J.E.P. At 50 — “Reach Out”… “Someday We Will All Be Together” — Part II

A certain serenity and tranquility envelops Yidden as they lein the Shiras Hayam on Shabbos Shirah. The beauty of the verses sung in a melodious tune, intoned during Pesukei d’Zimrah and krias haTorah, engenders an ethereal feeling both in those who understand the depth of the words and those who do not. What is so special about shirah that it can stir even the dormant soul?

Nesivos Shalom explains that there is cerebral praise that affects the mind and emotional praise that affects the heart. Then there is “Kol atzmosai tomarna Hashem mi kamocha — All my bones will say, Hashem, who is like You?” (Tehillim 35:10), a praise that touches the core of the being where even the densest bones of a person are stirred to praise Hashem. At Krias Yam Suf, a lowly maidservant was able to detect what even the Navi Yechezkel (who witnessed the opening of the Heavens and saw the Maaseh Merkavah) had not seen (Yalkut 244). At that moment, even the people who were distant from Hashem became cognizant of the fact that when troubles came their way, they were a means for Hashem to shower them with good. This epiphany was so powerful that it penetrated even the densest partition, and the subsequent Shiras Hayam was an outpouring of praise in the highest dimension.

Song and poetry in praise of Hashem is so powerful that it enters even the hearts of those who are distant. In 1973, a year after the Jewish Education Program was founded, the hanhalah of JEP decided to produce a musical record (that ancient vinyl disc upon which music and song were recorded, a precursor to the modern-day CD) containing lyrics with English words that would ignite the souls of both unaffiliated and affiliated Jewish youth worldwide.

Music

“I met this boy Usher Bryn on a JEP visitation who has a phenomenal voice. I think we can put out an album with songs that will inspire the kids in JEP to become more observant, and at the same time raise some of the funds we desperately need to pay for scholarships for them to attend yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and summer camps,” Rabbi Mutty Katz said to Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding.

The naysayers were many, including the seasoned executives of the organization, who were dismissive of the idea that an album of songs with English lyrics would be well received. (Only one song was based on words of a passuk.) Rabbi Katz, however, was a dreamer who believed in the project and JEP borrowed the $5,000 needed to fund it.

“The JEP album was a new concept, and the musical arrangements had to be approached differently,” explains Yisroel Lamm, who wrote the score for the album. “It was a cooperative team project, and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding and Moshe Hauben were very much involved in making it happen. We understood that it was not simply recording music, but there was a purpose in this.”

“We were a group of idealistic yeshivah bachurim who had never worked on producing a recording,” recalls Moshe Hauben, who undertook to produce the first JEP album in 1973. “Besides Yisroel Lamm, there was no one who had experience in this field. But we were idealistic and committed to putting out this record. We gathered some talented people who had written songs and lyrics for color war and other activities in camps and asked them to contribute some of their work for the record.”

Most of the songs had been used as theme songs, marches or alma maters in summer camps like Camp Torah Vodaas, Camp Agudah, Camp Kol-Ree-Nah and Camp Munk. The songs were edited to make them appropriate for the goal of the album: to inspire the children of JEP to undertake a religious lifestyle as well as to entertain the buyers with songs they would enjoy.

“I think the time we spent working on this album helped inspire many to become involved in askanus later in life,” Moshe Hauben says. “Some of the people who participated included Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman, Rabbi Shimon Finkelman, Rabbi Berel Leiner, Rabbi Yonah Weinrib, Rabbi Shmuel Gedalia Pollack and many others who went on to occupy prominent positions in the klal.”

“I think the songs reflected the mood of that era,” Rabbi Yonah Weinrib relates. “The title song , ‘Reach Out,’ was a theme song for the team of Ahavah in Camp Torah Vodaas, with lyrics written by Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman. It told how every Yid is special to Hashem and how we must assist their return. There was a spirit of kiruv that began to flourish after the Six Day War, and JEP wanted to ignite a spark in the Yiddishe hearts of those who had not experienced the beauty of Torah and mitzvos.

“‘Nikolai,’ which was adapted from an alma mater song in Camp Kol-Ree-Nah, was a letter from an American yeshivah student to a Russian Jew and spoke of the plight of Russian Jewry who at that time were trapped behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union. ‘Six Million Tears,’ of course, was about the Holocaust. All these subjects were relevant, and singing about them brought an awareness of these issues.”

