By: Dawn Bernstein
I learned to play guitar on my Dad's twenty-dollar, bargain purchase from Eaton's.
It was collecting dust in his closet and I thought I would give it a go. I really just wanted to play some of the old Peter, Paul, and Mary songs that he was so fond of so that we could sing together. I never thought of the possibilities or where that old six-string might take me.
When I was growing up, Jewish music was the sole purvey of men. Even in my Reform congregation, I had never seen a woman sing on the bimah with the exception of a choir solo or two on Yom Kippur. Men were the cantors. Young men were the song leaders.
And then one day, my parents gifted me with the first NFTY album, Songs NFTY Sings, and I heard her voice. Debbie Friedman z"l opened up the world to me. Here was a woman unapologetically singing, writing, and song leading in a way that moved people to think about Jewish music in a whole different way. Through that album, she told me that I could do it too.
When I first attended UCI (GUCI came later) in 1975 as a Gezah camper, I was enthralled by the music and the young men who were leading it. I heard Debbie's songs but I couldn't see Debbie in their faces and I couldn't hear her voice. I loved each and every one of them who became my guides and my teachers but I had to ask,
"Where are the women?" "Where are the girls?" "Can I do that, too?"
It was Ron who encouraged that simmering Jewish musician in me. He mentored me, pushed me, and set me up with a line of teachers whom I will carry with me forever. I will admit that he had some initial reservations about my small stature and whether or not I could be seen during a Shabbat song-session in the Chadar Ochel or if my voice could carry, but together we proved that girls with guitars could rock GUCI. In 1983 I became the first female head song leader in GUCI history and the pride and joy that I feel when I see young women today lead in the Chadar or the Beit T'fillah is overwhelming.
Music at GUCI is a defining core value. When we sing as a camp community we open ourselves up to the depths of our Jewishness. We find common ground in our spirituality, our language, and our love of the Divine Spirit. I never set out to be a trailblazer but watching and hearing all of those girls with guitars who lifted up their voices after me and found inclusion in the music, is something that I will always cherish.
Shiru L'Adonai Shir Chadash.