I’ve been privileged to lead hundreds of Tot Shabbat services over the last 21 years. But tomorrow evening, Nov. 4, 2016, I will be leading my first Cuddle Up Shabbat at Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA. After the crazy traveling I’ve been doing over this last year, I’m so thrilled to be sharing Shabbat and my music at a synagogue that I could walk to if I wanted to! I have lots of singing and moving and marching and dancing planned. We’ll be Bim-Bomming, we’ll be greeting each other with high fives and hugs and smiles, we’ll be going round and round with the Torah during what promises to be a lively hakafa, we’ll be singing “Noah Built The Ark” in honor of Parshah Noach. It’s going to be a blast! And what better way is there to welcome Shabbat then with families and young children. In my book, it’s the best! Read more
This past weekend, after an enriching, inspiring few days at the URL Biennial in Orlando, FL where I performed a concert and led a Shachrit Morning Yoga Family Service, I flew to St. Paul, MN to be an Artist-In-Residence at Mount Zion Temple. The weekend was incredible. I was treated with kid gloves – the hospitality I was shown was par none. It was a stellar weekend. The interaction I had with everyone had me floating home to Worcester. Visits like I had at Mount Zion this past weekend give me hope, that all is well, that Jewish community is vibrant and alive, that wherever you go there’s always someone Jewish (thanks Rabbi Larry Milder), and that families are gathering with their children and elders to be a part of their synagogue communities.
The bright shining kids in the Shir Tzion choir (3rd – 6th grades) – we had a blast!
The teens in the Shir Chants choir (7th – 12th grades) – we, too, had a blast. What an amazing group of talented kids.
These are the Music Madrichim, young assistant teachers who I met with for an hour to answer questions about how to effectively teach and lead music with young children. The Mount Zion Religious School is in very good hands indeed.
Saturday night Havdalah began with a short ceremony that Rabbi Adler and I co-led, followed by a Havdalah PJ Concert, followed by what else? Cookies (yes, there were gluten free cookies for me!) and milk! No visit would be complete without a crazy face picture!
And the fabulous professional staff including a special shout-out to Cantor Jen Strauss-Klein who made this weekend come together like clockwork. She has the most beautiful voice – I was invited to sing a setting of Elohai N’tzor by Danny Maseng with Cantor Jen and another member of the congregation (who also had the voice of an angel) during my Friday night Wow Worship Service. I was in heaven!
Sue Summit (second from the left) who recently moved, coincidentally, from Worcester to St. Paul. Sue and I go WAY back. She and a friend of hers are single-handedly responsible for my work in the world of Tot Shabbat. I will forever be grateful that they asked me to start a Tot Shabbat at Temple Sinai in 1995. I had no clue what Tot Shabbat even was, but you know what they say: if you build it, they will come. Sue is now the Religious School Director at Mount Zion and I’m sure will prove herself to be as worthy as she was as the Religious School Director in Worcester at Temple Emanuel. And last but not least Reine Shiffman (on the far right with the blue & yellow plaid shirt) who was the hospitality director for my visit (she went above and beyond in making me feel welcome!).
Rabbi Esther Adler and Larry Solomon (Executive Director), though not pictured, made me feel like I was home. From playing the flute during the Friday night Wow Worship Service to joining me to co-lead the Havdalah blessings before my Saturday night concert (Rabbi Adler), and Larry making sure all of my needs were met, they made me feel like a rock star!
I received a most beautiful email from Reine Shiffman (she picked me up at the airport, drove me to and from the hotel to the synagogue numerous times, did a mad run for Starbucks, helped me schlep my heavy suitcases and so much more). Reine wrote this email to Cantor Jen and then cc’d myself and the other professional staff. Here is the text of her email. I am so honored, truly.
I hope that by now you’ve caught your breath (to some degree at least) and have reintroduced yourself to your family.
What a weekend! Could you imagine beforehand that Ellen would be able to get every member attending Friday’s service to waltz in the aisles to L’cha Dodi? From my back row seat, I could see couples delighting in the closeness, friends enjoying the company of each other, and even others, more bashful (like me), swaying against the wall. In fact, all the music was both fun and meaningful; the combined choirs were magnificent and responded perfectly to what Ellen asked of them. And although the full house wasn’t there just to see Ellen, I don’t think anyone went away without being touched spiritually as a result of her presence.
