made sure to bring my guitar. We played the classic NCSY songs that we always sang, like “Acheinu” and “Tov Lehodos,” and then they asked me to play some new songs that they hadn’t heard yet.
At that time, I was very connected to the song “Mah Ashiv,” composed by Rabbi Yehuda Gilden a”h from Toronto, on the Harei Yehuda album, a collection of his compositions. Rabbi Gilden was a pianist, composer, arranger, and vocalist, who directed the boys’ choir at Eitz Chaim yeshivah and was the vocalist and keyboard player of the Nafshenu Orchestra. He was attacked by Parkinsons in his fifties, and his friends in the Jewish music industry joined to produce an album which would publicize his music and raise funds for his care. “Mah Ashiv,” a particularly rich song, with Hebrew and English lyrics, is sung by Avraham Fried on the album. I had always thought it was beautiful, but I never realized it had a hidden power. Before I started to sing it, I told the group about Yehuda and how the song came to exist. I began to sing it, and I was so inspired by the beauty of the song, that I had my eyes closed the entire time I was playing it for them.
After I finished singing the song, ending with the English words, I opened my eyes and realized that all of these holy neshamos around me had tears in their eyes. It had struck them so deeply and brought us all into a certain special place.
Music producer, NSCY director
Out of My Comfort Zone
“We want you to be an example for us. Come, join us crawling into the mountain”
Each year, I bring many students to Israel to learn and explore their Jewish roots. One day of the trip, we go to the caves of Bar Kochva. While the students love crawling on their bellies through the heart of a mountain in the dark, that’s not exactly my idea of fun, as I have an issue with claustrophobia. Imagine crawling through a dugout tunnel in the pitch black, with 25 students in front of you and 25 behind you. You cannot stand up and you cannot turn around. No, thanks! So each year, I tell the students that I’ll wait for them on the other side of the cave and sit that trip out.
One year, I was wishing the students well and letting them know that I would see them in a few hours, when one student said to me, “Rabbi, you’ve spent the entire trip inspiring us to step out of our comfort zone. We want you to be an example for us. Come, join us crawling into the mountain.”
I had no response to that line of reasoning, so against my better judgment, I agreed to go. It was honestly terrifying. My heart was beating 1,000 miles an hour. When we arrived at the middle of the mountain, there was a small room in the darkness that was big enough for the group to sit up in. Although my claustrophobia had kicked in full force, I still had a job to do, which was to attempt to create a moment for my students. And so, in the darkness, I taught them the song “Tov Lehodos LaHashem.” Even the words “v’emunascha baleilos” held new meaning to me. When the ordeal was over, my point to the students had been made, along with a resolve not to do it ever again!
Sadly, that student who had urged me to crawl into the cave stopped responding to my messages after the trip. It was strange and unfortunate. We had really connected, and I’d thought that he was on a real growth trajectory. A few months later, I was ordering coffee at a coffee shop, when who do I realize is standing behind me? None other than this same student. He definitely felt awkward, knowing that he had ignored my messages and phone calls. Rather than take him to task, I said to him, “Why don’t we go and enjoy the coffee together outside?”
He agreed and we sat silently, drinking coffee at an outdoor table under a large umbrella. It seemed clear to me that the lessons and ideas that he had learned on the Israel trip had challenged him and taken him out of his comfort zone. Sometimes it’s easier to not respond than to face reality and make a change in one’s life.
Suddenly, I looked into his eyes and just started singing. “Tov lehodos LaHashem… lehagid baboker chasdecha ve’emunascha baleilos.” He looked into my eyes and then nodded. We had an understanding. Sometimes when things are dark and scary, in order to progress, we need to go out of our comfort zone.
—RABBI BENTZION KLATZKO
Director of Olami campus kiruv, founder of Shabbat.com
The Neshamah Hears
“There was a song from Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur, but I can’t remember the words...”
I was sitting at the bedside of my husband’s grandmother in the oncology ward of Hadassah Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, two days before her neshamah left This World. She was unconscious and we knew that the end was drawing near. My husband was singing soul-stirring songs, hoping that she could hear, that her neshamah was listening. “Ein od, ein od, ein od milvado....”
As I passed by the patient in the next bed, I glanced at her to make sure that she was okay with the singing. “Tell him to keep singing,” she begged. “I was religious before the war, and these songs...” — she put her hands over her heart. Then she continued, “There was a song from Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur, but I can’t remember the words.... Please, bring me a machzor.”
I had no idea where I might find a Yom Kippur machzor in the oncology ward, but I went to search. There was a room down the hall with drinks and cakes, and it had a shelf with seforim and books that I imagine people had left behind. I searched through them and finally found what I needed. I excitedly ran back to the room where the woman was waiting. Thrilled to see the machzor in my hands, she flipped through the pages and found the words that she was referring to, and my husband sang them. I will never forget that moment, tears streaming down the woman’s face as my husband sang those precious words from her past, connecting her to her family and history, and hopefully connecting her to her Creator.
Across Every Border
“Which songs had made it to their fledgling little Bais Yaakov in the land emerging from the frozen Soviet regime?”
The visit broke up a regular afternoon of school in Beth Jacob High School of North West London. A couple of lessons were canceled and we made our way down to the hall to host a group of foreign girls for a special assembly. I no longer remember where they were from —whether it was Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa, or somewhere else on the kiruv map of the former USSR, or what the program was — probably a formal assembly with some introductions for stilted chit-chat, not the rah-rah fun kind of hosting. But I remember that like every assembly in our school, the afternoon finished with singing. Someone went up to the piano on stage, and the visitors were asked which songs they knew, which songs had made it to their fledgling but proud little Bais Yaakov somewhere in the land emerging from the frozen Soviet regime. The answer: “Nekadeish.” Somehow, as the small group, so differently dressed and heavily accented, sang together with our blue-pleated-skirt rows, the song felt as solemn and firm as a joint mission statement. Its pensive low part expressed the commitment to kiddush Hashem, while the high part, in the raised voices of a few hundred teen girls, united us in a simple and eternal plea: “Hashem will rule forever… from generation to generation….”
