In 2002 Transcontinental Music Publications, the Union for Reform Judaism and NFTY launched "Complete NFTY Recordings: 1972-1989". This five-cd set contains digital restored audio of the original five albums of NFTY and URJ Camp music.

So, you’re listening to this amazing new five-CD set. Whatever generation you belong to, your all-time favorite music from camp and youth group is somewhere among these 123 songs. But, you’re thinking, there are some missing. Maybe your absolute favorite isn’t in this set: the one you learned during your first Friday night song session, the one you sang all summer, the one some of you still sing as you put your kids to bed.

And I know some of you are thinking where’d the rest of these come from? One sounds like Pete Seeger, another sounds like a Chasidic melody your grandfather used to hum, and still another sounds like James Taylor. How did this diverse collection become the official “canon” of Reform Jewish camp songs?

Truth be told, it’s a pretty subjective choice. There’s no “Billboard Top 40” for Jewish music – the buzz travels by word of mouth, from songleader to songleader, from camper and youth grouper to parent and to synagogue choir. And the history – how the songs came to sound the way they do – owes a lot to American musical taste in general. Just add a little luck, a few late nights, and some passionate singers, and you’ve got some good (even great) songs, and priceless memories.

So here’s my take on how the songs, from those albums, made it to this five-CD set. And who am I, you ask? I’m one of you – one of the tens of thousands of Reform Jewish kids who went to camp, got involved in NFTY, and ran up our parents’ long-distance phone bills keeping in touch with new friends from around the country. You and I rode buses for endless hours, to and from this kallah or that conclave or some other camp session, harmonizing our way through the NFTY Chordster all the way there and back. We learned Birkat HaMazon by singing it wrong thirty thousand times, ‘til we finally got it right.

We screamed ourselves hoarse at Shabbat song sessions. We lobbied and marched in Washington, singing protest and folk songs learned around a campfire or in a synagogue basement. We learned some Hebrew, fell in love, and began lifelong friendships.

As we go along, I’ll mention some songs from the CDs that I think do a great job of illustrating various eras in the history, so you can have your own Reform Jewish youth musical history tour. (Some songs I’ll mention, though not on these CDs, do appear in the UAHC/Transcontinental Music/NFTY songbooks: Shireineu Songbook, which contains just the words, and The Complete Shireinu, which includes words, chords, and melody lines.) Of course, feel free to disagree with my choices. You can start a club; you can argue with your old bunkmates or your youth group president about your favorite songs. But whatever you do, just keep singing…

A very brief history of Reform Jewish youth.

In the beginning, there was NFTY: the National (now North American) Federation of Temple Youth. Founded in 1939 by the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now Women of Reform Judaism) to foster Jewish identity and encourage youth participation in synagogue life. NFTY now reaches Reform Jewish high school students in over 750 youth groups, in 21 regions, in all 50 states and Canada.

After World War II, NFTY began a change toward increased peer leadership. Summer “Institutes” were set up to teach young people how to lead their own youth groups. As American prosperity increased in the post-World War II years, so did the number of summer camps for young people around the country. A natural outgrowth of trying to get youth more involved, the Reform movement started with four summer camps in the 1950s. There are now twelve UAHC summer camps around the continent (eleven in the U.S. and one in Canada). Over ten thousand young people each summer eat, sleep, play, and study in a Reform Jewish experience that’s like nothing else. And, they sing. Above all, they sing.

Music is everywhere at camp – morning, noon, night and everywhere in between. After breakfast, a good round of “Lo Alecha” (Klepper/Freelander, NFTY III) gets everyone moving. During morning services, Michael Isaacson’s “Adoration” (NFTY I) sets the tone for a day of Jewish life. As a 10-year-old first-time camper, how could I not see the world differently after singing praises to the “ever-living God?” I was suddenly aware of God’s presence in the rocks, the grass, the clouds – even the willows surrounding my favorite spot, Meditation Pond.

In the Hebrew instruction camp, counselors use Israeli songs to teach basic vocabulary (“Ani Ohev Chocolat,” from the album “Keves HaShisha Asar [The Sixteenth Lamb]”). Song session follows lunch, and during m’nuchah (rest period), the first song I ever learned to play on the guitar was “Puff the Magic Dragon”(Peter Yarrow, in Shireinu Songbook, p.137). Campers sing on their way to swimming, on their way back from swimming, in the shower, in the cabin or tent. They sing after dinner, maybe again at evening t’filot, and before bed. Some of us even sang in our dreams, and woke at 3 a.m. to write the songs down.

Where the music comes from.

1950s: Hallelujah!