While I know the attendees on Saturday night had a blast, for me, personally, it was a wonderful educational opportunity. Watching how Ellen was able to get a group of children under the age of five to respond with so much enthusiasm was like being in the mind of an artist painting a picture. I noted the various techniques that any song-leader should know. She created an appropriate song set but read the group and changed course as necessary, she reminded the parents that their children would model them if they participated, too. She could wind them up and and just as easily calm them down. (I loved that she ended by teaching the parents a nighttime Sh’ma.)
Although I didn’t spend much time with you on Sunday, I was fortunate to watch the choir rehearsals. When one of the teens said, “Can we keep you?”, I knew she had connected. By the way, she mentioned privately to me on several occasions that our teen choir was perhaps the best she has heard. Listening to them sing Ellen’s liturgical songs was one of the most moving experiences I have had in the sanctuary.
And her management of the younger choir on Sunday was equally as remarkable. The way in which she was able to get the student literally bouncing of the stairs to a state of calm was remarkable. It would never had occurred to me that one way to quickly reduce uncontrollable energy amongst many young children would be to play yoga music.
Finally, although understandable I’m sorry you weren’t able to join us on Saturday night for dinner. It was a great group that allowed for fun as well as meaningful discussion. During the course of the meal, Cantor Reuben and Ellen broke into Noah Aronson’s “Let There Be Love.” The next day I downloaded the sheet music and have been playing it since then.
I had such a good time with Ellen, and I hope she enjoyed her weekend here, too. Separately, I am providing you with a link to a drop box where you’ll find all of my unedited pictures (although it looks like you have a great one). It’s my hope that Sue and Jen R. were able to do better.
With grateful appreciation and love for all you do,
Thank you Mount Zion Temple. You have a new friend in me!
For a video of me teaching my song “Yodelay Do Potato” with the younger students in the Religious School at Mount Zion, click HERE.
For a video of me leading “L’cha Dodi Waltz” with the Shir Chants choir during the Friday night Wow Worship service, click HERE.
For a video of me teaching my song “Boker Tov, Boker Or” with the younger students in the Religious School at Mount Zion, click HERE.
I have written quite a few songs about God. As a Jewish Early Childhood educator, touring music specialist and composer, I sing these songs at synagogues across the country. Some of these songs were written during the years between 1995 – 2005, when I led Tot Shabbat worship services for young children and families at what was then Temple Sinai (now called Temple Emanuel Sinai) in Worcester.
I know you might think that I have a strong sense about God. After all, I write lots of songs about this subject. But the truth is, the songs I’ve written (and continue to write) about God and my experiences leading worship services were and continue to be a part of my journey, a part of my search to find God, or as I sometimes like to casually say, to figure out the whole God thing.
Growing up, I always had a strong sense of being Jewish. But despite that, we didn’t talk about God at home, we didn’t talk about praying at home, and we didn’t pray at home. We lived as cultural Jews, I became a Bat Mitzvah, I had a Confirmation, we observed the major holidays and I continued to do so as a young adult in my own home. I named my children at formal synagogue naming ceremonies, still, God did not have a place in my heart. It wasn’t until I began leading Tot Shabbat services in 1995, in Worcester, that I began to even explore my concept of God. If I was going to speak and sing about God, I felt that I should at least have an understanding about the subject.
As I reflect on this topic, I can say that there have been certain beacons along the way, little experiences that taught me alot as I traveled on my journey to find God.
Growing up, my God experiences were pretty much confined to temple services or religious school. I never thought about praying to God as something to do, outside of formal prayer in temple. I never thought about having faith in God. The first time I considered the idea of having faith in God was in the early 90’s when I became friends with someone who had a strong relationship with God, a strong sense of something larger than all of us, something that bound us all together. This was the first beacon.
