The music never stops: Oakland native recalls two decades of camp sing-alongs, jazz clubs

The chant rises like steam from the crowd of sweaty teenagers.

Er-ic Schoen. Er-ic Schoen. Er-ic Schoen.

The man of honor blushes slightly, puts his hands to his forehead and bows. The gesture concludes two hours of a Jewish rock concert of sorts — Schoen on the electric guitar, teenagers dancing, hugging and singing along to camp songs they know by heart: “Not By Might,” “The Hope,” “Od Yishama,” “Gesher Tzar Me’od.”

Schoen steps to the microphone. He beams.

“Thank you guys so much. I love coming up here and rockin’ out. Thank you.”

“Up here” is Camp Newman; “you guys” are 100 East Bay teenagers on a Midrasha retreat at the Union of Reform Judaism camp in the hills of Sonoma.

For more years than he can count, Schoen has stood in front of audiences at camps Swig, Newman and Kee Tov, and at synagogues in Stockton, San Francisco and throughout the East Bay, always with a guitar, a grin and an arsenal of camp tunes and liturgical songs.

“I loooooove what I do,” he says later in an interview. “Music has always been the best part of being Jewish for me.”

Schoen, 40, grew up in Oakland, where he currently lives, and first attended Camp Swig in Saratoga when he was just 4 years old — his father, Edgar Schoen, was the camp doctor. (Debbie Friedman was the camp’s song leader during that time.)

Before he ever picked up a guitar, he played the drums. His older sister’s violin teacher, who played in the Oakland Symphony, discovered his natural rhythm when the curious 6-year-old discovered the timpani in the teacher’s basement, and started hitting them as hard as his little arms would allow.

And thus began his percussion lessons.

Schoen has his own basement drum collection in his Oakland home. The small, carpeted room is cluttered with a six-piece drum set, a vibraphone (like a marimba, but made with aluminum bars instead of wood), congas, bongos, doumbeks, a variety of recording equipment, and shelves lined with cassettes, CDs and minidisks of homemade and professional recordings. The walls are plastered with posters from various concerts he’s attended — Little Feat, Phish, the Grateful Dead. He’s been to more than 100 Dead shows.

When he was 13, he was bar mitzvahed at Temple Sinai in Oakland (where he still belongs and teaches on Sunday mornings). That year, he decided he absolutely needed to learn the guitar — after all, a drum set can’t exactly be transported to summer camp.

“I started learning the guitar because I wanted to be a song leader at Swig,” Schoen said. “I really would not be who I am — or involved in the Jewish community as I am — without Camp Swig.”

His musical genre of choice would be discovered in high school, when he was a student at a boarding school in Pebble Beach. It was there that the school’s music director introduced Schoen to jazz music.

“I really freaked out,” he recalled. “Jazz was it for me.”

Jewish folk music complemented his jazz studies when a rabbi from a synagogue in nearby Carmel called him to ask if he’d lead songs Sunday mornings at religious school. He agreed. Every Sunday morning for three years, Schoen would hop on his scooter and ride through the fog to Congregation Beth Israel with a guitar on his back.

“It was a crash course in liturgical and holiday music, since I really only knew camp songs at that point,” he said. “I was making as much in one day as my friends made bagging groceries [in a week]. It was a light bulb that Jewish music was a pretty good gig.”

After high school, Schoen enrolled at the Conservatory of Music at the University of the Pacific, where he earned a fine arts degree in music and also studied the music business.

“The day after I arrived at school, I got a call from Rabbi [Steven] Chester, who knew me from Swig, asking, ‘Can you come be our song leader? And can you start in three days?'” Schoen recalled.

The answer: Yes. And so he taught music at Stockton’s Temple Israel throughout college. Chester continues to work with Schoen as the rabbi at Oakland’s Temple Sinai.

“That he would always be in music, there was very little question in my mind,” Chester said. “He has a natural ability. It doesn’t come to everyone, and he’s able to light the spark, so we say. He is able to engender a love of Jewish music within children, young adults and adults.”

Graduation marked a temporary departure from the Jewish music scene. Schoen moved to Lake Tahoe, where for two years, he skied during the day and played music nearly every night with folk, rock and jazz bands.

He returned to Oakland when a back injury made skiing impossible. After teaching and playing music at a variety of synagogues, staff at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette asked if he’d lead Yom Kippur services.

It was then that he realized: “If I wanted to be not just song leader, but a Jewish musician, and be the best I can be, I needed to study this. I needed to be better.”

So he attended Hava Nashira, a Jewish music and song leading workshop held annually in Wisconsin, led by the likes of Rick Recht, Friedman and Dan Nichols. He’s since returned nine times, focusing on liturgical music and folk music with about 170 Jewish musicians from around the country.

“I still get nervous when I play at services,” he said. “But when I first started, I felt totally inadequate and not Jewish enough. I felt like a faker. I asked Debbie Friedman about it at Hava Nashira, and she responded, ‘Anybody can be spiritual.’ That really empowered me.

“Services have become much more meaningful to me. And when it’s spiritual to you, it ends up being spiritual to those listening,” he added.

Today, Schoen still plays and listens to jazz music. Every Tuesday night, after teaching music at Midrasha in Oakland, and before coming home to his wife, Amy, and their two daughters, he heads to Bruno’s in San Francisco to see (and sometimes play with) the Jazz Mafia, a collective of Bay Area jazz bands.

But Schoen’s weekends are all about the synagogue. On Fridays, he is at either Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco or Hillel at Stanford, playing guitar and singing in the Shabbat band. On Saturdays, he’s at Emanu-El. And on Sundays, Temple Sinai in Oakland.

And when summer rolls around, he’s a staple at Camp Kee Tov in Berkeley, where he teaches music and leads song sessions.

Sam Alcabes, 21, grew up in Berkeley and will graduate from U.C. Berkeley this spring. For him, Jewish music and Eric Schoen are two sides of the same coin — he has known Schoen for more than a decade, having first heard him sing when he was a 10-year-old camper at Kee Tov. He has worked as a Kee Tov counselor for many summers, including the upcoming one.

“There’s just something about Eric — his personality, his smile, maybe even his voice — that works,” Alcabes said. “He brings the right energy. He has said he might be getting close to the end of his time at Kee Tov, but I really can’t imagine anyone else doing it.”

Schoen also leads Havdallah and Saturday night song sessions at all six Midrasha retreats during the school year. The Midrasha community has a special place in Schoen’s heart, since he attended the program as a high school student, worked as a counselor, and for a number of years taught a class in stained glass art.

As a teenager, song sessions were always his favorite part of retreats. He feels lucky that he gets to bring that to the next generation of Jewish teens.

“It’s amazing. It’s the greatest feeling,” Schoen said. “It’s so much fun and I totally look forward to it. I really feel blessed.”

Visit Eric Schoen on the Web at

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.