Not all the songs we sing came from dreams, though. In the early days, the music of Reform youth included some traditional Jewish and Yiddish melodies (“Lecha Dodi” and “Shalom Aleichem,” NFTY II), but also a lot of spirituals. “Elijah Rock” (in The Complete Shireinu, p. 62) was as close as a Midwestern girl like me was likely to get to the Black church experience I’d seen in movies. Yelling “O Lord!” during a song was just not something that ever happened at my home synagogue – but at camp or a youth group weekend, the louder the better.

1960s: The folk tradition.

Bu the ‘60s, a separate American youth culture began to appear as more and more kids went off to college. Some of those college students were working as camp counselors during the summer, where they transmitted their values, and their music to their campers.

The turbulent politics of the time (pro-civil rights, anti-war) made the guitar the instrument of choice, reflecting the trend of popular and folk music. Lightweight, portable, and relatively sturdy, the guitar turned singers into leaders. One singer with a guitar could sway a rally of a thousand, or ten thousand – or just a group of twenty NFTYites or campers. Early songleaders were counselors and campers who happened to play the guitar, and knew some songs. Very little was written down, so Jewish songleading followed the folk tradition, songs passed orally from one songleader to another. Alternately, songs were learned by ear from albums and from the radio, where Pete Seeger, Peter Paul & Mary, and Bob Dylan (among others) floated across the airwaves.

1967: The Six-Day War.

Until now, most of the Hebrew songs sung by Reform Jewish youth were from traditional prayer book texts. But with Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War, it was suddenly cool to be Jewish, and cool to be singing in Hebrew. Songleaders began to look for more contemporary Hebrew songs, and they found them in Israeli folk music and from the annual Chasidic Song Festival, where Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (though he was American) was a major influence.

Late 1960s: American nusach – our own Jewish musical style.

By the late ‘60s, folk music was everywhere at Reform Jewish youth gatherings. The folk tradition encourages everyone to sing, a communal ethic that fit particularly well with the essence of camp – young people eating, studying, living together, creating their own community. The folk influence at camp had missed, however, one notable area – services. T’filot were still to be attended, not necessarily joined in. But some of the Jewish kids who came together over folk songs at camp all summer and at conclaves during the year began to think that maybe sacred Jewish music could sound like that, and bring people together like that, too. Some of the earliest attempts at “jazz services” and “youth services” weren’t instant hits, because the music still wasn’t all that participatory.

But the NFTY Folk Service (check out “Ma Gadlu,” NFTY I), written by Michael Isaacson at Kutz Camp during the summer of 1968, heralded a new course in Jewish music that continues to this day. Encouraging participation with singable tunes and some English lyrics, the Folk Service was a hit. A new era of musical creativity began: American-born Jewish music, which came to be known as “American nusach.”

Of course, later on people took the songs of the NFTY Folk Service and made them their own, in the finest folk tradition. It came as some surprise to me, upon hearing the first NFTY album for the first time that the composer had not actually written “ba-da-ba-da-ba-da-ba-da” into the middle of “Ma Gadlu.” As young American Jews visited Israel, they brought music back with them and began teaching it at UAHC camps and NFTY conclaves. “Shir LaShalom” (Rosenblum/Rottblitt, NFTY II) and “Shalom Al Yisrael” (Netzer/Barak, NFTY II), post-war peace anthems, became very popular, as did joyous Carlebach tunes like “V’ha-eir Eineinu” (NFTY IV).

The revolution continues.

From the late 1960s on, the repertoire of American nusach grew at a rapid rate. Campers and counselors who heard and learned the Folk Service were inspired to begin writing their own songs, including Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper and Dan Freelander, Doug Mishkin and many others. Some of the songs that have become the “classics” of Reform youth music were written in those early years: Klepper and Freelander’s “Shalom Rav” (NFTY III) and Klepper’s “Or Zarua” (NFTY IV), Steven Sher’s “Dodi Li” (NFTY IV) and Friedman’s “Im Tirtzu” (NFTY II) were all early entries in the American nusach catalog.

In addition, more Israeli folk music arrived, especially post-war (1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War) peace songs, including “Hamilchamah HaAchronah” (Hefer/Seltzer/arr. Nelson, NFTY III), “Ani V’Atah” (Einshtein/Gavrielov, NFTY IV), and “Yihiyeh Tov” (Broza/Geffen, in The Complete Shireinu, p. 223). I really enjoyed singing those Israeli folk songs, as hard as they were to learn (that’s a lot of Hebrew lyrics to memorize!). They helped me better understand the turbulent history of a country I was learning to love. Of course, I had also learned home-grown peace songs via camp and NFTY, like “Blowin ‘ in the Wind.” But they were all, Israeli and American, just nice songs. For me, they were icons of a bygone era, to be sung around campfires, with a resonant message but really not more than singable anachronisms.

