Rabbi-Cantor Robbi Sherwin
She’s onstage slamming on a blue mandolin while the guitarist picks off tasty riffs and the rest of her band sets a steady Americana rock groove. And yes, the crowd appears to go wild. With five CDs released, two of those solo, three with the band and a fourth band CD in the works, Cantor Robbi Sherwin is somewhat of a legend and certainly a rock star in the Jewish music world.
In an installation ceremony last week, Rabbi Robbi’s now also the very first female rabbi of Crested Butte and the B’nai Butte congregation, where she’s been their spiritual leader for seven years. Although she doesn’t live here full-time, Rabbi Robbi is an integral part of this community, flying in from Austin every month, on high holidays and special events. Her band is Sababa, which means cool or awesome in Israeli/Arabic vernacular. “I play guitar and mandolin,” she says and explains further, “The reason I have a part-time pulpit in Crested Butte is because the band is a crucial part of my identity as a spiritual and spirited Jew. I’ve been writing songs since I was 12.” She notes that she taught herself to play the instruments. Today, she’s one of the top published female Jewish songwriters in the country. “My one thing that I do really well is that I can sing harmony to anything. Sababa is known as the Jewish Crosby, Stills and Nash. “This was a dream for me. We play in front of thousands of people. We sing in Hebrew, English and Spanish,” she says with joy. Robbi grew up with an Air Force dad, who, she jokes, was a rare Jewish officer who wasn’t in one of those typical professions of doctor or lawyer. The family was stationed all over the country and the four siblings were usually the only Jews in the schools they attended in the 1960s. “We took our holidays off even though the schools wouldn’t recognize our religion.” She recalls her parents having to take the matter of their practice all the way to school board. She tells of schoolmates who didn’t understand the religion. They endured ridicule, harassment and even bricks thrown through their windows, but Robbi strongly feels, “I do not define my childhood by the negative things that happened. I had a very 1960s stay-at-home mom and dad was in Vietnam when I was in sixth grade. “That time was scary. I was aware of the anti-war protests and when he returned he was hated,” she says of those trying times. She considered her father a hero and so did the United States, as he was awarded multiple honors, including the Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam as the navigator of the historically storied aircraft, Patches. continued on page 22 continued from page 21 Robbi found her calling after attending camp, she says. “The greatest gift my parents ever gave me was the gift of Jewish summer camp. I would not be here today as the rabbi of B’nai Butte if it weren’t for those summer camps.” What the summer camps did for Robbi was allow her to realize there were others just like her who practiced the same traditions. “Guess what? There were other Jewish kids who cared about being into the culture and heritage of Judaism,” the rabbi says, smiling with the excitement of a kid. “You live your days among music, art, culture and joy and don’t have to worry about people looking at you like you are different.” There, she was first smitten with song. “I was idolizing the song leaders and I decided I was going to be just like them when I grew up,” she decided during her first year at the young age of 11. She attended that same camp until she was 18. “Camp was the impetus for everything. I don’t know where my life would have led me, but camp was the genesis in what created the fabric of my Jewish being.” As a young mom in 1989, she was working as a teacher and office assistant at a synagogue in Austin when the cantor, who needed a break, approached her. Knowing that she sang, he handed her a tape of music to learn so she could substitute for him once a month. “There I was in front of a large Reform Jewish congregation singing very traditional and ancient melodies and I was hooked,” smiles the cantor—an official who sings liturgical music and leads prayers in a synagogue. The word is derived from a 16th-century Latin word, “canere,” meaning to sing. “It has to do with the intense connection to thousands of years of Jewish history when I’m up there praying,” Rabbi Robbi says of her roots. Then she was asked by the director of a local Jewish summer camp to be a song leader. She was reluctant to do it because she felt she was too much older at 38 than the young teens; but since her kids could attend camp for free she changed her mind. It was again at camp when the course of her musical world changed. She was introduced to Scot Leader, who later became a band mate in Sababa. Robbi was a song leader for 10 years at that Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas. In 2001, Robbi died for almost five minutes in a drowning accident while white water rafting on the Poudre River. continued on next page continued from previous page “I was flipped out of and pinned under the boat. When they found me I was already dead. When the cold water was filling my lungs, as I lost consciousness, I saw a warm yellow light. Then, calm. I remember thinking two things before my heart stopped and I lost consciousness: This is not such a bad way to die—with people I love in a place I love and, I am not going to be able to say goodbye to my family. I was, literally, dead in the water. Then, under the gray water, a bright warm, yellow light beckoned. I knew it was a safe place. I felt like God was reaching for me. I needed to climb out of that canyon.” As she coughed up the water in her lungs, she managed to sputter to her terrified friend, “God drew me from the water today.” Her friend responded, “She threw you in there, too—you think about that!” Robbi feels that getting back on the horse, so to speak, can be hard. “We are pulled in so many directions—and ruts happen. Fears don’t go away—but how do we change our lives that much? We can get stuck in patterns and not be able to find our way to the next level. I had waking drowning terrors and lungs that would never be at their full capacity again. How do I climb out of that canyon?” Robbi questioned. She found strength in her family and community to get over the emotional and physical disabilities that resulted from the accident. “I yelled at God a lot. I created a lot of artwork, wrote a lot of songs and talked with professionals and clergy.” Years later, after numerous healings and trips back to the scene, Robbi can finally declare, “I am no longer the terrified one who drowned almost 13 years ago. She doesn’t exist anymore.” Surprisingly, female rabbis started in the late 1950s and currently there are more females than males in the seminaries becoming rabbis and cantors. Rabbi Robbi recalls her path. “I had been thinking for a long time about becoming a rabbi. I had the chance to attend a really exciting new seminary, the Jewish Spiritual Leader Institute in New York. The entire program is online and for experienced spiritual leaders who wanted the next ordination. It’s a high-level, second-career, rabbinical program,” she says. After completing the program she was ordained on Saturday, July 12 of this year in Del Ray Beach, Florida. “It’s amazing to me every day that I’m the spiritual leader of B’nai Butte. I’ve made lifelong friendships and discovered parts of myself that I didn’t know existed. It is a community of seekers. B’nai Butte created me. They are partners in my evolution of becoming a rabbi. I became a rabbi for them.” An interesting side note to Robbi’s rabbinic journey was that she wrote her thesis on the ancient Chinese game of mahjong. She discovered a traveling American businessman brought the game to the United States, and he took it to his friend, Milton Bradley, the mega-business toy and game maker. “It was the largest seller before Monopoly but it had so many rules. Jewish housewives were all playing it. They’d gamble but they’d donate their winnings to charity.” Like the mahjong queens, Robbi has donated tens of thousands of dollars in profits from her music to charities. The rabbi knew early on in life that she wanted to pursue being the kind of spirit that inspired people, helped them connect to their heritage and become jazzed about being Jewish. “I want people to understand that it’s fun to be Jewish. There are so many ways to connect. My way was through music and still is. Once a month I fly in and stay four or five days in Crested Butte and in that time we do worship services, holidays, I work with bar and bat mitzvah students, I counsel people. I’ve done concerts for the Oh Be Joyful congregation.” Rabbi Robbi works and meets with all the various denomination leaders as well. “I’m part of the community when I’m here and even when I’m not here. I love this community,” she says with much heartfelt love for her home and people in the mountains. “The focus of who I am is to find the joy in any situation. I’m extraordinarily happy. That makes me the luckiest person in the world. Being a rabbi is just a part of that.” You can listen to Rabbi-Cantor Robbi’s music at sababamusic.com.