Dancing Through Barriers

Yaakov Shwekey singing at a HASC concert.

The old African-American street musician shivered as he stood outside the concert hall under Madison Square Garden, waiting for the show to end. Finally, the exit doors opened, and his eyes widened.

The crowd pouring out looked more like they were coming out of shul than the theater.

Then his shock gave way to a warm smile. He lifted his trumpet and belted out a jazz improvisation on “Havah Nagilah.”

The Power of Joy

In a way, it was a fitting encore to a HASC “Time for Music” concert, another reminder that music breaks through barriers.

A Talmudic antecedent of eminent domain (Pesachim 110a) says, “Melech poretz geder — a king may break down fences to make a path.” In an eloquent play on the phrase, Harav Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch, zt”l, said, “Simchah poretzes geder — joy breaks down boundaries.”

Joy is so powerful that it knows no barriers … or limitations.

The Hebrew Academy for Special Children, known by its acronym HASC, was established in 1963 to provide educational and clinical services to children and adults with developmental disabilities. In 1970, HASC opened Camp HASC, a summer haven for special kids — and a respite for their parents. The camp is extraordinarily ordinary, providing the conventional pleasures of swimming, sports and more to kids who have never had the opportunity to experience such simple joys.

On one of what became annual visits to Camp HASC, Harav Matisyahu Salomon, shlita, Mashgiach of Beth Medrash Govoha, said the children are “heilige neshamos, and everything that you, the staff, are doing brings such nachas to the Ribbono shel Olam … This visit gives me chizuk for the whole year … I am sure that in the time of Geulah, Moshiach will stop here first … When you meet him, please remember me, and tell Moshiach that I am a friend of HASC too.”

Benny Friedman concert at Camp HASC

A Different Kind of Concert

This feeling — biz’eir anpin, perhaps — is shared by the singers and musicians who volunteer every summer to come sing and play for the kids. And not just for them but with them.

Mr. Shmiel Kahn, director of the camp, says the singers come “sing their hearts out and bring the kids on the stage with them. Kids jump all over them and dance with them. This is no regular concert with an audience that’s just sitting there.”

Since the 1970s, when Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, and, ybl”c, Mordechai Ben David and Sheya Mendlowitz, came to sing for the kids, it became a tradition at Camp HASC. There are concerts at the camp every week, sometimes twice a week. Such names as Avraham Fried, Yaakov Shwekey, Abie Rotenberg, Uncle Moishy, Baruch Levine and others are regulars.

In 1987, a budget crunch threatened to close down the camp. Sheya Mendlowitz and Mordechai Ben David decided to take the show on the road — or at least on the subway. They organized a fundraising concert in New York, along with Avraham Fried and Yoel Sharabi. And the rest is history.

Dancing at Camp HASC

Music: A Basic Human Need

While music might keep the camp going financially through its annual concert fundraiser, you might say the camp itself runs on music. There is music in camp all day long, except during educational programs. On Shabbos, the loudspeakers are silent. The kids are anything but. They sing Kabbalas Shabbos out loud and keep singing straight through the whole davening.

Singing keeps the kids happy. The whole mood of camp is happy. It’s all about singing … and then singing some more.

Rebbetzin Rivkah Glustein, a noted consultant in Yerushalayim, develops programs for social inclusion in education. She also has personal experience in the field, as her son Shykee was a camper at Camp HASC from 1988 to 1994.

She points out that music is far more than a remedy. Yes, music heals. But it’s more like air or water than medicine. Music is a basic human need.

Special-needs children and adults are not sick, she explains, they’re disabled. They have limited resources; they can’t use all their faculties. For them, even more than for others, hearing becomes essential. Music is vital for everyone, but the developmentally disabled with motor and speech difficulties put an added focus on hearing to compensate and to help in connecting to their surroundings.

Music is transformative. Especially for developmentally disabled people, music fills a void and invigorates them.

Roger Sessions, composer and professor of music, wrote about the interactive role of the listener in The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener. Unless the composer specifically directs the listeners’ associations, “it will be the individual imagination of the listener, and not the music itself, which defines the emotion. What the music does is to animate the emotion; the music, in other words, develops and moves on a level that is essentially below the level of conscious emotion. Its realm is that of emotional energy rather than that of emotion in the specific sense.”

