As students from the Ramaz Lower School stream out of the auditorium after enjoying a concert from famed Jewish entertainer Yaakov Shwekey, I venture backstage for a brief conversation with the singer before his next show, which begins in 15 minutes. He’s performing three times today, once for each division of Ramaz. Even so, he smiles at me and agrees to answer my questions.
“Music is a part of my blood,” says Shwekey, “It gives me the inspiration to continue, it gives me the energy, and certainly, in today’s world, we all need some inspiration and some energy.” For Shwekey, music is a Jewish pastime, an opportunity to connect with thousands of years of Jewish history and culture.
Shwekey’s personal interest in music started when he was around seven or eight. It wasn’t long thereafter that he decided to dedicate his life to using his own music to inspire other children. “Today in Ramaz, the boys and girls who came here, they’ll remember this forever because music is something that’s an integral part of Judaism,” he said. “My passion is to share with the youth around the world and to give them songs and music that they can relate to.”
Shwekey tells me that the night before the Ramaz concert, he had performed in Times Square for a large crowd of Jewish teenagers from around the world. “It was just an amazing,” he said. “We sang am yisrael lo mephached in New York City outside – it just goes to show you that these songs can really inspire the world.”
While discussing the challenges of performing Jewish music, Shwekey cited scheduling venues and balancing the budget as his biggest concerns. “The kids are used to seeing things on a magnitude of today that we haven’t seen before,” he said, explaining how hard it is to compete with secular concerts.
“It’s [also a] challenge to get to the youth who are sometimes unfortunately unaffiliated and unassociated with Judaism,” Shwekey said, detailing his concerns about high assimilation rates, citing places like Brazil specifically, where he recently performed. “Our job is to continue to go into these communities and inspire… we want to show pride in being a Jew; we want to show that Am Yisrael can come together as one no matter what the challenges.” The way that Shwekey brings Am Yisrael together through music is frankly amazing.
Shwekey attributes his success as a performing artist to Hashem, saying that “the truth is, it’s all from above. The power of music is tremendous …To reach people’s hearts, their neshamot on this scale is something that I’m very thankful for.” As we wrap up our conversation, he emphasizes the importance of loving and believing in the value of what you do every day. “You have to do it with joy….You gotta be all in,” he says.