Musician Rick Recht, once distant from roots, grows with Jewish rock
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Rick Recht was making a living as a rock musician, his Jewish upbringing largely discarded, when circumstances led him to take a summer job at a Jewish camp. Fourteen years later he is a Jewish rock star, teaching the faith's traditions and values through concerts and his Internet station, Jewish Rock Radio.
"If you had told me then that I would be playing Jewish music or even knowing Jewish music, I would have laughed," said Mr. Recht, 41, who will give a free concert Friday in Congregation Beth Shalom, Squirrel Hill.
"Unlike when I'm playing secular music, this isn't just me playing for an audience. When I play Jewish music, I'm an educator and my music is my vehicle."
He is artist-in-residence at a Reform synagogue in St. Louis but tries to connect with the Jewish spectrum, from Orthodox to secular, by singing of common beliefs not differences.
"Music is an incredibly powerful medium for creating a sense of community, educating about Judaism, for bringing together the generations and the denominations," he said.
His work builds on the folk legacy of the late Debbie Friedman, but owes a large debt to the contemporary Christian music scene. He has also created a launch pad for new artists through Jewish Rock Radio.
Mr. Recht and other new artists "are the next generation of what Jewish music can be. Their music becomes a doorway into other aspects of Jewish life because people are singing the words and thinking about what they mean," said Rabbi Ron Symons, director of lifelong learning at Temple Sinai, Squirrel Hill. The Reform congregation holds a contemporary service with a band the first Friday of each month at 7 p.m.
This isn't Jewish death metal. Mr. Recht's genre evokes James Taylor, laced with Bono's social conscience. But he shifts styles easily, from his gospel-influenced "Knockin' Holes in the Darkness" to a campy country-western children's song, "That's What You Do When You're a Jew."
Many of his songs could play on Christian radio and no one would know the difference. "You Will Love" is a musical setting of a key scripture for Jews and Christians: "And you will love/ the Lord your God/ with all your heart/ and with all your soul/ and with all your might ..."
"Or Chadash," on the other hand, was written for the Jewish Sabbath: "Shine a new light, a light upon Israel/Shine that light on our souls./ Shine a new light on our generation/ and we will shine that light for all to know."
Friday's R.I.S.E. Up concert in Squirrel Hill is intended to set the mood for the Sabbath, but isn't a religious service. Its name stands for Rock Into Sabbath Experience. Mr. Recht will perform with his band, and Jewish Rock Radio disc jockey Seth Williams will broadcast live.
Studies have identified Jewish summer camps as one of three key predictors of a strong Jewish identity. Mr. Recht's music is seen as an extension of the camp experience.
"If you drill down and talk to young people about what they get at Jewish camp that they don't get at home through youth group, it's the music, the music, the music," said Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee. Mr. Recht is "re-creating that camp spirit for young people," she said. "Of course it's different than sitting with your friends, singing around a lake. But he makes being Jewish look cool and sound cool."
He's a male role model in the non-Orthodox world, where the teachers of Jewish faith and culture tend to be women, she said. She took her sons to see Mr. Recht and similar artists when they were in town.
"I want them to see that you can be a young Jewish-American male and live in both worlds and not think that religion is strictly the purview of women," she said.
Mr. Recht, 41, was raised Jewish in St. Louis. But his participation in Jewish life lapsed at the University of Southern California, where he launched a rock band while studying business and communications.
By his late 20s he was touring with his band and teaching guitar to students willing to schedule around tours. One, the director of a Conservative Jewish camp, was learning guitar because she had no one else to lead music. When he had a month off in 1998, she persuaded him to fill in. She taught him the music and showed him that Judaism was deeply concerned with causes he cared about, such as ending racism.
"I didn't know the Jewish songs, had never worked with Jewish kids, never been to Jewish camp," he said. "It was a major epiphany. I found my calling working with kids and found my Judaism in camp. It was an engaging, exciting and fun Judaism that I wasn't aware existed."
