A musician born and raised in Israel is infusing cultural lessons and fun into camps at the East Valley Jewish Community Center in Chandler this summer.
Erez Kessler, who is originally from Dimona, Israel; is the new music specialist for the children and teens at Camp Rimon at the community center at 908 N. Alma School Road in Chandler. The camp, which began last month runs through Aug. 2.
Camp Rimon Katan is a day camp for youths ages 2 to pre-kindergarten and Camp Rimon Gadol serves youths in kindergarten through ninth grades. “Katan” is Hebrew for small and “gadol” means big in Hebrew.
“Rimon” means “pomegranate” in Hebrew and also signifies abundance as pomegranates have many seeds.
Kessler, 40, who sings and plays guitar, has taught music and worked as a camp counselor around the United States. He is teaching music to all the campers.
Recently he sang “The Wheels on the Bus” with younger children and in another session the oldest campers, in sixth through ninth grades, asked to sing a Taylor Swift song.
Kessler has been teaching music to children for more than 16 years and married his wife and moved to the United States permanently about ten years ago.
He grew up listening to Israeli singers whose music his parents played in their home and then he began listening to European and American music on MTV. Kessler loves U2, Guns N’ Roses and Queen.
He started playing the recorder in fourth grade and then learned on his own and from friends how to play guitar. He played in a rock band and was its lead singer from ages 16 to 18 and loves working with children and teens.
Kessler is thrilled to work in the position at the East Valley Jewish Community Center this summer.
“I love this,” he said. “I like the people here. I really enjoy the kids. Everything’s new for them. Music was not so big over here before. All my songs I teach they hear it for the first time. Music is the best way to develop kids.”
He and his wife have two sons: Evan, 6, and Aidan, 4 and live in Phoenix.
When he was 21 and 22 years old he worked as a counselor at a community center in Dimona, Israel, helping at-risk teenagers find constructive things to do like painting houses.
Kessler also performed songs and dances in a hotel and at community centers in Israel.
He wanted to be an actor originally and started studying drama at a small college in Tel Aviv but missed home and left the college to go back to Dimona.
In 2003 Kessler signed up with a Jewish Israeli agency to work in a Jewish summer camp in the United States. He worked at a summer day camp in Georgia as a music specialist, bringing his guitar to play for the youths.
The next summer the CEO of the Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale came to Israel and interviewed Kessler to be a music specialist at a camp in Scottsdale. When he took the job, he fell in love with Arizona.
Kessler returned in 2005 to teach even more summer campers, a group of 800 youths, at the Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale.
After returning to Israel and mourning the death of a close friend, who he said “pushed me to be on stage,” he thought he would not return to the United States.
But he returned to the United States to chaperone two Israeli teenagers who traveled to Pennsylvania to stay with a host family and then competed in the Maccabi Games, in which Jewish athletes participate.
In 2008 he got a call from the head of the Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale again, asking if he would serve as emcee and master of ceremony for an Israel Independence Day celebration and then stay to work at a day camp.
While staying in the Valley, his host family set up a Shabbat dinner and introduced him to a woman, Anna. The two started dating and she later visited him in Israel. Kessler and Anna eventually got married and Kessler moved to the Valley permanently.
For a while he sold fruit from a stand in downtown Phoenix. Later he began working as a music specialist and teacher of the “Ones” class at Chanen Preschool at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale.
In summer 2016 he began working, teaching music to preschoolers at the Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale. He has been there ever since and will return there after finishing at the summer camp at East Valley Jewish Community Center.
His youngest son will graduate from preschool there this year and his oldest son already graduated from the program.
In the camps at East Valley Jewish Community Center, Kessler teaches youths about Israel, including where it is on the map, what food people eat there and what the terrain is like.
The children learn to play traditional Israeli games and Kessler plays Hebrew and English songs and the campers often sing with him.
“I like it all,” Kessler said. “I enjoy the youngest. It’s amazing, their faces and everything, their expressions. They just enjoy the music and really sing with me. I love the kids. I’m not pushing the religion, I’m pushing the culture. They love it.”
Pam Morris, director of Camp Rimon Katan and the EVJCC’s Early Childhood Education Director, praised Kessler.
“An important part of our summer camp is music and movement!” Morris said. “From our Two’s all the way to our oldest campers, Erez Kessler infuses each day with ‘ruach,’ which is ‘spirit’ in Hebrew.
“When our preschool children are with him, you see the joy on their faces when they are marching to the Train song and playing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in Hebrew and English. Our oldest campers jump, stomp and sing along, losing their self-consciousness and just having fun. Our Camp Rimon is richer because Erez has joined our staff this summer.”
Youths may sign up for the camps one week at a time if they like. Information: evjcc.org