Dancing to Matisyahu's Jerusalem at Smith College

Slightly more than three weeks ago, my energetic and creative colleague Rabbi Shmuel Kravitsky of Chabad of the Four Colleges called me with a dream opportunity: his friend Matisyahu was coming up to spend Labor Day weekend with his family and would be able to perform for students Saturday night. Shmuel asked me if I wanted to sponsor a concert with him by finding a campus room. We started with Amherst College since they would be spending Shabbat there and due to its status as the mid-point among the Five Colleges. Amherst had a number of Orientation programs that night and didn't think an event of this magnitude could be worked out in three weeks.

The next phone call went to the head of Orientation at Smith College--Rae-Anne Buttera--who talked it over with her staff and agreed to let host the event if Public Events was fine with the program. After discussing it with Public Events and Public Safety we agreed to hold it in Sweeney Concert Hall (in Sage Hall) with advertising on campuses only. Community members would be allowed in but the emphasis would be on students. We created a Facebook event, posters, and went to work. It seemed quite possible to fill the 450 seats with just students.

The trouble happened when Matis Tweeted about performing at Smith College early last week. Then the local paper picked up the story and began publicizing the event (which led to concerned phone calls from the Events Staff and Public Safety). I still haven't figured out how they found out--neither Chabad nor my office submitted it. By the end of the week, I emailed everyone on my lists and the Facebook group to get in line early because we expected more people than the total.

I figured we would get 600 people and have to turn a few away. An additional complication: Shabbat ended around 8pm and the show was scheduled for 9pm. As soon as Shabbat ended, I was picked up at Look Park (where I was attending a Bar Mitzvah party) and rushed to Smith. The line in front of Sweeney snaked down College Lane as far as I could see. The students in front had been there since 5pm! I grabbed a few people who I promised seats to and brought them in the side door. After a quick sound-check, we decided to let in 400 people (Shmuel and Matis brought a number of people with them--counting those I let in, I figured we were already at 50 people). Student volunteers and Public Safety did a great job of counting and organizing the students and community members. I think we let in another 75-100 people after that to fill up empty seats, etc. Public Safety let us have an additional few dozen people for standing room. I figure at least 550 people made it in (probably more because there were a number of sitting on the side of the stage and on the floor up front). Still, it pained my heart to tell hundreds more that we didn't have space for them (it turns out that at least twenty-five listened through a window and that a few others--including Deborah who stayed at the Bar Mitzvah--made it in later).
The program started with an introduction by Shmuel, then Havdalah led by me, followed by a warm-up comedy set by Simcha Levenberg (who used to be a campus outreach person for Chabad before Shmuel). Finally, between 10:15 and 10:30, Matis took the stage with his two musicians for an hour-plus set of old and new music.
He concluded with his song Jerusalem and let audience members come on the stage to dance.
A video of this last song and an interview he gave in the Sage Hall Green Room are available here: http://vimeo.com/6462879 You can see me briefly dancing with Shmuel (and my daughter Hadas) towards the end of the video. At the end, Hadas' teacher Aaron Skogland takes over for Matis.
I wonder what people think about Matis' music? Some of the song lyrics are more Jewish than others. Jerusalem is Zionist, Messianic, and distinctively Jewish. Yet the audience--Jews and non-Jews alike--clearly gets into it. Most knew the words to the song (or at least the refrain).
It was a great event. A Smith faculty member called it a Kidush Ha-Shem (Sanctification of God's Name, ie. "Good for the Jews") since it was a feel-good, Jewish event for the broad campus community. I agree and think it is hands-down the best Orientation program I have participated in! What will we do next year? (If there is a next year!)

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