And then there was that Yom Kippur sermon given by Rabbi Matthew Kraus at what was then Temple Emanuel in Worcester. He is an engaging and thoughtful speaker, but what I remember most was that he talked about how we all come to temple for High Holidays in our best clothing. And we’re always looking, albeit surreptitiously, at fellow congregants to see who is wearing what. “Look at her suit, it must have cost a fortune. Look at him, he definitely lost 50 pounds since last YK.” Rabbi Kraus suggested that instead, we think about how our behavior looks to God. Are we doing and acting our best in God’s eyes? Those words had a huge impact on me. This was beacon number two.
A third beacon came in the form of a child’s question. I was leading Tot Shabbat services and singing a repetitive chant-like song:
Listen, listen, listen to my heart songs. Listen, listen, listen to my heart songs. I will never forget You, I will never forsake You, I will never forget You, I will never forsake You.
We must have sung it about 5 times, when a kindergartener asked me the meaning of the word forsake. That was a special eye-opening moment for me. As an Early Childhood teacher, I knew that the repetition of those words was important. Kids thrive on repetition. It helps them learn. Helps them feel safe. What I hadn’t considered was that by singing the words over and over, this child could come to the realization that he didn’t know what that one word meant. AND he then had the courage to ask for clarification. Not only did I realize that I had chosen the right song and that it was okay to sing it over and over, but it also helped me think more deeply about the words of the song.
There have been other beacons, but for now, I will share the last and perhaps most meaningful one for me.
My mother, may she rest in peace, Mimi Ailetcher Bornstein, passed away on December 27, 2003. Mom and I never talked a whole lot about God. It’s not that it was taboo. We just didn’t talk about God. The August prior to her death, I had released a children’s recording called “Bring The Sabbath Home” (download or physical CD). One of my compositions included on the CD is called “Are You Listening, God?”.
My mother was in a lot of pain during her last few years. She told me that when she listened to this song, it helped ease her pain. It helped her deal with her situation. It gave her a forum in which she could talk to God. MY MOTHER TALKED TO GOD.
That was one of the most beautiful gifts my mother gave me. She taught me, in her last few months, that talking to God was okay, was legitimate, that I could have a relationship with God. By her talking to God, even if it was pleading with God to listen and help her through her pain, she modeled for me that it is never too late to talk with God, to search for and maybe even find God.
ARE YOU LISTENING GOD?
words & music by Ellen Allard
from Bring The Sabbath Home CD
Are you listening God? Are you really there?
Are you listening God? How will I know you care?
Are you listening God? When I say my prayers?
Are you listening God? Are you listening?
When I wake in the morning and my eyes open wide,
Are you all around? Are you deep inside? Chorus
When my day is long and I’ve much to do
Can you hear my voice when I talk to you? Chorus
When my head is on my pillow and I sleep through the night
Will you keep me safe? Keep me in your sight? Chorus
As I live my life each and every day
Will my faith in You help me find my way?
I am listening God and I know you’re there.
I am listening God and I know you care.
I am listening God when I say my prayers.
I am listening God, I am listening.
I am listening God, I am listening.
My cup is overflowing. I have had an astonishing run of performances and workshops over the last few weeks. The inside of my suitcase has barely seen the light of day. And while I’m sleep deprived and often have to stop and remember which airport I’m walking through, I have nothing but gratitude and a heart so full of music and smiles and love that it can barely be contained.
During my travels, when I’m rehearsing or performing or leading services or facilitating workshops or simply having in-person FaceTime with people, I must remain present. Oh yes, occasionally I have a slip of attention, and for brief moments I might think about my grandkids or wonder whether my car will be snowed in when I get home or whether my golf lessons will truly help me not embarrass myself when I play my first round of 18 holes. But for the most part, I stay grounded and focused on exactly what or whom is in my direct line of attention.
But then, when I’m sitting on the airplane, heading home, and have some quiet alone time to decompress, I reflect, and I breathe in deep belly breaths of gratitude. And I pray that the work I do, the work that fills my cup to overflowing, this minstrel life that I’m privileged to lead, fulfills my goal of using music to build community, to help people of all ages connect to each other, to feel loved.
