Helping Our Youngest Jews Find Meaning in Music

The music that we hear often influences, whether consciously or not, the emotions that we feel at any given time. Music that is upbeat and in a major key suggests emotions such as joy and satisfaction. A slower tempo and a minor key make us more likely to feel such emotions as sadness or sorrow

What happens when we hear the same music at the same time every week? I asked myself this question throughout this year as I led Shabbat Sing for the preschool students at Rockwern Academy. At the beginning of the year, the youngest of these students were approximately eighteen months, and the oldest were about four years old. Having never led a preschool program on a weekly basis, I sought out advice from those in the field who had spent years, if not decades, leading music programs for toddlers. “Make sure to always use the same songs,” I heard from one colleague. “Try to use songs with as few words as possible,” I heard from another colleague. The advice kept flowing in, bits and pieces of which I have carried with me throughout this year. The best piece of advice that I received from a colleague and friend was, “Let the students lead and teach you. Their actions will tell you what they need and want.”

I carefully watched the behavior of the preschool students this year, but only now in the last few weeks of my fellowship have I come to really understand what this means. At the beginning of the year, the youngest students did not know the songs, nor did they necessarily recognize that they were participating in a special Shabbat program. Beginning in about January, though, some of these youngest students started to understand that Friday mornings were special. How was I able to tell when these students are not even speaking in full sentences? On one very cold and snowy Friday morning the youngest class walked into the sanctuary. One little girl came over to me and very clearly said, “Bim-bam.” Over and over again she kept repeating, “Bim-bam, bim-bam.” In that moment it was clear to me that I was learning from this student and many others. Regardless of what songs we sang, regardless of the ease or complex nature of the words and language that we used, these children had learned that Shabbat was something special.

In Exodus we read, Zachor et yom haShabbat, and in Deuteronomy we read, Shamor et yom haShabbat. In one we are commanded to remember Shabbat, and in the other to observe Shabbat. Indeed, this is the instruction that we have followed at Rockwern. By engaging in Shabbat Sing every Friday, we are both remembering and observing Shabbat, each in our own way. Most importantly, for those who don’t yet have the language skills to explain what Shabbat means to them, we provide music as a way of connecting with this most ancient and special ritual of ours.

Plato once said, “Education in music and poetry is most important … because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace” (Republic III 401d-e ). This is what music does for our youngest and our oldest learners alike. Regardless of whether one has words to express emotion, music, particularly when designated for a specific time and designation, allows people to convey the range of emotions. Music embraces what the words cannot.

Jessica Wainer is currently serving as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at the Rockwern Academy

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