David McLees was an executive at Time Warner Music and its predecessor Rhino Entertainment and has worked with some of the biggest names in music. But he is most proud of the Grammy awarded to the "Klezmatics," a band signed to his recently formed music label the "Jewish Music Group." This is made all the more remarkable considering he wasn't even born Jewish.
In the 1980s, while McLees was having considerable professional success developing the catalogue of Rhino Entertainment, personally, he was still searching. While he was not Jewish, his wife was, and when they started having children, he began to wonder how he should teach them proper values. One person who helped him answer that question was talk show host and author Dennis Prager.
"Dennis would challenge people saying ― if your values don't come from God, who defines your morality," relates McLees. "It's a pretty powerful argument, and it got me thinking. So I read his book 9 Questions People Ask About Judaism. He makes the case that the reason why people are good is because their parents taught them morals, and at some point those morals came from Judaism. That opened up my mind to the idea of believing in God."
"Who defines your morality? This powerful argument got me thinking."
Initially, David's wife Mindy didn't share his interest in Judaism. "She was raised in the reform tradition, but she married out of the faith, so I don't think she was that interested in spirituality," he admits. McLees on the other hand, was a different story. He continued reading about Judaism at every possible opportunity, and through Jewish colleagues attempted to contact rabbis to discuss his situation. "I would tell them that my wife was Jewish although I was not, and that I wanted to raise my kids Jewish. Most of them would say things like, ‘You don't have to feel bad about not being Jewish. It's more important how you feel.' That wasn't a very satisfying answer for me."
Ironically, it was on Christmas day that David and Mindy came across the first openly Orthodox Jewish person that they had ever met ― real estate agent Jennifer Niman. "She was the most ethical person who I had ever met in a business deal. She was the proverbial light unto the nations, and she came around right at the time I was searching."
Jennifer's husband Tzvi told David that he couldn't take this journey alone. He needed rabbinic assistance, and lots of it. David contacted the local Orthodox rabbinate and enrolled in conversion courses, but dropped out soon thereafter. David found the process difficult, and Mindy was more comfortable in a Conservative environment, so they became members of a Conservative synagogue, and David converted through the University of Judaism.
The McLeeses soon became one of the most active and observant couples in the congregation. Ironically, it was Mindy who gradually became dissatisfied and sought more. This led them to Rabbi Yehoshuah Kohl of the Gateways organization who learned with David and facilitated his conversion through the Orthodox establishment's conversion program (RCC).
Finally finding solace in his spiritual life, his professional life took an unexpected turn. In 1999, Rhino Entertainment, the music label that he helped create, was purchased by Time Warner and the corporate environment started to change. "In 2004, the axe fell and I got fired along with 20% of the top management."
Wondering what to do next, McLees took counsel with his former business partner Richard Foos. Foos had seen his friend go through his religious transformation and suggested that he combine his two passions – music and Judaism. McLees took the advice to heart, and with the proceeds of his severance package from Time Warner, he started the "Jewish Music Group" a record label dedicated to promoting Jewish bands with crossover appeal.
McLees believes in the Jewish Music Group project because he has seen the power of music first hand. "We live in a media age. People get their information through media, not books. And unfortunately, there are a lot of horrible messages out there which are being conveyed very effectively. So to counteract this, we have to put forth positive messages through the media. That's the way we have to reach people now, and that's one of the things the Jewish Music Group is trying to do."
We have to counteract the media's negative messages.
One of the bands that exemplify McLees' vision is Moshav (or the Moshav Band). They hail from Israel's Moshav Mevo Modiim and were raised on the music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The band, which is composed primarily of some combination of the Solomon brothers and Duvid Swirsky, have had a solid following for years, but with McLees' help along with Producer Ron Aniello, they have begun a push to market their music more broadly, while still maintaining their uniquely Jewish sound and message.
Klezmatics have been staples of the Jewish music scene for years, but it wasn't until they were approached by Nora Guthrie, daughter of American folk musician Woody Guthrie who asked them to put some of her father's songs to Klezmer, that they hit the world stage. McLees recognized the potential in the project and the result was Wonderwheel and a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Album.
"It's the first time Jewish music and a Jewish music label has won a Grammy," McLees says proudly. But he also sees it as a sign of things to come. "I see God's hand in this very clearly. With the Grammy win and the success of artists like Matisyahu, I think it's time for Jewish music and Jewish ideas to get out into mainstream."
David McLees wants to lift the world through the power of music. "Music is the universal language. It's intrinsically spiritual. But it can either raise or lower you. Many people today have lost their spiritual roots and are looking for something to fill that void. The least we can do is to provide them with music that allows them to fill it with something good."