By Sandy Eller/JNS.org
Atlanta might be well-known for Coca-Cola and Hartsfield-Jackson International, the busiest airport in the world, but for music lovers both large and small, the city’s true claim to fame may very well be hometown-born “Rabbi Jake” — a singer, songwriter and entertainer whose cheerful tunes and exciting concerts have been delighting Jewish listeners for years.
Growing up in Atlanta, Jake Czuper began composing songs when he was in fourth grade. His talent for combining Judaic concepts with upbeat music had him throwing tunes together, and after being invited to entertain his wife Chani’s preschool class, he found that they resonated with young children. Czuper began performing in Atlanta’s synagogues, summer camps and day schools in 2014 as Rabbi Jake, stressing themes like gratitude, simcha (“joy”) and emunah (“faith”) in a fun, fresh way. Much like his brightly colored signature orange shirts, he stands out from the crowd, offering even the youngest of listeners high-energy entertainment.
“My shows have LED lighting, bubble machines, glow sticks, candy and a professional sound setup — a real concert experience with plenty of audience participation,” said Czuper. “I never wanted to just be a guy with a guitar. I enjoy the interaction with kids and being able to give them a multi-sensory experience.”
Czuper finds Jewish children’s music to be a niche market — one that mainstream Jewish singers typically aren’t focusing on. He prides himself on writing music that appeals to kids of all ages, and loves watching teachers and counselors enjoying his performances just as much as their young charges.
“It’s not that bingy-boingy annoying kind of kids’ music,” explained Czuper. “This is regular music with lyrics for kids. Parents even tell me that they put it on in their cars even when their kids aren’t with them.”
Rabbi Jake upped the ante in July 2015, releasing his first official music video featuring his popular “Aleph Bais” song. Just several months later, his first album, Rabbi Jake, Vol. 1, debuted, followed in 2017 by Rabbi Jake 2, Vol. 2: Thank Hashem.
Czuper’s music runs the gamut, with song titles including Thank You, Hashem, Jolly Jelly Bean and The Kipa Song, addressing a variety of themes that help children build a personal relationship with God and a love of Torah and mitzvot — concepts that, as an educator, he had seen lacking in his own students.
Audiences nationwide have enjoyed his music, with Rabbi Jake entertaining youngsters at hotels during Passover and in Minnesota, Florida, Texas, New York and Canada. He performed most recently in honor of Rosh Chodesh Adar in the New Jersey region at Chabad of Tenafly and Fair Lawn’s Anshei Lubavitch. He often finds himself facing questions from TSA agents who want him to explain his large supply of jelly beans, as well as the hollow plastic pipes that he uses to build a stand for his concert banner.
With a level of sophistication that is above most of what is currently available for children, Rabbi Jake has also found an audience with older listeners. As a former high school teacher who currently works as NCSY’s city director in Atlanta, Rabbi Jake is closely involved with teens, and he produces music for them as well. Rebranding himself under his Hebrew name, Tzidkiyahu, Czuper released his third album, “Tzidkiyahu, Vol. 1” in 2018, covering a full range of musical styles, including the very entertaining “4 Chords,” a mashup of more than 20y songs from various artists, including Gad Elbaz, Yaakov Shwekey, Shalsheles, Shalsheles Junior, The Chevra, Yeshiva Boys Choir, Mordechai Shapiro and Simcha Leiner, all of which are constructed using the identical four chords.
Some of Czuper’s most memorable moments performing as Tzidkiyahu include a Purim concert for Holocaust survivors in a nursing home that had one resident getting up and dancing for the first time in years, and playing two concerts for Floridians ravaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Another particularly poignant experience came when he took a group of NCSY teens on their first-ever trip to Israel. Setting the words “Am Yisrael Chai” to music, along with lyrics covering 3,000 years of history, Czuper and his students saw the song come alive as they toured the country.
Head of the Atlanta Boys Choir, Czuper plays weddings, bar mitzvahs and other private events. Ironically, he often finds himself fielding requests for some of his children’s songs at those affairs.
‘See Light in Darkness’
Recalling how he would start school each year with rabbis calling him by his full name, Tzidkiyahu Yaakov, inevitably opting for the more concise “Jake” within days, the 34-year-old father of five identifies with his biblical namesake, drawing on his unique ability to inspire others through song.
“Just like Shimshon [‘Sampson’] was gifted with super power, Tzidkiyahu had eyes that were able to see light in darkness, which is what I try to do in my music and in the Torah that I teach,” he said.
The message seems to be resonating. One father told Czuper that he had been on a road trip with his family, and as Rabbi Jake’s “Gam Zu L’Tova” song was playing in the car, he experienced a blowout. While the man and his wife were concerned that their children might have been frightened, their fears proved to be unfounded.
“The children told their parents that gam zu l’tova, and everything that Hashem does is for the best, which led to a meaningful discussion about emunah and [God],” recalled Czuper who was grateful that the song turned a potentially traumatic experience into a positive moment. “Teaching children essential hashkafa [“outlook”] at an early age literally transforms a child’s world and gives them the ability to have a true relationship with Hashem for eternity.”
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and many private clients. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.