Everything Is Fixable
“The upset and sheer anger between them was insurmountable”
Around 15 years ago, our band was invited by a certain synagogue to spend Shabbos with their kehillah, including a Motzaei Shabbos Melaveh Malkah concert. There was an air of spiritual release and unity, and the dancing was absolutely uplifting.
After the concert, we were told that there were two people in the audience who hadn’t talked to one another since the rabbi from one of their synagogues had moved to another community. The upset and sheer anger between them was insurmountable, to the extent that when they would see each other walking on the street, one would cross the street and walk on the other side just to avoid contact.
That Melaveh Malkah concert had been the “breaking of the ice” between them. I don’t know exactly which niggun did it — perhaps it was the slow dveykus niggun we played with tears, yearning for Hashem, yearning for what has been lost, yearning for a brighter future. Or maybe it was the short story we gave over from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, in which a destitute man elatedly found a diamond and then lost it, only to strengthen himself. Then again, maybe it was the upbeat song of Rebbe Nachman’s quote, “If you believe you can damage, believe you can fix.” I guess they believed it!
Simply Tsfat Band
How Brothers Celebrate
“Suddenly, men, boys and teens, avreichim, proud parents and businessmen were all holding hands”
I was a ninth grader, sitting on the second to the top row of MetLife stadium, at the Siyum HaShas in December 2019. Down below, I saw the thousands who came to celebrate the completion of yet another cycle of Talmud Bavli. There were so many individuals; my great uncle who appeared on the screen for a short moment, fathers and sons, another uncle, a cousin. The group of children who celebrated a siyum on a portion of the Mishnah. A small number of Holocaust survivors sitting toward the front. Brothers, friends, and yeshivos. Random strangers sitting beside each other. Then the music went on. Songs of Torah, songs of joy and chizuk. Songs of connection: connecting us to Hashem, and each other. Suddenly, men, boys and teens, avreichim, proud parents and businessmen were all holding hands. Colored shirts, patterned plaid shirts, white shirts with ties and jackets, white shirts with beketshes, twirling, swirling, spinning, dancing so close to each other it was difficult to see where one ended and the next began. The unity in the air was palpable. The music hit a crescendo, the crowd, in perfect harmony, rose another inch off the ground in ecstasy. After a lively burst of energetic dancing, the music slowed down, and everyone returned to their seats. Random strangers — no, brothers — sitting next to each other in celebration.
Choose Your Stage
“Judith embarked on a process of self-discovery, eventually putting the years of voice training, fame, money and contacts aside”
As Judith’s melodious voice echoes across the room, the women form a circle and break out in song and dance. Judith’s melodies are laced with love and dveykus. Her singing profoundly
affects and uplifts those in need of therapeutic healing.
Judith didn’t always sing this way. In her secular life she sang as a professional on stage. In Israel, where she lived, she was a celebrity sensation. Secular audiences idolized her, but when she would go back home to her studio apartment, she felt empty, depleted. Many times, she would fall asleep thinking to herself, Here I am on top of the world, on center stage, but I feel nothing more than ego and superficiality.
One night, Judith woke up startled and shaky. Her grandmother, who had passed away before she was born, appeared to her in a dream. “Judith,” she chided her. “There is so much more to life than stage performance. I sacrificed so much for Yiddishkeit. Each sacrifice got me to the real and final stage to the Olam HaEmes. Now I’m basking in the true limelight! l’m begging you, Judith, give it all up and instead find your true self, your pintele Yid! Only that will bring you true happiness. Singing can still be a part of you, but sing to praise Hashem. Sing songs of His glory. Start a life, get married, raise a family to whom you can sing the morning prayers. Let yourself enrich and enhance your connection to Hashem through your songs. Only through this path will you find your true calling in life.”
After that jolt, Judith embarked on a process of self-discovery, eventually putting the years of voice training, fame, money and contacts aside. As she began learning, observing, and finally keeping mitzvos, she created a new life for herself. She is now married and raising a Torah family. Yet every once in a while, Judith felt a yearning. It wasn’t a yearning to go back to living a life of stardom. It was a feeling that perhaps she could still utilize her singing talent in some kind of a kosher forum. True, she was now singing Modeh Ani, Shema, and brachos with her young children, and she also sang Nishmas and Hallel when she davened, but could she still express herself in a broader way with the gift of her beautiful voice?
A few years ago on Chanukah, her neighbors made a block party, and as part of the entertainment they asked Judith to lead a kumzits. After so many years, Judith felt a strong sense of fulfilment and gratitude for this kosher venue, so different from the performances she used to give in her former years. This was real, elevated, truly connected.
After receiving a blessing from her rav to go back to singing for holy purposes and for women only, Judith’s mission in life now is singing for the sick and their caregivers. At least once a week Judith packs her musical equipment into her car and travels to housebound and hospitalized patients, infusing them with renewed energy as they struggle with the ravages of illness. She offers them hope, joy, distraction, and empowerment. Judith pumps vitality all around her, and says she’s blessed with extra energy when she uses her talent for kindness. May she continue to receive a standing ovation from her audience and ultimately from Hashem!
—Coordinating staff, Project Hope/Bikur Cholim
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 989)
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