Chaim Schmell, who had led the Grand Sing in Camp Torah Vodaas, was chosen to lead the choir. “We practiced in the new Yeshiva Torah Vodaas building on East 9th Street opened in 1967, and we set out to produce something unique,” Chaim relates. “Besides the fact that the majority of the songs had English lyrics, we decided that we would mix the boys’ choir with adult harmonies, which had never been done in Jewish music. The boys’ choir and adults practiced separately, and when we finally brought them together, their blended voices were unique and we were pleased with the way it sounded.”

Chaim’s contributions included writing “Six Million Tears,” whose haunting words described the inhumanity suffered by the victims of the Holocaust and the utter silence of the world to what had transpired. “My grandparents came to America in the 1920s and I was one of the few boys with all four of my grandparents alive. Nevertheless, they lost relatives in the Holocaust, and it seemed that no one was willing to talk about it.

“I wrote the song in 1971 for a music night in Camp Torah Vodaas, which was usually a jovial event with songs and skits. When time came for me to teach this song, we had to change to a more serious mood. Later, we were unsure if it should be included on the record, but Rabbi Mutty Katz insisted it should be because the topic was too important to ignore. It became an iconic song, and I was gratified to hear later that it was included in a list of the 50 greatest English songs.”

Recording in the early ‘70s was generally done together, with the boys’ choir and the adults crowding into the studio and trying to get it perfect on the first try. “In a way, it was like performing a live concert, with everyone singing together, and the soloists standing near the mic and singing their part when it was their turn,” Moshe Hauben says.

Sheya Mendlowitz joined his friends Heshy and Shimmy to form the Shir HaShirim Singers. They had already been performing at tzedakah venues when they were recruited to join the JEP choir as soloists. “It was a sincere and beautiful group, and singing the songs I learned in Camp Torah Vodaas brought back such sweet memories for me.”

When the record debuted, it was obvious that it had met its goals, as the new genre introduced through the album was an instant hit, both with the JEP children and Jewish music enthusiasts. It sold extremely well, with the profits benefiting the JEP Scholarship Fund. Two years later, JEP II was released and received a similar warm welcome from the world of Jewish music.

“My brother Chaim had gotten married shortly after JEP I was released. Since I had experience leading the Grand Sing in Camp Torah Vodaas, I was asked to lead the choir for JEP II,” Moshe Schmell recalls. “I remember that the only opportunity a yeshivah bachur in those days had to utilize his unique talents was in camp during the summer. Many were gifted and artistic, and camp was the place where they were able to be creative. It also helped develop leadership qualities, and we see today that many in leadership positions within the Jewish communities had their start in camp. JEP tapped into this rich pool of talent, and many went on to use their talents for the benefit of Klal Yisrael later in life.

“I was then in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Queens, and I had some experience with JEP, helping out with Release Hour, so the idea of JEP appealed to me. We worked hard for several months, meeting each Friday in the 14th Avenue Agudah, and practicing the songs until we had it perfect. I once heard that a famous choir leader said that JEP II was the best choir to date.”

Moshe Hauben (front) and Bumie Schachter in the recoding studio.

Moshe Hauben, who worked so diligently on the logistics of the recordings, contributed several of his own compositions to the JEP repertoire, including “Yom Zeh Mechubad” and “Oh Dovid,” as well as “Benjy” on JEP IV.

“I was a bit hesitant to put my name as the composer because I was not sure how my songs would be received,” Moshe admits. “On the jacket of JEP III they are attributed to ‘Yehudah Rubin.’ Many years later, when I visited Eretz Yisrael, I walked through the streets of Yerushalayim and heard voices emanating from a school where they were having an oneg. The children were singing my ‘Yom Zeh Mechubad,’ and I realized that the song had been accepted by Klal Yisrael. When it came to JEP IV, my name appeared as the composer of ‘Benjy’ and other songs.”

A most memorable part of JEP III was “Ani Maamin,” sung by Zev Scherl. “We needed a soloist with a beautiful voice for this song, and I placed an ad in the paper,” Rabbi Golding recalls. “Zev’s father answered the ad and said his son was just the boy we were looking for. He couldn’t have been more right!”

Selling the records and cassette tapes at the Agudah Convention.

The song included narration by Yonah Weinrib, which told of the mesirus nefesh of those who perished in the Holocaust, and ends with the sound of machine gun fire. “It was an extremely powerful song, and when we began planning for JEP IV, we knew that we somehow had to have an outstanding song to outdo ‘Ani Maamin,’” Rabbi Golding relates. “I heard that Dina Kaluszyner [the future Mrs. Dina Storch] had composed a phenomenal song, ‘Someday We Will All Be Together,’ for a cantata in Camp Bnos. We felt if we could get Mordechai Ben David [Werdyger] to sing the song on JEP IV, it would be a smashing hit. I asked him, and he said he had never sung on any records besides his own, but if he liked the song, he would do it for JEP.

