Worcester Native is the Next Big Thing in Jewish Children’s Music
By Laura Porter
Josh Shriber learned it all in Worcester.
Specifically, at Temple Emanuel (now Temple Emanuel Sinai), during the religious school services usually run by his mother, religious school principal Judy Shriber.
Josh remembers “sitting in the school congregation watching whoever was up there leading. I looked up to those people. They were good people to follow and be mentored by.”
One was Julie Silver, who was the songleader “when I was just a little guy.”
Jeff Klepper and Daniel Freelander of Kol bSeder also spent time at Emanuel, where Freelander grew up.
Now Shriber and his band, Josh and the Jamtones, are the ones “bringing the music,” to adapt a phrase from a song on their second CD, “Jump Up!”
With songs rooted in both the secular and the Jewish worlds, the band based in Wellesley has a freewheeling, joyful style that caters to kids as well as adults.
Their music blends “roots/reggae/ska stylings, feel-good pop, folk punk, country ballads, New Orleans-style street music & kid-friendly improv comedy all into a frenetic ball of kids’ music awesomeness…”they announce on their website.
The three-year-old band includes Shriber’s producer and drummer Patrick Hanlin, with whom he writes songs and shares onstage banter. Josh’s wife, Patience Orobello, and Beth Rauch are vocalists, with Derek Van Wormer on bass and Ryan Beke on keyboards and guitar.
“There are a lot of groups out there that aim to please the family – some do it well, others don’t. There’s always room for more quality content,” says Shriber, who writes, sings and plays the guitar.
And Josh and the Jamtones are delivering.
Songs from “Jump Up!” and “Bear Hunt!” are spun regularly on Sirius XM Kids Place, the only radio station that plays kids’ music around the clock.
This winter, for the second year in a row, their first CD, “Jammin’ with Jew!”, has been chosen as a selection for the PJ Library.
And Chuck E. Cheese has picked them up for 2015: the band’s new DVD, “Bear Hunt: The Movie!,” will be shown 20 minutes out of every hour in the kid giant’s 500-plus locations across the world.
But it didn’t start there.
Born in Worcester, Josh is the son of Judy Shriber and Alan Shriber, both of whom have been active leaders in the Jewish community for decades; his father is a current board member of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts. (His older sister, Debby Shriber, is the director of Crane Lake Camp.)
After graduating from Wheaton College, Josh turned to music, starting the rock band “Suspect” and then a children’s band, “Flooky and the Beans” with Patience Orobello.
He also began teaching guitar and piano, calling his business “Jammin’ with Josh.” In addition to offering private lessons, he regularly worked as a songleader, visiting preschools, secular music classes and Reform temples throughout the Metrowest and Boston area. Sometimes that brought him home to work side-by-side at religious school retreats or community events with his mother, who remained the educator at Temple Emanuel until her retirement in 2010.
Jammin’ with Josh became Jammin’ with You! as Shriber hired other teachers to expand the number of lessons as well as the variety of instruments offered.
“They could teach the kids more, take them farther than I could,” he says of his staff with characteristic modesty. “A lot of our teachers come from Berklee or are conservatory grads who were waiting tables. Musicians need to have a better source of income. When they’re teaching, they’re working on their instruments. And that gives them time and space to do gigs as well.”
In 2008, needing a physical space for the growing business, Shriber opened a music center in Wellesley. By then, he was married, and he and Patience were about to participate in the world of children’s music from a more personal perspective.
He recalls, “The day I started the build out, Pay went into labor [with their first child]. She wasn’t far enough along to stay at the hospital, so we went back and forth to check on progress at the site.”
The couple now has two daughters, ages four-and-a-half and two-and-a-half, and a six-month-old son, all of whom spend time at Jammin’ with You! with their parents. (Patience is part of the business/management team.)
