Mesmerized, the teenage campers at first sat quietly in a circle around the visiting musician. But the room came to life as the artist, an acoustic guitar strapped across his left shoulder, began his most popular song in a mix of English and Hebrew. Campers clapped, others smiled, some even danced.
For them, it was a special occasion. This was not just any summer rock concert, this was Dan Nichols, lead singer of Dan Nichols and Eighteen, and this was not just any music, this was Jewish rock.
Though its fan base and CD sales do not rival those of the enormous Christian rock movement, Jewish rock is growing with the performances, recordings and influence of artists like Nichols and Rick Recht, lead singer of the Rick Recht Band.
Many in the Jewish community recognize the genre's power in teaching young people the value of Jewish culture and making them feel it's cool.
"Who doesn't like rock 'n' roll?" asked Michelle Citrin, 23, a song leader at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, where Nichols recently spent a weekend as an artist in residence. "It definitely connects with everybody."
At Hess Kramer, affiliated with Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Nichols led song sessions after lunch, conducted hourlong workshops on the meaning of his work and gave a Sunday night concert.
"Jewish rock is more our style," said 14-year-old Rosi Greenberg, a camper at Hess Kramer and a big Nichols fan. "It's just easier to relate to."
When he was 7, Nichols' parents converted to Judaism after his mother went on a quest for spirituality outside of Christianity. He studied voice in college, belonged to a secular rock band and served as a cantorial soloist before 1995, when he co-founded Eighteen, whose numerals in Hebrew are also letters that create the word chai, which means "life."
Both he and Recht have made names for themselves by delivering hip melodies, positive Hebrew songs, rock rhythms and heightened energy to the Jewish camp circuit, Reform and Conservative synagogues and national Jewish youth organizations. Nichols and Recht also write original songs that mix key Hebrew phrases and prayers with English.
"While the Jewish music market was marketing certain music as contemporary music, the form, the structure and the sound was ... based around a folk model or an adult contemporary model but not a rock model," said Nichols, 35, who lives in Raleigh, N.C. "Our goal was to make Jewish music that was all about being Jewish. Music that made no apologies that it was rock music and made no apologies for the fact it was Jewish."
Recht, who as a teen considered his parents his greatest Jewish role models, also was in a secular band before discovering his Jewish rock talents five years ago while working as a song leader at a Jewish day camp in St. Louis.
These kids "totally get the message," said Recht, 33, owner of Vibe Room Records, a recording company in that Missouri city. They "are in their cars pulling into high school parking lots, singing Jewish liturgy at the top of their lungs with their windows down -- that says it all. These kids are proud to be Jewish; they feel liberated and just as cool as the next kid, but they feel it Jewishly."
He sometimes even intermingles popular secular songs with his tunes.
Nichols and Recht aren't the first musicians to use Jewish heritage in a contemporary way. They follow in the footsteps of Debbie Friedman who, for about 30 years, has performed Hebrew songs with a folk twist -- including guitar accompaniment -- and is widely credited with fueling the contemporary Jewish music trend. Producer Craig Taubman started performing Jewish rock more than 20 years ago, and his songs reach the adult scene more than the teenage world.
But Nichols and Recht have settled on a new sound -- religious Jewish music for the MTV generation. Their music uses a sprinkling of electric guitars, dance beats and pop melodies that sound different from Friedman's more folky style.
Jewish rock "is accomplishing for teenagers what Debbie did for teenagers during her era," said Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Bel-Air and a member of the contemporary Jewish music group Mah Tovu.
Nichols and Recht "continue this chain of tradition," Chasen said. "They have this line of very 21st century contemporary sound. And the style and technique of how they write, and the production value of how they take their songs and bring them to life, has netted them a great following among teens and college students."
Michelle November, program director for Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel-Air, which hosted a Rick Recht Band concert in February 2003, agreed.
Recht is "the contemporary answer to keeping kids involved, teens involved and keeping the whole thing feeling like a meaningful message," November said. "He sings about things we need to be doing -- learning, studying, taking care of each other, creating peace -- he brings those messages but he's a guy wearing jeans."