“He did not like the song — he loved it! The song became his most requested one, and he attributes the reason for its success to singing it for JEP, gratis. Today, the song remains popular. Many weddings concluding with it after ‘L’shanah Habaah B’Yerushalayim,’ with the band ending off with the notes from the intro as well.”

“The measure of a great song is its endurance,” says Yisroel Lamm. “‘Someday’ is still popular, and that shows what an amazing song it truly is. We used a futuristic intro, which sets the mood and remains an intricate part of the song.”

After an 18-year hiatus, Moshe Hauben teamed up with associate producer Avraham (Bumy) Schachter to release JEP V. “Rabbi Mutty Katz felt it was needed for the JEP kids, and the Scholarship Fund needed replenishing as well,” Moshe relates. “We retained the general structure of the JEP records, including a balance of Hebrew and English songs, fast and slow, choir and solos, yet we wanted to add a fresh dimension as well. Gershon Veroba, Dedi, Dov Levine joined with Rivie, Bency, Bumy, Heshy and Ali, and JEP V came out in 1998. The music had changed, but we were careful to preserve the Yiddishe taste we wanted the JEP records to project.”

Books

In addition to the five JEP albums, Rabbi Mutty Katz published a series of five books designed to educate both the general population as well as not-yet-affiliated Yidden. “The title of the first book is Lilmod Ulelamed, which means to learn and to teach. The format and content were designed to accommodate both. One can learn from the books and use them to teach others,” Rabbi Katz explained. These books were all co-sponsored by The Rothman Foundation.

Lilmod Ulelamed is set in the order of the parshiyos. On the top of the page it has the narrative with a story and a lesson on the bottom. “This type of book had not yet been published and it made a sensation when we released it right before Chanukah,” recalls Yitzchak Feldheim of Feldheim Publishers. “At that time, in the late 1970s, we were happy if a book sold 1,000 or 2,000 copies. Lilmod Ulelamed initially sold 5,000 copies, and stores were reordering the book just days after we delivered them. Someone showed us how much he used the book when he sent us his dog-eared copy of his sefer.

“It followed with Lishmor V’laasos on general halachos, Menucha V’simcha on Shabbos, and Lehavin Ulehaskil (by Rabbi Eliezer Gevirtz) on emunah, as well as Lilmod Ulelamed on Yehoshua and Shoftim. All these books sold extremely well. Several years ago, Rabbi Katz added material and published through Feldheim an updated hardcover edition of Lilmod Ulelamed.”

Understanding Judaism was published by ArtScroll in 2000.

JEP Today

Until the onset of Covid, Rabbi Mutty Katz was still visiting schools, bringing his ruach and spreading the love of Yiddishkeit. “Our school benefited so much whenever Rabbi Katz came,” said Rabbi Ira Budow, the Head of School at Abrams Hebrew Academy of Yardley, Pennsylvania. “We traveled to Israel many times, and three or four times we invited Rabbi Katz along to infuse the trip with the special spirit he exudes.”

Camp Nageela

In the early 1980s, Rabbi Dovid Shenker, with some friends from Far Rockaway/Five Towns, began Yad Yeshaya in memory of Yeshaya Alpert, z”l, the son of Harav Nissan Alpert, zt”l, who was niftar at a young age. After setting up a Tomchei Shabbos and Bikur Cholim division, they decided to start a kiruv project as well.

“We understood that this project would need its own organization, and learning in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas I was familiar with JEP. We asked to use the JEP name and began JEP of Long Island.

“We began with visitations to Hebrew Schools, offering enrichment classes showing that there was more to Yiddishkeit than bar mitzvahs. Next, we wanted to set up learning centers for public school kids. I approached Shya Hersh Schwartz to help support this project. That night, in the midst of a very frightening experience, Mr. Schwartz recalled that shortly before Rabbi Alpert was niftar he instructed him, ‘When Dovid Shenker comes to ask for help, don’t turn him away.’ This began a relationship that continues to this day, with the Suri Schwartz Jewish Individualized Learning program setting up hundreds of chavrusas each year between kids and JEP mentors.”

Looking to have a greater impact, Rabbi and Mrs. Shenker, together with Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt, began Camp Nageela West. It started with 18 girls in a rented hotel, and by 2000 they purchased a property on Route 42 in Fallsburg, New York, where Isaac and Tova Schwartz dedicated the Dovid and Suri Schwartz Jewish Experience Center. Today, it offers a Jewish camping experience to hundreds of kids, providing separate sessions for boys and girls.

