HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir Helps Youngsters Find and Celebrate Their Jewish Voice

May 12, 2015 by

Clipart_Highschool ChoirOn Sunday, March 22, Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, no stranger to great music, was alive with the sound of the voices of 350 Jewish high school boys and girls, all members of HaZamir, The International Jewish High School Choir. Representing 26 chapters across the US and Israel, the combined choir presented a program of classical and contemporary works, a world premiere, and a few nostalgic moments when a trio of future chazzonim recalled the world of Yiddish theater.

Before this performance, most of the participants had rehearsed their music only within their own chapters. In their separate groups, they practiced weekly in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Columbus, Dallas and Houston, Hartford, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St Paul, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and Providence. Locally, they practiced in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, and Rockland County. In NJ, they met in Teaneck, West Orange, New Brunswick, and Voorhees.

Israel now boasts five HaZamir chapters. High school singers from Ashkelon, Beit She’an, Jerusalem, Karmiel/Misgav, and Kfar Saba were among the performers at Lincoln Center, singing as a separate Israeli group and as part of the entire International Jewish High School Choir.

HaZamir chapter rehearsals allow the teens to sing Jewish choral music at an extremely high caliber level while, literally, finding their Jewish voices, separately and together, under the guidance of superbly professional musical directors, conductors, and accompanists.

Working Together

On a few occasions throughout the past year, members of the choir had the opportunity to make music with other singers from various chapters, but only for three days before the grand concert did the entire group meet together for a long weekend and Shabbaton at a hotel in the Catskills to show that, in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

At the Catskills rehearsals which ran for three days, it was the task of Matthew Lazar, HaZamir’s founder and director; his wife, Vivian; and the entire HaZamir staff to forge the individual chapters into a cohesive whole that would get to know each other, eat together, observe Shabbat together, and, most importantly, sing together.

While most of the youngsters in HaZamir are from public high schools, a significant number study in day schools and yeshivot, including Beth Tefiloh in Baltimore, SAR in Riverdale, the Binah School in Boston, Fuchs Mizrachi in Cleveland, Ramaz in Manhattan, the Yeshiva of Flatbush, and the Hillel Yeshiva High School in Deal.

At the hotel Shabbaton, the needs of the observant-Jewish youngsters were not overlooked, including davening and learning opportunities.

“No one ever asks anyone to compromise their standards, and the level of cooperation, consideration, and respect was all anyone could hope for,” said an 11th grade also who sings with the New Brunswick chapter and attends the Hillel Yeshiva High School.

Soaring Performance

The proof was in the performance at Lincoln Center, where the work invested in and by these teenagers was richly evident. Singing in four-part harmony, the students memorized all their music, allowing voices to soar and the audience to applaud.

It was obvious that the youngsters had developed a respect for Jewish choral music and the joy of making music as a group.

Perhaps the afternoon’s biggest surprise was the rendition of Moyshe Oysher’s “Chad Gadyo” arranged by Mr. Lazar. The soloists, Nathaniel Bear (Long Island), Abram Foster (Baltimore), and Samuel Dylan Rosner (Westchester), gave a delicious theatrical performance, showing off not only mature voices and a charming chazzonish style, but a comedic flair that would have delighted Moyshe Oysher, the Romanian cantor and Yiddish actor who has been dubbed one of the most entertaining chazzonim ever recorded. It should not surprise anyone to see Messrs Bear, Foster, and Rosner performing together again.

Dr. Ruth

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who was at the performance to receive the group’s Kinor David Award, told the audience that “the thrill of standing in front of these 350 talented singers—whose passion, joy, and gorgeous voices filled the hall—was an incomparable moment.”

The music, she said, “transported me back to my childhood—far forward, to a Jewish future of proud, knowledgeable, and remarkably talented singers and leaders—this is the magic of HaZamir.”

She said she was “proud of their musical excellence and optimism, and grateful for the opportunity to share the joy with everyone in the audience.”

Jewish Identity

According to Mr. Lazar, during the rehearsal season leading up to the final Shabbaton and Lincoln Square performance, the young HaZamir singers not only solidified their relationship with one another, but with “the destiny of the Jewish people.”

“In addition to the music, which is glorious, HaZamir strives to strengthen the Jewish identity of its participants, to build and support a pluralistic Jewish community, and to promote a strong and significant connection to Israel. And while it is doing all of these admirable things, it also builds leadership skills and creates a social network for like-minded Jewish teens around the country and the world,” said Mr. Lazar.

Local Performances

Some of the HaZamir chapters do not wait for the final performance in order to entertain. The Pittsburgh chapter, for example, performs regularly for Jewish seniors and the infirm as well as at the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival.

Because HaZamir has a chapter in Karmiel/Misgav, the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation’s sister cities for the past 20 years, there is an even deeper connection for teens from the Steel City of Bridges.

After the Lincoln Center performance, HaZamir singers from Pittsburgh and Karmiel/Misgav came back to Pennsylvania to sing at a community concert and at the Pittsburgh Yom HaZikaron event.

A Chance to Join

For more information on future HaZamir events or joining the choir, call 212-870-3339, or contact hazamir@zamirchoralfoundation.org.

“In an environment when the biggest challenge is getting Israelis to experience pluralistic Judaism—in Hebrew, English and Yiddish—and having Americans—especially of the next generation—experience Zionism—HaZamir is able to meet both these challenges simultaneously while having fun as teens,” said Mr. Lazar.