A Doorway to the Soul

But there’s more to it, much more.

Music is holy. It goes beyond This World. Music is spiritual. It is vital for simchah.

Yaakov Avinu was inspired to prophecy through music. When Bnei Yisrael passed through the Yam Suf and were saved from the Egyptian army, they broke into song. Yehoshua sang when the sun stood still. And, of course, the pinnacles of song are the Tehillim of “the sweet singer of Israel,” Dovid Hamelech (Shmuel II 23:1) and the Shir Hashirim of his son Shlomo Hamelech.

Music is hardwired into our souls.

Rebbetzin Glustein observes, “A Jewish child with developmental disabilities is raised in a Jewish home. The sounds of Torah learning, Shema, zemiros, Simchas Torah, rejoicing with a chassan and kallah, are all part of his life; so much of Jewish life is set to melody. Everything has a tone to it. Early memories are tied to sound. Children with disabilities are part of this world of sound. All they need is ears and the ability to hear. They can fully participate in the world of Jewish life through sound.”

Rabbi Judah Mischel, executive director of Camp HASC, describes the effect of the concerts at camp — actually more like singalongs — on the kids:

“You see the campers come alive. The power of neginah makes a whole new kid emerge.”

Some of the children are not necessarily verbal. They might not be able to communicate in words. But “the power of niggun is beyond words. It reaches beyond keilim.” He describes a “primal and deep connection that happens between the singers and the listeners. A very real awakening.” It’s something that goes “beyond understanding or analysis.”

The power of music is deeper than the intellect, and it’s accessible even to the cognitively challenged. As Mischel puts it, “You don’t have to know the mystical structure of a niggun to connect to it. There’s a direct pipeline to the inside.”

Rabbi Mischel says that the singers are so moved by the experience of singing and dancing with the kids that they call and ask when they can come back. Unlike formal performances, there are no scripted song lists or constraints. “As long as it’s given over with simchah, everything works.”

But it goes even deeper than that. There are no rigid divisions between the singers and the “audience.” It’s all together.

Intertwined Roles

Tragically, it’s not all singing and dancing. There is also disappointment and heartbreak. Singers make it a point to visit the medical center to sing for those who looked forward to joining in the concert but could not be there. And there were some who had to leave camp early. And yet another camper who participated the best he could — by feeling the vibrations from the loudspeakers — because he couldn’t hear the music.

There are many other sides to this story as well.

Mr. Kahn told about how he asked a prospective donor for help with sponsoring the annual concert. As he was speaking, he suddenly realized the fellow was crying. He asked what was wrong and the donor poured out his soul about his own burden with a disabled child.

Mr. Kahn instantly shifted gears and started helping the man with contacts to deal with the issues. The roles of giver and taker were reversed.

But maybe they weren’t really reversed. Maybe they were always just intertwined.

I am not versed in Kabbalah, but my heart tells me something. And my kop runneth over.

I want to share my feelings with you, so please bear with me.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach said, “The difference between singing and speaking is that when one person speaks, everybody has to be silent, because otherwise they won’t be able to hear the speaker. But the more people sing together, the more they can hear and the more beautiful it is.”

I have a gut feeling that music, tzedakah, and joy all come under the umbrella of chessed. They all have to do with connecting, with breaking through the walls that separate people.

Maybe “umbrella” is not the right word. Maybe it’s more like the tallis spread over the heads of children on Simchas Torah, joining everybody together.

There’s a special kind of fence — an eruv. It joins separate domains and unites them. It’s a fence that embraces instead of separating. It encompasses, rather than divides. It’s an expansion, not a limitation.

Maybe we have to change our whole perception of “normal” and “special.”

Bear with me now. I’m invoking my poetic license and Coleridge’s “semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

I have a feeling that, at some plane of existence, the able and the disabled rise above perceived limitations. At that plane, we all sing and dance as one, spinning — like a gyroscope — and keeping the world perfectly balanced.

And maybe, just maybe, what we hear as music is really the sound of the world spinning.

As Reb Shlomo used to say, “Give me harmony.”