Bible Raps: Hip Hop and Jewish Oral Tradition at Camp
By Matt Bar
If you were asked to brainstorm the best way to engage young people in ancient Talmudic debates, you’d likely not have the following response: “Through rap and hip hop, of course!” As the Executive Director of Bible Raps, however, that’s exactly what I do. At first, people can be a bit skeptical about the connection between rap and Jewish learning. As Adina Levey, a Junior Counselor at Camp Ben Frankel recalled about preparing for my visit last summer, “I had no idea what to expect. I kept thinking, ’So this guy raps about the Torah? Either this will be really cool or it will be really weird and we’ll laugh about it together!’ No matter what, I knew it was going to be a memorable experience.”
Over the past decade, I’ve visited countless camps and other venues to share the similarities between Hip Hop and our Oral Tradition, and teach Jewish wisdom through rap. I find that campers engage in this unique method of learning differently (and often more intensely) than more “traditional” methods. Rather than studying a piece of text and sharing their thoughts about it in a small group or in a writing exercise, campers are asked to take it a step further by adding their thoughts and voices as additional commentary on the text in the form of rap lyrics. In addition to writing their thoughts into a song, they are asked to use their voices to perform those lyrics for me and the rest of the camp.
Despite her initial skepticism, Adina and her campers jumped right in! Adina later reflected on this summer’s Ben Frankel session: “When we sat down with Matt, we were blown away by his talent and his obvious passion for what he does. He rapped some bars for us – and then it was our turn! We practiced writing raps with a partner, and then came together to collaborate on a rap about our camp. Each of us had a unique role that contributed to the whole piece: some of us wrote verses and a chorus, some recorded the music video, and some made illustrations to put in the video. It was so much fun! Then we got to spit some raps into the mic, and performed our rap during Shabbat services for our whole camp!”
The performance is such an important piece of the Bible Raps curriculum. Rather than me, the “teacher,” standing up and sharing my thoughts and opinions, the ownership of knowledge is transferred to the campers. One amazing moment where I really saw this “click” for a camper in a meaningful way was when everyone else saw one particular boy rapping in the video. According to his counselors, this boy was generally very shy and didn’t often express his opinions. Through Bible Raps, however, this boy was able to find his voice and speak with confidence in front of the whole camp. This confidence is clearly visible in the body language of the campers and the enthusiasm they exude in the video of their rap, “Camp of Love”. I’m only in the background; the campers are front and center, owning their take on the words of Torah they’ve just studied.
Camp is the ideal place for innovative Jewish learning of this nature. Without parents or teachers, campers and counselors alike are all on much more of a level playing field. Campers certainly look up to counselors and want to emulate them, but this unique environment gives everyone the opportunity to safely head outside of their comfort zones and really push their own boundaries. Seeing the counselors and junior counselors get into the programming as much as they do gives the campers permission (if they felt they needed it) to more fully engage with this Jewish learning and put their full selves into the process.
Camp also provided an opportunity to partner with counselors to keep the rapping and learning going all summer long. As Adina reflects, “The best part of this experience was that we were able to continue working with the Bible Raps team even after they left our camp. Each week, Matt sent me a rapping verse and a chorus about a Jewish teaching and then left the second verse open for me and my campers to write. We performed it each week and the camp loved it. I had campers coming up to me asking if they could be a part of the “Rapping Rebbes” the next week.” I love that the Rapping Rebbes were able to continue to motivate and inspire the campers each week to build on their work throughout the whole summer.
Bringing Bible Raps to Jewish camps was an incredible experience, and I’m excited by the way our summer-long collaboration with the counselors inspired the Rapping Rebbes to continue to engage with Jewish wisdom – from the words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov to Anne Frank – in a meaningful and unique way. As Adina reflected, “It was so much fun to see kids connect to Judaism in a way that they never had before. I had never even considered the fact that Jewish teaching could blend with hip hop to make learning fun! Working with Matt was so much fun for me, my campers, and the rest of our camp. The Rapping Rebbes became a favorite at Shabbat services and this is definitely something that we want to continue in the years to come.”
By participating in Bible Raps, campers became part of the great Oral Tradition of our people. My hope is that this unique experience will inspire a love of Jewish wisdom that campers can bring home with them once the summer has ended – and will last the rest of their lives.
Matt Bar (Executive Director of Bible Raps) uses hip hop as a lens to understanding Jewish oral tradition, demonstrating that each functions as a type of education and tradition, and calling on voices of the past to discuss issues in the present. Bible Raps believes that the Jewish oral tradition is alive and well, and that rap and hip hop are an important way to engage young people in ancient Talmudic debates. If you’re interested in bringing Bible Raps to your camp to cultivate a new crop of Rapping Rebbes, please be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org!