Recently, JEP of Long Island took over some of the activities of JEP of Rockland after its director, Rabbi Yehudah Schwab, z”l, was niftar in 2014. Over the years JEP of Long Island helped start other flourishing kiruv groups including JEP Girls of Maryland in Baltimore, JEP of South Florida, Camp Nageela Midwest and Camp Nageela West.

Rabbi Baruch Zaitschek began Torah Education Alliance of Mamaroneck (TEAM) in September, 1989, and was invited by Rabbi Golding to take up the JEP of Westchester name shortly afterwards.

Rabbi Zaitscheck dancing with participants at a JEP of Westchester event in the early 1980s.

“Our programs are directed to the adults of Westchester. We offer classes and lectures to educate residents of the area who are unaffiliated with Yiddishkeit,” said Rabbi Zaitschek. “For the first six years, the programs were held in our living room, and we hosted a Shabbos minyan there for five years as well. As we grew, we moved to a storefront on Boston Post Road, the oldest road in America.

“Together with co-director Rabbi Yaakov Deitsch, z”l, we delivered shiurim for groups and learned privately with individuals, and many people became frum. We see clearly that the Eibishter very much wants his children to come back.”

Once Covid set in, Rabbi Zaitscheck moved the operation back to his home, and today delivers shiurim via a live conference call. “Surprisingly, our participation rates have increased seven to eight-fold in the past few months,” he reported. “We now have a 24-hour call-in line where we have 183 shiurim stored, including those of Rebbetzin Zehava Deitsch.”

Rabbi Finestone making havdallah at a JEP of Queens Shabbaton.

JEP of Queens, under the direction of Rabbi Yaakov Finestone for 30 years, continues to provide Release Hour classes on Wednesdays, conducted by talmidim of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, for some 70 Jewish public-school children. “Before Covid set in, we also conducted Shabbatons, a Chanukah carnival, sent out mishloach manos for Purim, as well as other events. We send out a weekly dvar Torah, and provide scholarships for children who register in Jewish schools and camps,” said Rabbi Finestone. “As a Rebbi in Yeshiva of Central Queens, I have taught children of people drawn to Yiddishkeit through the JEP programs we have been running for decades.”

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Times of Joy

Who can ever forget the sweet and powerful voice of Shloime Reich as it boomed the opening words of the song?” asks Sheya Mendlowitz. “The tune, the words and the pitch of Shloime’s singing resonate and help you visualize standing at the foot of Har Sinai ready to shout naaseh v’nishma.”

The choir of JEP II.

The lyrics of the song recount Kabbalas HaTorah and were to be preceded with the words “Vayaanu kal ha’am yachdav vayomru kol asher diber Hashem naaseh v’nishma.” As the choir practiced the song one week, a boy spoke up and told Rabbi Golding, “There is no such passuk in the Torah. You are combining a passuk in Parashas Yisro, where the passuk begins with vayaanu and ends with naaseh, with a passuk in Parashas Mishpatim, which begins with vayomru and ends with naaseh v’nishma.”

“We had been told by Harav Belsky, zt”l, that we could not combine pesukim, and this presented us with a major problem. We were scheduled to go to the recording studio shortly, and we didn’t know what to do with this song,” Rabbi Golding says. “When we discussed this with Harav Belsky, he came up with an ingenious solution.

“‘When you sing the low part, sing kol asher diber Hashem naaseh, naaseh,’ he told us. ‘This way, you are not adding a word to the passuk, but rather you are repeating the last word of the passuk in Parashas Yisro. Then, before the boys’ choir begins to sing the high part, you should have a harmony that sings vayomru, and this way the high part, together with the inserted harmony, is the passuk in Parashas Mishpatim, which reads vayomru, kol asher diber Hashem naaseh v’nishma.’

“It was easy enough to add and practice this subtle change. We were then able to record the song on schedule,” says Rabbi Golding. “This was just one of the many times we appreciated having Harav Belsky as our rabbinic advisor.”

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The Gemara in Sanhedrin (91b) states:

Rabi Meir said, “From where in the Torah do we know that there will be techiyas hameisim — revival of the dead? Because it says ‘Az yashir Moshe — then Moshe will sing’; it does not say he sang [in past tense], but rather he will sing [in future tense].”

Someday soon, when Moshiach arrives, we will once again come to the recognition that everything that transpires —including everything that happened throughout the galus — is for the good. Once again, the core of our beings will burst forth in shirah, as Moshe Rabbeinu will lead us once again … in Yerushalayim, b’ezras Hashem.

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