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Lean on us

Local schools bring kids together to create unity through music

This still is from the Zoom video “Lean on Me,” a collaboration among day schools in New Jersey and New York.
This still is from the Zoom video “Lean on Me,” a collaboration among day schools in New Jersey and New York.

Back in March, Randi Wartelsky, who teaches music and directs the choir at the Frisch School in Paramus, had an idea.

She shared the idea with other music teachers, who in turn shared it with their students. What emerged was a beautiful video and a unity song that sends a message of hope and support from one group of students to another.

And to us.

“I started a WhatsApp group for music teachers from Jewish schools and day schools,” Ms. Wartelsky said. She was building on an idea that came out of a music development day she took part in a few years ago — but she changed it a little bit, so it was “more targeted to us.

Randi Wartelsky of the Frisch School first thought of creating the video.

“I had been to a lot of professional development classes over the years,” she said. “They were excellent, but many were held on Saturdays,” making it impossible for Shabbat-observant teachers to attend. “I wanted to do things more specifically geared to our needs and our community. We offer a dual curriculum, but it still includes music.”

Ms. Wartelsky, who taught at New York’s Ramaz School for 20 years before she moved across the Hudson to Frisch, reached out to her counterparts in New York and New Jersey to see how they were managing the challenges of remote learning.

“At the beginning, I was thinking about what I could do with my choir,” Ms. Wartelsky said. “It’s difficult to sing online, with the delays. A Frisch performance was scheduled for the Saturday night before Purim and canceled abruptly. I was trying to come up with something for the choir” to make up for that performance.

“My idea was to try to make a video.”

Students from schools in New York and New Jersey came together in heart and soul – but not in body – to sing “Lean On Me.”

She got in touch with other choir directors. She talked to teachers in New York — to Adena Korn and Naomi Katz-Cohen at the Heschel School; to Daniel Henkin, Dassi Rosenkrantz, and Amanda Saperstein at the Ramaz School; Rabbi Kenneth Birnbaum at SAR High School; to Mordy Weinstein at the Yeshivah of Flatbush; and to Chaya Glaser at the Westchester Day School. She also talked to faculty members at elementary schools in Bergen County — specifically, to Carey White at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, to Marsha Greenberg-Motzen at the Yavneh Academy, and to Adina Mermelstein at Yeshivat Noam.

This group of faculty members come from schools that range across Jewish streams. Most of them — including Frisch, where Ms. Wartelsky works — are Orthodox, but not all of them are. Schechter is Conservative, and Heschel is post-denominational. “Music brings people together,” Ms. Wartelsky said.

These all are scenes from the video, as students from nine local schools sang separately but together.

The WhatsApp group — by now it also had become a group of friends — was extremely enthusiastic about the video performance. The idea was for each choir to record the same song and for all the choirs to be “put together” at a later time. “I didn’t want to make it too polished or packaged,” Ms. Wartelsky said. At the time, she said, she didn’t know that other groups were doing this. But she did know she wanted this video to be authentic, spotlighting individual students as their combined voices filled the screen.

With the music directors and performers in agreement, and guidelines about how students should record themselves, she recruited musician and audio engineer Yitzy Glicksman to create one unified vocal track, and videographer Uri Westrich of Drive-In Productions — and of Maccabeats video-fame — to bring it all together. Both Mr. Glicksman and Mr. Westrich live in Teaneck, and both “were on board to give of themselves and do chesed for something meaningful and important.”

The song they chose was Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” suggested by Adena Korn of the Heschel School. (Mr. Withers died very recently, on March 30.) For the video, the piece was arranged by Ramaz’s Daniel Henkin, with Hebrew lyrics by the school’s Dassi Rosenkrantz. “I felt that we should sing something in Hebrew,” Ms. Wartelsky said. The students sing it in both Hebrew and in English. “This is who we are,” she said.

The finished product “came out amazing,” she continued. “The kids were so excited to see their work come alive. We’ve shared the video with students and parents. We learned that when distance separates us, music brings us together.”

Ms. Wartelsky is particularly pleased that students who took part in the video, who have felt so isolated during the quarantine, can see that “their contribution is part of something so much bigger.” Quotes from the students about their feelings during the past few months are interspersed throughout the video. Clearly, she said, they wish to see it end soon “so they can have lunch with their friends at school or give them a hug.”

She believes that the song, and the experience of recording it, has influenced the students’ perspective. “They participated in singing it, and it’s fun to be recorded. But it was also a chance to reflect on this time and to use their musical voice to send a message. That’s so cool. They have a unique power to add something to the world, to bring a little light, to say to their peers, ‘It’s going to be O.K.’”

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