This past Shabbat my wife Miriam ran a retreat for Omaha Jewish teens. The featured program was run by a group called Bible Raps. My wife had spent the year learning at the Pardes institute in Israel with Bible Raps founder and executive director Matt Bar. Matt is a rapper who created Bible Raps in order to engage his own Sunday school class.
The program is simple. They learn a Jewish text with kids, discuss the relevant principles with the kids, and then the kids write a rap expressing what they learned.
Matt, if you are reading this, I have to be honest with you. When I first heard about the program I was highly skeptical. It sounded so - what is the word? - cheesy. Would a cynical teenager really think that rapping about Torah was cool?
I also am not the biggest fan of rap music in general and did not really respect it as an art form.
Nevertheless I am an open minded person and I decided to attend the programs with an open mind.
First off, it is clear that Matt and his associate director Ori are both incredible sincere and committed to what they do. The kids really connected with them. Which is great, but I was curious to see if they actually had some substance. They did not disappoint me. The texts that they learned with the kids were actually sophisticated texts from the Talmud that addressed relevant issues. Every text showed how there was a variety of opinions on a giving subject and illustrated how the Rabbis of the Talmud argued their views using logic and proof texts.
Substance - check! But what about the rapping?
Miriam had told me about Matt in advance. She met him at Pardes and she said that Matt had taught her how to freestyle rap. I never heard of free style rapping, but I kind of got the idea. You just make up rap as you go along. What is the big deal? But Miriam insisted that I had to try it and that it is an activity that had a great effect on her. I have to admit that I did not know what she was talking about.
Then Matt introduced the idea in the first session. He explained that rap music was developed as a way to deal with anger, tension, and frustration in a cathartic way. He paired the kids (and me) off into chevrutas, groups of learning partners, and presented us with the texts. We were instructed to develop our own positions on the texts. Then he taught us how to battle rap.
Battle rapping is when two people duel out an argument using freestyle rap. With no preparation you have to come up with 2 or 3 lines of rap, making the rhymes up as you go along. To get started we just did simple exercises rapping about who was a better rapper. He picked on me to go first.
Four years ago a friend of mine took me skydiving. I actually jumped out of an airplane 8 miles in the air. To this day I clearly remember the feeling of sitting on the open door of the airplane with an impossible wind blowing at me waiting for the instructor to tell me it was time to kick off and jump into the endless blue sky. I would not believe it if I did not personally experience it, but starting a free style rap in front of 25 high school kids is almost the same feeling!
I can't exactly explain why. Something about the mixture of speaking passionately and cautiously. To really rap is to completely let yourself go, but to still remain within the confines of the rules of the game. It challenges you to open up in a safe and appropriate way that forces you to be creative and to overcome certain fears. Again, I cannot explain why, but after I was done I felt like a different person.
I still don't like rap music, but I have definitely gained an appreciation for the art form, and I now know what Miriam meant when she tried to describe it to me.
After Matt taught us how to battle rap we took positions based on the text that we learned and we battle rapped with our learning partner. I have never seen high school kids get so passionate about Jewish texts before. Every kid really got into the program and I am sure that the texts really made an impression on them.
After Shabbat we had a nice musical havdalah and then Matt and Ori helped the kids compose a rap song. He split the kids up into groups. Each group chose a topic from the parshah, or a general Jewish topic and they sat and composed a stanza of 8 bars. One group sat with Ori and helped him create a custom beat using their portable studio. They then composed a chorus. Each group performed their stanza and then they put it all together. Ori recorded it and after some editing he will send it out to all the kids using facebook.
The weekend was a great success and I think all the kids had a great time. I fully endorse Bible Raps for any community. Their approach to Jewish learning is something that resonates with kids. It is sincerely about authentic Jewish learning and it transcends all denominational divides.
I wish them the best of luck and thank them for making an impact in Omaha.
Thanks for the Omaha donors who made the program possible, to the staff for running the program, for Miriam for writing the grant, and for all the kids for making it a great Shabbaton!!!