This is sponsored content from the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund and the Helen Diller Family Foundation.
Music has the power to inspire, to build deep connections between people, and to leave a lasting impression. In the hands of a talented, passionate Jewish educator like Isaac Zones, music has been a potent means to engage people in meaningful Jewish life and for fostering Jewish community among people of all ages.
Isaac Zones is one of four recipients of the Helen Diller Family Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education. The Awards, an initiative of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund and the Helen Diller Family Foundation, honor outstanding Jewish educators in the Bay Area annually. Educators are nominated by their organizations or community members and reviewed by a volunteer selection committee. Recipients receive a $10,000 prize and their institutions receive $2,500.
“My path began in part as a 19 year-old counselor at Camp Tawonga in 2001, pulled into a raucous group of young staff dancing in a circle on a cleared-out dining hall after shabbat dinner, jumping up and down and singing at the top of their lungs to music in Hebrew,” reflects Isaac. “The experience surpassed the best rock concerts I had been to and the fact that it was a Jewish experience blew my mind.”
Since then, Isaac has shared that inspiration with others to “spark joy for Jewish learning, culture, and ritual by orchestrating poignant and memorable experiences.” Music, he adds, can open people’s hearts and point them outward “toward their family, friends, and community with new eyes and a sense of pride in who they are.”
Throughout the Bay Area, organizations continue to innovate with music and engage people in meaningful Jewish life. Educators use music to teach about everything from a specific holiday to Judaism’s connection with nature. Beyond that, music sparks passion for Jewish knowledge and is deeply effective at imbuing an understanding of Jewish rituals, values, ancient Jewish melodies, and more in people of all ages. Today, the region boasts all kinds of program options led by talented educators and defined by memorable music experiences.
Camp Tawonga’s annual music-infused Erev Rosh Hashanah in Tilden park, which Isaac helped develop and still co-leads, attracted more than 1,400 people last year—all brought together by music to enjoy a beautiful setting and to reflect on the year that was and think about the year to come.
Many congregations in the Bay Area integrate music into Shabbat services geared for children, but that also engages parents and grandparents in equally important ways. At Temple Sinai in Oakland, Isaac runs the popular Kabbalat Shabbat services “in the round” with his band. Parents are encouraged to stay with their children throughout the service and are given the opportunity to whisper personalized blessings to their children.
At Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek (which nominated Isaac for the award), their family service with music, a partnership with the Contra Costa JCC, has re-energized the community and filled it with newfound warmth. Rabbi Daniel Stein adds that “after a recent family Shabbat, a congregant approached me and asked, ‘Could you ask Isaac to do a Baby Boomer Shabbat next time? Why do the kids get to have all the fun?’”
While music may be Isaac’s tool for engagement, Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin says Isaac’s strengths go beyond music capabilities and are grounded in his understanding and delivery of experiences that mean something to different people, wherever they are in life.
“Isaac has a magnetic personality and people respond to his leadership because of his easy going yet focused nature. For adults and children, he makes Judaism accessible and fun.”
Isaac’s success connecting all ages to meaningful Jewish experiences underscores the impact that one talented, creative educator can have.