Back on the road he started writing Jewish songs. Then he quit his band to record Jewish music. That summer he played at 50 Jewish camps coast to coast.
"The punch line is that my student who became my mentor and who painted a picture of Judaism that was so cool and fun and relevant, is now my wife," he said. He and Elisa have two sons. She designs the educational strategy for Jewish Rock Radio.
They have made an impact in the home of Nat Cohen, a Squirrel Hill lawyer who wanted his children to have a strong Jewish identity. The first few years that he sent his oldest son to Jewish camp, the boy answered questions about it in monosyllables. But at age 10 he returned singing Jewish songs and talking about a "cool guy" named Rick Recht.
Mr. Cohen searched the Web and streamed Mr. Recht's music into the living room. "My son came running downstairs and said, 'Where did you get this?' He was pumping his hands in the air, very excited and was back in that camp spirit," Mr. Cohen said.
When other parents reported similar reactions from their children, they raised money for a Rick Recht concert at Community Day School in early 2005.
Andy Weissfeld, 17, a senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, attended as a fourth-grader. The songs of Mr. Recht and his protege Sheldon Low are standards in his youth groups, and said half the teens listen on their own.
"It helps us to get closer to God, because the tunes are more fun than the traditional prayers," he said.
Mr. Recht didn't invent contemporary Jewish music. Starting in the 1970s Debbie Friedman, and then Craig Taubman, wrote Jewish songs in a modern folk style. In 1985, Orthodox musicians created Schlock Rock, a band that rewrites popular songs, from Top 40 to Broadway, with lyrics about Jewish life.
But Mr. Recht's model has been contemporary Christian radio, which he often heard while driving between summer camp gigs. He enjoyed most of the music and was struck how the stations created a sense of community and mobilized support for charitable projects at home and overseas.
"I saw that in the Jewish world we are missing communication about Jewish values, we are missing opportunities for participation in Jewish life, opportunities for sharing incredible Jewish role models with Jewish youth and young adults. I see all of this in Christian radio," he said.
In 2005 he spoke at a conference on religion and media, where he heard evangelical mega-pastor Rob Bell talk about fresh ways to present an ancient faith to a new generation that is asking sincere and difficult questions.
"I looked at his videos. The quality was super high, and it inspired me to make videos, thinking this is a great way to spread Jewish values," he said.
He had recently partnered with the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to create a national interfaith multimedia production to end racism, "Tear Down the Walls." The events were often held in mega-churches.
"I met some really bright pastors and learned extraordinary ways of using music media and technology to capture the attention of youth and families, to educate and entertain them. I looked back into my own world, and said, why isn't the Jewish world doing this?" he said.
So in 2010 he founded Jewish Rock Radio. It broadcasts 24 hours at www.jewishrockradio.com, with free apps for iPhone and Android devices. Along with music it offers interviews with youth about how they engage in Jewish life and profiles of Jewish music celebrities.
The songs are chosen by an advisory board of youth. Aspiring Jewish rock stars can submit songs for consideration. Musical styles on the station run a gamut from folk to rap, but the lyrics must reflect Jewish values.
"We don't just play music by people who happen to be Jewish. We play music that has some Jewish value or message," Mr. Recht said.
The American Jewish population of 6.5 million is about one-tenth the evangelical population, so Jewish music has a much smaller fan base. So far 30,000 people have downloaded the mobile apps and fans log 500,000 listening minutes per month.
Last fall Jewish Rock Radio got a boost when Slingshot, which recommends projects to philanthropists looking for new ways to promote Jewish living, named it one of the nation's 50 most innovative Jewish nonprofits.
"We have received no negative feedback," Mr. Recht said. "People in general, when dropping us lines on Facebook, say they were shocked that it was so cool."
His concerts draw fans from all Jewish traditions.
"That is one of the things I love about music. It is one of the only settings that can comfortably bring together people from so many backgrounds," he said.
"I feel it's really my purpose to be a liaison. From the time they walk in to the time they leave, that they will feel more connected to each other, more proud to be Jewish."
First Published August 19, 2012 12:00 am