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Creating Family Engagement through a Children’s Choir

Posted on Thursday, June 07, 2018 by Vanessa Ressler

Sholom Rockers and guest gospel choir at the MLK Service in January

Small Voices = Copious Ruach

"The inner history of a people is contained in its songs." —Rabbi Adolph Jellinek

We have fortuitously been active members of Temple Beth Sholom of Miami Beach for more than 10 years now. In that time I have personally loved the warm embrace I feel as I enter our welcome center, and have enjoyed, as a synagogue leader, incredible stability. I have felt compelled to look for areas where I can uniquely give back.

Music and opportunities for using multi-generational family engagement to build community are particular passions of mine. For years I have sung during our services and sat on our board, but I have 3 young daughters, and as they grow they are also seeking ways to feel engaged and connected to synagogue life.

Having worked on experimental engagement programming in the past, I approached Cantor Lisa Segal in 2016 with the idea of putting a group of children together to form a lay-led choir, seeded by families I knew, using the hypothesis that it would bring in parents, grandparents, and infuse our offerings with some youthful energy. I learned several years ago that if we wanted something new to work for young families, it needed to be low-barrier -- meaning not too strenuous a commitment, not expensive, not too challenging. Our cantor had tried to create a children’s choir in the past for 3rd–5th graders that would meet once a week to rehearse. It just wouldn’t take off. Nonetheless, she gave me her blessing to try, offered us songs and opportunities to sing them, gave us access to our awesome accompanist and let me roll with it. 

In order to be inclusive we also sent out information through our school, e-blasts and temple newsletter. Our big debut was during the High Holy Days of 2016 and it was an instant success. 

Now, a year and a half later, I have streamlined the process: we perform on a more regular basis (7–9 times each school year). I keep a detailed matrix of families that includes every child’s name, which performances they have attended and contact information for the parent. The children have democratically voted and named themselves the “SHOLOM ROCKERS.”

The Why
We always spend part of our rehearsal time talking about the ‘why’ behind our music, and the meaning behind whatever service we are working on. The kids consistently amaze me with their knowledge and their enthusiasm to learn. I recently asked the kids to tell me what they knew about the V’ahavta prayer and 6 hands flew up at once.

Low Barrier of Entry
Generally speaking, I only mandate one rehearsal on a Sunday afternoon before each performance, but I provide lyrics and rehearsal tracks/videos weeks in advance using Dropbox. Kids can listen to their choir materials in the car on the way to school, on their iPods, etc. The parents, as a result, are part of the musical journey as well! We consistently have 12–20 kids on the Bimah every time we perform (mixed ages 4–11), along with a crowd of parents, siblings, friends, etc. It works.  

The ROI
Congregants approach me constantly to comment on the energy and joy that our Sholom Rockers bring. Parents beam with pride. Grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins watch from thousands of miles away via live-streaming. Older congregants feel hopeful about the next generation. My cheeks regularly hurt from smiling. But most importantly: the choir and families show up. Regularly!

I am now looking towards the future: how can we continue to grow and deepen these families’ engagement with our Community while continuing to evolve the program with new ideas? Because I am tracking participation in the program, it is my hope that in a few years I will be able to track what these kids do next — how they engage — and will survey them from time to time to measure the impact our Lay-Led-Children’s Choir has had. In the meantime, some of ‘my’ kids are ready to tackle more difficult music and more complex solos. Some are even learning to accompany us! It is easy to envision several of these children growing up to become congregational, song and lay leaders. I cannot wait to watch as their new songs will rise. 

History is indeed contained in our music, but the future is in our children.

Singing at the Farewell Shabbat for Rabbi Glickstein

Wexner Heritage Alum Vanessa Ressler (Miami 11) is a Vice-President of Temple Beth Sholom (TBS) in Miami Beach, director of the Sholom Rocker’s Choir, and the co-chair of the Senior Rabbinic Search Committee. She recently directed, choreographed and script-edited an “Off Broadway” show as a part of the Synagogue’s farewell event series for the outgoing, beloved Senior Rabbi, Gary Glickstein. Vanessa chaired the Congregational Engagement Committee for TBS as well as an organization called “The Open Tent,” generously funded by the Woldenberg Foundation (which has since spun off as thetribe.org and Shalom Baby, a childbirth class with a Jewish twist). Professionally, Vanessa worked as a marketer in the technology industry for many years and then as a music teacher. She is most proud of her three little girls, and hopes that she is leading by example.  #thankswex