Out Of Africa, Into Judaism
Wed, 08/14/2013
Jewish Week Correspondent
Little ones get into the bongo groove.
Little ones get into the bongo groove.

On a morning in July at the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn, dozens of energetic children between the ages of 3 and 5 crowded together in one of the music rooms. Shmueli Perkel of Musical IQ stood before them in a circle of small djembes (pronounced JEM-bes, definitive language of origin unknown), or hand drums.

“Boys and girls, welcome,” he announced to the room in his South African accent, as his musical partner, Maurice Carr, produced a soft rhythm with his handheld shakers. “We’re going to be creative. We’re going to be using our imaginations. Today we’re going to make music.”

After introducing the children to some basic musical concepts, such as tempo, Perkel shepherded them into a drum circle. He showed them how to rub the surface of the drums to create a wind-like noise, and to increase their drumming tempo to “run” from animal predators. With various drum sounds, “pointed out” sights and features of Africa, such as Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Nile River, reminding the children they might recognize the latter from the story of Passover. The children were enraptured, creating rhythm as best they could (or, when in doubt, hitting the drum as hard as possible).

Perkel’s Musical IQ has been around for five years, and has worked with thousands of students, through secular and, more often, Jewish organizations. But this year has been a breakthrough one for Perkel, both personally and professionally. He welcomed his first child, a baby girl, 10 months ago, and was one of five young Jewish educators honored with The Jewish Education Project’s Young Pioneers Award.

“Shmueli’s work aligned with our mission of expanding the reach and increasing the impact of Jewish education,” said Deborah Friedman, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Project. “His passion around music and rhythm engages kids in ways they may not have been engaged before. He brings Jewish stories to life.”

Born and raised in Johannesburg to a “very open Jewish family” involved with Chabad, Perkel spent time traveling throughout Africa, to Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Egypt. His father had been a well-known musician in South Africa, playing guitar, piano, violin and flute, eventually forming the band “Nitzutz.” One of the first “simcha” bands in South Africa, Nitzutz played Jewish music at a wide range of celebrations. Perkel was raised with both a foundation in music and an appreciation for African culture and peoples.

He has spent his adult life moving among South Africa (where he worked in commodity trading), Israel (at Yeshivat Mayanot and Yeshivat Bat Ayin) and the United States (at Yeshiva University). Throughout this time, beginning with a drum workshop during Purim of 2006, he began to plan Musical IQ.

Rachelle Grossman, director of United Synagogue of Hoboken Kaplan Cooperative Preschool, one of the first schools to bring in Musical IQ, said, “There was something about this program that I felt was so different and interesting. I’ve loved watching [Shmueli] grow as an educator and watching his program grow and improve every year.”

In Musical IQ’s early days, “We approached schools not knowing exactly what the program would entail,” Perkel said. “There was a really powerful synergy that came into the world ... ever since then it just grew and grew and grew.” Its expansion has included programs for teens and adults, summer camps and multiple holiday workshops.

Musical IQ’s Jewish-specific holiday programs include a Purim workshop and “The Delightful Story of Chanukah,” re-teaching traditional holiday narratives.

“How can we tell a story that people heard a thousand times?” asked Perkel. His idea: by “encouraging them to kind of put themselves in the shoes of the people; giving them a subjective view of the material.” These workshops give students a new appreciation for the story, while also allowing them to “glean some of the ideas between the lines,” he said.

“He’s never disappointing,” said Cheryl Weinberger, the administrative director of early childhood at Yeshivah of Flatbush, citing Perkel’s props and backdrops for his Chanukah program that create “a very festive mood and excitement for the children. The excitement of it all just gets to their level.”

“I love the idea of every child having their own drum and I love the participatory nature of the program,” added Hoboken’s Grossman. “The other skill that he provides in an educational setting is the following along in a direction, following along the story, helping children focus.”

The Musical IQ team includes Perkel and a handful of other artists, both Jewish and not, in accordance with Musical IQ’s commitment to diversity.

“I think we’re doing what I call the ‘good work,’ meaning spreading a good energy, and I think rhythm is one of the best ways to do that,” said Carr, a workshop facilitator for Musical IQ who has worked with Perkel since before the organization’s inception. Carr is not Jewish, but finds that the work he does with Musical IQ transcends background. “I’m respectful to culture and what we’re doing is universal.”

Musical IQ also specializes in programming for people with special needs, which Perkel finds creates some of the most rewarding experiences.

“One individual was almost pathologically shy,” he recalled, “Within the course of a few days of working with him quite intensely and encouraging him ... by the end of the course, he was performing.”

Next on the horizon, Musical IQ is adapting its model to other creative media. For example, “Cornerstone,” premiering in about six months, will adapt the Musical IQ’s ideals of creativity and teamwork to architectural and design exercises, as Perkel enjoys constructing toys and models; he will work with professional architects and experts to design the program. Students will examine biblical instructions for building the Mishkan, or tabernacle, and construct their own. In this way, the project will tie Jewish narrative into real-world examples of science and engineering. Perkel also hopes to develop an analogous archeology program, to teach the “dynamics of history and how history evolved.”

At the Jewish Education Project’s gala event this May, “Musical IQ absolutely took over,” Friedman said, noting that Perkel and his group kicked off the gala program by leading participants in brief musical exercises, distributing percussion and rhythm instruments to everyone.

“I looked back at the faces around the room of community leaders and educators who were smiling from ear to ear,” said Friedman. “And I could see the power that music and rhythm can bring to people in multiple and varied settings. We want to encourage that.”
 

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