Matisyahu to Perform at Barrack 75th Anniversary

Matisyahu (Courtesy of Matisyahu)

The Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr is turning 75 this year.

And as the oldest pluralistic Jewish secondary school in the United States, it is inviting a pluralistic Jewish rapper to help celebrate.

Matisyahu, who grew up in the Reconstructionist denomination and famously joined the Chabad movement as his career took off in the 2000s (and who has since shaved his long beard, embracing a more relaxed approach to religion) will headline Barrack’s 75th anniversary party on June 12 on campus.

From 5-7 p.m., the school formerly known as the Akiba Hebrew Academy will host an outdoor festival with carnival games, crafts and a kosher food truck for students, parents and alumni. Around 7 p.m., the rapper and reggae singer, whose seventh and latest studio album, “Matisyahu,” came out in March, will take the stage.

It’s a homecoming of sorts for the singer, who was born in a Bryn Mawr hospital. But he only spent a month or two in the area before moving to California with his parents.

Nonetheless, he’s excited to return and help Barrack mark its big 7-5.

“Judaism can be practiced and celebrated in so many different ways, and it is very special to me to be a part of the anniversary of a school who was so ahead of its time in terms of its respect for women in our religion,” Matisyahu said via email.

Barrack prides itself on that core value that the singer espoused. Pluralistic means nondenominational, and to Head of School Marshall Lesack, nondenominational means openness to students and families from all different Jewish backgrounds.

But Lesack, a 1997 Akiba alum who has been in his position for only a year, is quick to point out that the school’s core value predates his tenure. It goes back to Akiba’s founding in post-war America.

Lesack believes that the institution has lived its mission and welcomed Jews from all different backgrounds over the years. It has graduated almost 3,000 students, many of whom have gone on to great things.

You could build a whole trivia game around Barrack’s list of notable alums, who include Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, CNN anchor Jake Tapper and Boston Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom, who will speak at the school’s graduation ceremony the day after the concert.

“I believe that as a Jewish people and as a Jewish world, we exist in different stripes and perspectives,” Lesack said. “We need to find communities where we work toward togetherness even as we approach things differently.”

Matisyahu’s Jewish journey has been about engaging with different sects of the faith and using each one to grow as an individual.

After growing up Reconstructionist, he abandoned the religion for many years. Then, as he wrote on his website in 2011, reflecting on his journey over the past decade, he found his way back to Judaism because he felt like he “needed rules.” In that same post, he also said that he felt like he no longer needed so many rules.

“I am reclaiming myself,” the musician wrote. “Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”

A present-day class at the now 75-year-old Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, formerly the Akiba Hebrew Academy. (Courtesy of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy)

Without pluralism, there is no Matisyahu. And without pluralism, there is no Barrack, either.

The singer wants to convey that feeling — of giving your open mind over to the journey — with the songs he performs on June 12.

“I’m looking forward to playing the songs that so many of you all love and have history with as well as hopefully teaching some about the beauty and spirituality found in improvisation i.e. being in the moment and letting the music guide us,” he said.

For Barrack students and parents, the feeling is mutual. They are looking forward to embracing the moment and the music.

“I love a lot of his music, and a lot of his songs are staples at Barrack and in my grade,” said Aiden Sandler, a Barrack junior. “Especially on bus rides. It’s a great time.”

A class from back in the day at the Akiba Hebrew Academy. (Akiba/Barrack photo archives)

“It’s really nice to have vibrant and fun music that is rooted in Jewish tradition and that celebrates Jewish values and Jewish experience,” added Yoella Epstein, a Barrack parent, alum and board member.

“We thought it would be fun to have a headliner. Matisyahu was the icing on the cake,” said Lisa Sandler, Aiden’s mom and the chair of the school’s board. “People love him. It’s a fun opportunity.”

Tickets for the event are $36 and can be ordered on Barrack’s website at Click the icon that pops up when you land on the page. JE

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