Was there ever a time in Jewish history when We, as a People, were not somewhat pessimistic? As Pesach 5776 approaches, several of our most respected commentators have been lamenting the fate of what we call the “Israel-Diaspora” relationship.
Daniel Gordis, Elliot Abrams and in his TOI blog, Donniel Hartman, all wonder, in Hartman’s words, “Why are North American Jews increasingly alienated from Israel?” Hartman looks to the shifting nature of contemporary American Jewish life for an answer. Noting that “we are in a transition period in which the nature of Jewish identity, religiosity and commitment are being redefined”, he says the answer depends on “what we do from this moment on.” Warning that “pessimism is a luxury we cannot afford”, Hartman calls on the Jewish community to find ways to innovate and inspire so that we “offer a vision of Judaism that adds value to our lives.” Hartman also charges us to find ways that will “inspire the next generation of Jews to choose to see Israel as an integral part of their Jewish identity.”
Had Rabbis Gordis and Hartman, as well as Mr. Abrams, been seated in Carnegie Hall on the afternoon of April 3, they would have seen and heard that there is in fact, at least one awesome solution, to the problem of deteriorating Jewish identities of the next generation. In front of a sold-out audience of 2,800, HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, comprised of over 400 members from across the U.S. and Israel, performed our Jewish repertoire, both in Hebrew and English . As HaZamir ushered in Pesach with original choral settings of the Passover Haggadah, liturgical texts and psalms, there was no room for pessimism for the future of the Jewish people. The 2,800 in attendance who traveled from across the U.S. and Israel to experience gorgeous Jewish music performed by hundreds of Jewish teenagers packed onto the stage of the famed Carnegie Hall experienced a concert that reflected the best of who We are as a People, in four part harmony.
For the teenage singers, the music is not only glorious but it is also the gateway into a Jewish communal and educational experience that has proven successful. A choir is by definition, a musical community. No one can “choral sing” alone. Jewish teens, most of whom do not speak Hebrew or have much Jewish education, must study the texts of the songs they sing in order to understand what they are singing. This text study exposes them to historical and cultural information that may have remained unknown. It also sparks questions and conversations. Many of these conversations are continued at the 3 day HaZamir Festival in upstate New York, where American teens engage in facilitated encounters with their peers from the 6 HaZamir Israel chapters. American teens learn about Israel, face to face, with their Israeli peers who will be entering the IDF within months of the HaZamir Festival and concert.
While we hear unceasingly about American Jews and Israel drifting apart, at the HaZamir Festival, American and Israeli Jewish teens bonded deeply, sometimes in four-part harmony. and sometimes in dialogue. As we look for ways “to innovate and inspire and to offer a vision of Judaism that adds value to our lives”, citing Rabbi Hartman, we need look no further than HaZamir. Judaism innovates and creates through HaZamir. HaZamirniks choose to see themselves as part of the Jewish people and the Jewish story through their social encounters motivated by their musical collaboration. HaZamir speaks to Jewish teens where they are and then works tirelessly to elevate them beyond their starting gates. Proof that neither Judaism nor Israel is a museum is the newly commissioned work composed by a 12th grade HaZamirnik reimagining Judaism through music, lovingly performed by the composer’s fellow HaZamirniks.
Simply put, HaZamir is musical youth movement of of choral chapters across the United States and Israel that provides Jewish teens with a high level choral experience in a Jewish and unabashedly Zionist environment. HaZamir gives teenagers a valuable and rare trans-denominational experience and an opportunity to forge close bonds with Jewish teens from across the USA and Israel. Within the context of performing to the highest musical standard, HaZamir strengthens Jewish identity and forges strong ties to Israel, both through the music of the Jewish people and through personal ties developed with the singers from the six current Israeli HaZamir chapters. HaZamir presents an amazing opportunity for Jewish teens to grow in musical ability as well as to develop the Jewish social bonds that are so essential to Jewish growth and continuity. HaZamir embraces all Jews. We are fond of saying that the only thing that distinguishes us is that we are sopranos, altos, tenors or basses.
Given the Jewish story, some of the music of the Jewish People is pessimistic; after all, as HaZamir sang on the stage of Carnegie Hall two weeks ago, “V’hisheamda l’avoteinu” – they always seem to try to destroy us yet here we are. What a beautiful, magical, powerful moment to hear 400 Jewish voices strong gloriously sing those words in Carnegie Hall. Those of us passionate about HaZamir offer this solution through song. To those who are pessimistic about the future, may we suggest that you purchase your tickets for the 2017 HaZamir Gala now? Or at least see if there is a HaZamir Chapter in your community.
HaZamir, whose Director is Vivian Lazar, is a project of the New York based Zamir Choral Foundation, founded and directed by Matthew Lazar. For more information: www.zamirchoralfoundation.org