Eric Schoen leads a song session at Camp Kee Tov.
Eric Schoen leads a song session at Camp Kee Tov.

At Camp Kee Tov, a longtime song leader decides to pass the guitar

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In 1994, a then 27-year-old Eric Schoen was teaching guitar at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley when Camp Kee Tov director Rich Sugarman spotted a sticker on his guitar case.

The sticker, which read “We Are Everywhere,” referred to Deadheads — fans of the psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead — but it could just as easily refer to Jews in the Bay Area, too. (It was created and distributed by Bob Jaffe, the former owner of Oakland’s Grand Bakery.)

“You like the Dead?” Sugarman asked Schoen.

He answered in the affirmative. By Schoen’s estimation, he has attended  more than 100 Dead shows. “We need a music specialist,” Sugarman told him, with this “We” referring to Camp Kee Tov, the ever-popular Jewish summer camp in Berkeley run by Beth El.

“I said ‘yes’ and that was it,” Schoen recalled.

Two years later, his title was changed to Jewish song leader. And now, 29 years later, he’s finally ready to pass the guitar.

Replacing him next summer will be 27-year-old Sasha Price of Oakland. Not only did she grow up at Kee Tov with Schoen as her song leader, but she was born the year Schoen began his tenure. And as if that weren’t enough serendipity, her mother was raised on the same street in Oakland that Schoen was.

She knows him so well by now, that when asked about his strengths, in some cases, she sounded as if she was paraphrasing him.

“Eric’s belief in tikkun olam (repairing the world) through music is really felt by every kid and person,” Price said. “It’s not as simple as teaching the words. He’s also teaching the meanings, and why it’s important we understand them.”

Price, who is a singer-songwriter and also works as a “restorative justice facilitator” for the Oakland Unified School District, acknowledged she has some big shoes to fill. “Eric is an expert who really understands the science and magic of music,” she said. “Outside of him being an incredible musician, he’s just a really menschy guy, and that’s felt through every song session, every day.”

I didn’t know Justin Bieber, and I didn’t really want to know him, but I had to learn at least one of his songs.

Schoen, 55, explained that when he teaches lyrics for songs such as “B’tzelem Elohim,” which is the concept that each human being is created in the image of God, the ideas can be easily applied to the real world. Examples: “Don’t let anyone sit by themselves at lunchtime,” or “new friends are just as important as old friends.”

“Teaching morals and ethics to kids this way is one of the greatest positives of Judaism for me,” he said. It’s an important “social justice component I get to share through music.”

It was the song sessions at the former UAHC Camp Swig, which Schoen attended in his youth, that laid the foundation for his career, he said.

“This gig was such a perfect fit for me in that it allowed me to sing with kids, and I absolutely love doing that,” he said. “I got to be the lucky guy who’s leading the camp song session. It teaches kids joy and ruach [spirit] and that’s special. It doesn’t exist everywhere.”

Schoen is a familiar face and voice at many of the Bay Area’s Reform Jewish institutions. He plays regularly at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El (where he is the head engineer), Gan B’nai Shalom Preschool in Walnut Creek and Contra Costa Midrasha retreats. He’s been around long enough to have learned from some of the Reform movement greats, including Debbie Friedman, who died in 2011. He will continue singing in communal settings after leaving Kee Tov, he said.

How did he know it was time to move on?

For one thing, the fact that he could have grandchildren the age of the campers isn’t lost on him. Plus, he regularly fields requests, not only from the campers, but from the staff, which means learning their favorite pop songs, even if his own musical taste is quite different.

“That’s been the hardest part, trying to stay hip and cool in the eyes of 15- and 16-year-olds,” he said. “I’ve gone from playing the Dead and Simon and Garfunkel to Taylor Swift during staff trainings. I didn’t know Justin Bieber, and I didn’t really want to know him, but I had to learn at least one of his songs.”

Also, he hasn’t had a summer vacation to speak of in 28 years.

And then there’s the fact that one of his daughters once instructed him, “You can’t retire until I’m on staff.” She became a staff member last year.

“It’s long been known you should quit activities at the peak, and leave them wanting more,” he said. “I’m way past the peak.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."