By Allie Goolrick
What do you get when you mix a rabbi, a few rock musicians and a group of talented middle schoolers? As it turns out, an impressive debut album.
The Davis Academy recently released “Be a Blessing,” a professionally-produced CD of original Jewish rock that was created and performed entirely by students, faculty and the wider Davis community.
With riffs that evoke the Allman Brothers, a collaboration with a soul-stirring gospel choir and a slick music video, this isn’t your average school project. But it’s one that has made the tight-knit Davis community all that much stronger.
“I’ve been applying some of the food labels to it: local, sustainable, organic homegrown,” laughs school Rabbi Micah Lapidus, who penned all of the songs. “Everything that we needed in order to make this happen miraculously happened to be between 7901 Roberts Drive and 8105 Roberts Drive [the school’s Sandy Springs address].”
The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy, which teaches students from kindergarten through eighth grade, marks its 20th anniversary this year. The private school prides itself on fostering community around the Jewish tradition—which is very much a musical one. The CD was a gift from the school to the community, and a contribution to Jewish culture as a whole.
“Secular and Jewish music are part of our school community and our commitment to creativity,” Lapidus said. “This would hopefully have universal appeal but also have a clear stamp which says Atlanta, Ga., Davis Academy.”
For Lapidus, who spearheaded the project, collaborating with his students and other musical faculty members was a passion project years in the making. The young rabbi suffered from writer’s block when it came to songwriting until he came to Davis, where his experiences with students, faculty and staff opened the creative floodgates.
Pretty soon, he had enough material to propose a school-wide music project, an idea that was immediately supported by middle school principal and fellow musician Jamie Kudlats.
“I said, ‘I’ve heard spiritual music before and there’s a lot of it that I really don’t particularly care for,’” recalled Kudlats, a semi-professional keyboardist. “So, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it in such a way that every single aspect of this album could potentially stand on its own.”
Davis already offers its own take on School of Rock, a popular music program that has students jamming to Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, so creating a rock album was a logical next step. It was also a project that could involve the entire student body in one way or another, from the CD’s album art to vocals.
“Our own community has such amazing resources within it, and we brought everyone in,” said Fran Putney, the school’s director of communications. “We just brought their talents in and everyone was really excited about the project.”
Only one non-Davis talent was brought in to the project, local music producer Will Robertson, who set up a recording studio in the middle school and who Lapidus said has become part of the school’s family. Lapidus, Robertson and Kudlats arranged all the music, and students were invited to audition for spots as vocalists.
Art teacher Rebecca Ganz had her students listen to Blessing songs and create artwork inspired by the music to serve as the album’s art.
“This was a different kind of project for students this age where they are responding symbolically to music and metaphorically to music,” Ganz said. “For them it was a totally different way to think about art.”
Seventh grader Emily Binderow created a brilliant colorful swirl for “Be a Blessing.” Seventh grader Adam Spector sheepishly admits that he was bummed to get the song “With All My Heart” for his project, but after a couple of listens he got comfortable with the song and created a mosaic heart.
Eighth grader Neta Gal painted a guitar with doves pouring out, inspired by the song “Halleluyah.” “I think I did the birds flying out of the guitar because the sound of the guitar makes you calm and relaxed,” Gal said.
“So many of the things that [students] gained are intangible. Especially when you compare them to test scores and grades,” Kudlats said. “Those things tend to define what schools should be, but contribute often very little to who we want students to be.”
Lapidus agrees. “We are a school community that is all about helping kids find their voices,” he said.
Over the course of the two-year project, the faculty at Davis guided a lot of students toward finding a unique voice both individually and in the context of the Jewish community.
Their debut music video for “Kol Yisrael” is an example of that duality. The words of the sing-a-long translate to “All Israel is responsible for one another.” The song starts with a single voice and by the end features over a thousand members of the Davis community.
“When we find the thing that is the unique expression of our identity as a community and then bring all of the talented people to the process, all of a sudden the community is the most powerful force in the world,” Lapidus said.