Sing-along for 15,000

Anyone who’s been to Jewish summer camp remembers the foot-stomping, jumping up-and-down joy of song session. Camp Tawonga aims to bring that ruach home at “Israel in the Ballpark.”

At 3 p.m. Sunday, June 6, some of the Bay Area’s best song leaders will take the main stage and lead the whole ballpark in what may well be the word’s biggest song session.

Nina Kaufman of Camp Tawonga will play camp favorites designed to get everyone singing.

“One of my favorite camp songs — ‘Hinei ma tov’ — pretty much says it all,” says Tawonga Director Deborah Newbrun. “See how good it is when brothers and sisters come together?”

Other song leaders include Marsha Attie of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, Jonathan Ferris of Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, Daniel Leanse of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and Eric Schoen of Temple Sinai in Oakland.

In addition to the professional talent on the main stage, hundreds of Jewish day school students will add their voices from the field below. And with the words to the songs up on the giant ballpark Jumbotron, everyone in the ballpark will be able to sing along.

“This giant sing-along will be like a tiny peek at camp,” said 14-year-old Tawonga camper Ilana Black, who has attended the camp near Yosemite since she was 8 years old. “It’s going to be so cool to sing with 15,000 other people. They’ll see the togetherness and the community and the coolness of what camp is all about.”

Togetherness is a word that a lot of people use when they describe camp sing-alongs. This is the feeling that Newbrun looks forward to at “Israel in the Ballpark.”

“For most of the day, 15,000 people will be eating and talking and shopping while their kids play games, get their faces painted and run the bases,” Newbrun said. “But at 3, everyone will join together for 20 minutes of harmony. It’s very exciting.”

Camp songs are about universal themes like peace, doing good deeds and treating each other with love and friendship. Over the summer, campers learn about Torah themes and Jewish history through songs sung in both Hebrew and English. Favorites have been written by popular Jewish songwriters like Debbie Friedman, legendary folk singers such as Woody Guthrie, and regular campers, counselors and rabbis from around the world.

So what makes a great camp song?

“Every summer at camp we learn new songs — and then a few months later we can’t get them out of our heads. That’s how we know we’ll be singing them again next year,” said Black.

Israeli shlichim (emissaries) who work at summer camps as counselors and specialists bring music to camp, too. At this past spring’s shlichim training seminar near Tel Aviv, camp directors from around the United States taught 600 Israeli counselors to sing American camp songs like “Im Tirtzu,” which celebrates the creation of the state of Israel, and “It is a Tree Of Life,” from the Saturday morning Torah service.

“It’s kind of funny to be learning these Hebrew songs from Americans,” said returning shaliach Rei Dishon, 25. “But it’s great to hear young campers singing about Israel and really getting excited.”

Camp songs make a lifelong impression. Twenty-four-year-old Tawonga staffer Dan Harris credits camp song sessions with helping to shape his taste in music.

“I don’t really listen to light rock, but every now and then when I’m flipping radio stations I’ll stop to listen to one of those stations because they’re playing ‘Fire and Rain’ or ‘Moonshadow’ or something like that,” Harris said.

And some grown-up campers can’t stop singing.

“I sing very badly but I have always loved singing at camp and by bonfires — my favorite songs are the good catchy ones with easy words — and enough people singing loudly enough to drown me out,” said Joshua Weinberg, 37, Tawonga board treasurer. Weinberg is an alumnus of Camp Wigwam in Maine.

Weinberg sings his way to work each day. “I carry the NFTY [North American Federation of Temple Youth] camp song albums around on my iPod and listen to them on my commute.”

Old Tawonga favorites like “Oseh Shalom” as well as new ones like “B’tzelem Elohim” get campers singing at the top of their lungs at camp song sessions, which are held after meals, around the campfire and of course, on Shabbat. From the youngest boys and girls to the oldest teenagers, camp songs inspire people to stand on chairs and tables, jumping and clapping to upbeat songs, and swaying back and forth to slower ones.

Ken Kramarz, Camp Tawonga’s executive director, is excited to see the whole community come together in the same way.

“Coming together in a ballpark is the perfect metaphor for our community,” says Kramarz. “Some of us are out in left field, some out in right and some in the center. But for one day, we’re all together showing how much we care about our extended family in Israel.”

Israel in the Ballpark