That was, until 1995. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination after he sang “Shir LaShalom” at a peace rally, brought home to me that “Shir LaShalom” wasn’t just an old song I learned at camp. I realized in a very concrete way that the message of the song was still incredibly vital and relevant to the modern, still-turbulent lives of Israelis and Jews everyehwere who love Israel. Those relatively simple melodies might actually be able to change the world, and the singing I had done as a teenager suddenly took on new importance.

The music spreads.

As more and more excited young Jews began writing music, the songs gained joyful followings in the camps and regions where they were written. But there wasn’t a lot of overlap from one part of the country to another. Songleaders sometimes traveled to other camps and other NFTY regions, but the music spread slowly.

Then, in the early 1970s, NFTY began recording albums of the most popular songs of the day. Four albums were recorded between 1972 and 1976, with others following every couple years. The albums helped create a national NFTY music repertoire, allowing the music to move much more quickly from region to region, from camp to camp, across the continent.

But while albums were nice to lisen to, producing one took a lot of work, access to recording equipment, and money. The first NFTY album was produced for about $100 in the basement of the UAHC Kutz Camp (the NFTY National Leadership Center). The cost of producing the recording was prohibitive. Many just could not afford to make their own album. That all changed in the mid-1970s, with the popularization and mass marketing of the portable cassette recorder.

While the Philips Corporation actually invented the cassette recorder back in 1963, it didn’t really catch on until the mid-1970s, when higher-quality tapes were introduced (and we had all gotten over 8-tracks, which you could only listen to, not record on). Anyone – campers, counselors, songleaders – could now record their own music (or make a compilation of their favorite music) and easily send it anywhere, providing a much wider audience for the NFTY albums and encouraging a flood of new music. The NFTY Song Competition, introduced in 1973, also encouraged people to write new music, with the winners recorded on NFTY albums.


In the 1980s, rock and roll and electronics ruled American popular music. By the time “Fifty Years In The Making (NFTY at 50)” came out in 1989, the recordings included drums, electric guitar, and synthesizers. Check out the original recording of “Ma Gadlu,” from NFTY I, and the later version, from “NFTY at 50” – the difference is striking.

But on Nov. 26, 1989, MTV introduced a new show called “MTV Unplugged,” featuring rock superstars on a small stage, playing acoustic instruments. This brought back to American popular music the accessible, singable folk sound that had launched American nusach in the late 1960s. James Taylor re-entered the pop charts for the first time in decades, and new performers like the Indigo Girls and Tracey Chapman became stars of the new “folk” tradition. (In fact, the Indigo Girls appeared in the second episode of “MTV Unplugged.”)

Branching out from earlier, simpler folk guitar melodies, however, “modern” folk is much more complex musically. Songleaders now spend hours figuring out and writing down chords and words to Indigo Girls and Dave Matthews songs. The first new NFTY album in 12 years, “Ruach 5761” and its follow-up “Ruach 5763” include songs from some of the creators of American nusach, but also features many new voices, writing in the new “modern” folk style. “L’Takein (The Na Na Song)” (Ruach 5761), by Dan Nichols and “Al Shlosha” (Ruach 5763), by Rick Recht, are two good examples of this new sound.

The future.

So where is the music headed from here? Will we still be singing the same songs twenty-five years from now? A hundred years from now? “Camp” music has, over the past three decades, stretched its wings beyond camp and NFTY, being heard more and more in synagogues around the country. Campers and youth groupers bring the music home with them, and congregations have embraced it, both through special “camp” and youth-led services and as part of regular Shabbat worship. Guitar-playing rabbis and cantors across the country have helped spread the music, and cantorial students are now required to study guitar as part of their training. Debbie Friedman’s “Me Shebeirach” (in The Complete Shireinu, p. 340) is an extraordinary example of the effect of American nusach on congregations. It is written very much in the “camp” style, but was introduced first in congregational worship settings.

As with most things, the future really lies with the next generations. My husband (a former camp and youth group songleader) and I sing “Habrachah” (in The Complete Shireinu, p. 73) to our 5-year-old every night before bed. He asks for it now, and is learning the words. It makes him happy because he loves the music, and it makes us happy because the trick, they tell us, is to get them hooked while they’re young.

These days, by the time they actually go off to camp or join NFTY, it may be too late. They’re already hooked on Britney and Justin and the rest of the fabulous-midriff crowd. So whatever you do, just keep singing! Let these CDs be your guide, but sing whatever you remember, whatever Jewish songs you love. Teach them to your kids, teach them to your parents, teach them to your siblings and to your youth group friends. Sing a new song unto God, and sing your heart out. Then Reform Jewish camp music will continue to evolve and grow for generations to come.

Elyssa Mosbacher
New Jersey, December 2002.