“My kids are at the age when I’m in this world even if I didn’t work in it. It’s really cool,” he says. “The girls are here quite a bit. They take classes and hang out; they’re in the phase where they say, ‘Dad, can I come to work with you? ‘I hope that they will embrace this and help out. It’s a family business.”
It’s a colorful, eclectic and happy place that is the headquarters for managing the in-home music lessons program as well as on-site group classes in music and theater. JWY teachers also run JWY! programming in area preschools, elementary schools and after school programs.
“Between in-home lessons, classes at the center, and school classes,” says Shriber, “we are bringing music to more than 1,000 kids per week.”
Group classes include JamBaby, JamKids, and JamBand, as well as new theater programming, StageJam and Stage Play. Creative Arts Camp runs from June through August in the summer. A new partnership takes JWY! classes to Healthworks in Chestnut Hill and Back Bay.
In January 2012, Josh and the Jamtones emerged out of the center’s music classes as well as Shriber’s frequent appearances as a songleader at area synagogues and JCCs, where he visits preschools and religious schools and does Tot Shabbats.
Their first official CD in 2012 was “Jammin’ with Jew!”, though they had been playing primarily secular material to that point. (The Wellesley Center is also the home base for their record label, Jam House Records.)
“The Jewish content is cool,” he says. “None of it is really prayer-driven. I took the angle from my mom – finding the fun in any holiday or any Bible story, Torah portion, Hebrew alphabet or language.”
It’s an approach that clicks when “families want a little bit of Jewish content but they don’t want to put on a Hebrew language CD or greatest hits of Jewish prayers,” he adds. “There’s a need for more story type, fun, spunky content in the Jewish world. It’s fun to fill that void.”
Their secular songs put the emphasis on joy as well.
“The philosophy [of our music] is not to dumb it down,” he says. “We’re not singing about learning to tie your shoes”– or, as the band’s website promises, “pushing an agenda of indoor voices, brushing your teeth, or getting to bed on time.”
Their first CD of secular tunes, “Jump Up!,” appeared in 2013 and played on Sirius XM Kids Place. A few of the cuts repeatedly made the program’s 13 under 13 Countdown, including “Iko Iko,” which went to the top in December 2012. Another CD, “Bear Hunt,” appeared less than a year later, in October 2013. “Swing Low” and “Snow Day” from that record went up to #3 and #5 respectively on the countdown in 2013/2014.
The band played the Life is Good Festival in 2012 and 2013 and opened for the Wiggles during their first year. They easily adapted to large venues, playing Futures at Fenway and the Cape Cod Melody Tent.
When the PJ Library selected “Jammin’ with Jew!” for distribution, “things skyrocketed,” Shriber says. That success led to his invited appearance at the PJ Library’s national conference in February 2014, an event that he calls a “huge boost” for the band.
“From there, we’ve been sliding around the country: Florida, Texas, New York, New Jersey,” he says. They appeared at the Jewish Museum in New York last December and have concerts set up across the country for 2015.
The Dec. 4 issue of Tablet Magazine featured the band, calling them “Kids’ Music’s Next Big (Jewish) Thing.”
“Jammin’ with Jew!, Volume 2: Holiday Xxplosion!” came out this past December, and the band has just announced the release of “Bear Hunt: The Movie!” A Kickstarter campaign raised $25,000 and, with additional funding, they were able to finance the 35-minute movie, including 20 minutes of animation in three styles on the DVD. The movie includes four story segments, live action videos and live concerts. Released on Jan. 21, it will be available on iTunes and at www.joshandthejamtones.com.
“If I am ever having a bad day, I remember that I get to work in a colorful center, surrounded by kids, guitars everywhere,” Shriber says, reflecting on where he finds himself these days.
He’s grateful to Worcester as well as the community of local followers, families who come to watch Josh and the Jamtones whether they’re at a concert or a Tot Shabbat.
“I get to write off guitars for work! Right now we’re in this space where everyone’s eyes light up when they first come in. This place is so cool. I’m surrounded by a community of people who love music as much as I do.”