I hope that you are doing what you love to do, that your cup is overflowing. In your work, in your play. May it always be so.
When the idea for launching my own Kickstarter campaign was suggested to me, I politely declined. It was for other people, not me. I think, truth be told, I was afraid nobody would want to become part of the project.
Was I wrong or what? In ten days, the project has generated 82 backers contributing just shy of $3000.
I’m floored, in a good way.
And I haven’t even contacted any temples, JCC’s, schools, all the 100’s of places I’ve performed concerts at or presented workshops at over the last 16 years, to see if they’d like to be a part of the project.
I’ve done a whole slew of research on how to run successful Kickstarter campaigns and decided to follow some advice I thought made sense and would be fun as well (go HERE to read further).
If you’re interested in really good, clean, wholesome and over-the-top fun children’s music for Jewish kids and families, I invite you to join the people who have put their signature on my upcoming CD project. Please click HERE to read about it. Glad to have you on board!
Click here to read all about my Kickstarter campaign: http://kck.st/1bU0ZdM
Sometimes, it’s the littlest things that can make all the difference.
Yesterday, I presented a keynote address and breakout workshop for the Detroit Alliance for Jewish Education. At the conclusion of the keynote, a woman exuberantly approached me and shared that she’d always wanted to learn to play guitar and something I said just made it click for her. She planned on going home and fetching the guitar she’d given her daughter several years ago (that had remained in her daughter’s closet, never to see the light of day), and making it her job to learn to play it so that she could accompany herself while teaching songs to her preschoolers.
Whenever I struggle with a concept, I pick up my guitar or sit down at the piano and write a song. It is one of the best ways for me to process anything that challenges me. As an Early Childhood Music Educator and performer, writing a song also helps me figure out how I can best teach those challenging concepts to others.
Sometimes the song ends up being for nobody else’s ears but mine. And other times, I realize that it would behoove me to share those songs with others in an effort to help them process the challenges posed by the song. Wouldn’t you know that those songs often end up being some of my most popular and most requested songs? “Are You Listening, God”, from my Bring The Sabbath Home CD, is one of those songs. You can hear a clip of it here. (You have to use the horizontal scroll bar to move across the pictures of CDs until you see “Bring The Sabbath Home” and then click on it to bring you to the page for that CD.)
Which brings me to my understanding of God. Until recently I don’t think that I moved beyond understanding or believing that God was anything more than a wise, old man sitting on a throne sporting a white gown and a long beard. Furthermore, how could God listen to me and everyone else at the same time? How could God be in two places at the same time? Struggling with that fact made it almost impossible for me to believe anything more than what I already believed about God. Again, back to the throne and gown and beard picture.
At some point, after quite a few personal struggles got the better of me, I decided to suspend my disbelief and try on the idea that God was real and that I could make room for God in my life. I mean, a lot of other people believed in God, so I was willing to give it a try. From that vantage point, I allowed myself to then begin to question whether God was listening to me.
One day, I was walking on the beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, when the questions came fast and furious. God, are you really there? God, do you really care? God, do you hear me when I say my prayers?
I can’t say for sure whether God answered my questions directly. That is not even the issue. What is more the issue is that, surprise of surprises, it brought me a great deal of comfort to ask those questions. I learned that it was not so much about whether God was in fact sitting on that throne in a white gown, with a long white beard. It was more about my engaging in the process of asking questions. Asking a question suggested that I already believed that there was someone listening, someone hearing my words.
As long as I continue to ask God those questions, I believe that I am engaging in a relationship with God. It is that engagement that allows me to nurture my relationship with God. It is that engagement that gives me hope that God in fact hears and listens to my prayers.
May we all find the strength and courage to engage with God, to talk with God, to nurture a relationship with God, to come to a place of belief that God hears and listens to our prayers.
This post is part of a #BlogElul project created by The Paradigm Project, a team of practitioner-activists and consultants focused on multiplying and nurturing the seeds of excellence in Jewish early childhood education. 27 people were invited to submit their posts on a particular topic of choice. I chose the topic “Hear”. I am honored to have my post be included in their project.
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