At Carnegie Hall, Teens Sing Jewish Identity

It is hardly a secret that the Jewish world that we inhabit, particularly here in New York, is plagued by deep divisions. Interdenominational friction makes it at best extremely difficult for rabbis and laypeople to work together across those lines for the betterment of the Jewish community as a whole, and there is little reason to hope that the situation will be changing any time soon. There are pulls to the right and to the left. Unless Israel is threatened, we find it hard to talk to each other both literally and figuratively.

Hazamir, the International Jewish High School Choir, has figured out how to solve that problem: Transcend the spoken word and the ideologies behind it, and replace it with the harmony of beautifully sung music. That's exactly what happened this past Sunday at Carnegie Hall, when the choir performed.

The members of Hazamir run the gamut from the completely secular to the Orthodox. There are boys and girls who wear kippot, and those who don’t. There are those who have never set foot in a synagogue, and those who could never live without one. When the various chapters come together for their annual festival over a weekend, there are minyanim to accommodate every taste, including the option to attend none of them. The sine qua non of being a member of Hazamir (other than musical talent, of course) is learning to truly understand that every Jew is worthy and deserving of respect, and that we all have what to learn from each other.

Hazamir is a project of the Zamir Choral Foundation, which was founded and is still run by Matthew Lazar. The foundation's primary mission is to foster Jewish commitment through Jewish choral singing, and strengthen Jewish identity in teens through a network of high school Jewish choral ensembles. The foundation grew out of what many here in New York will remember as the Zamir Chorale, which still exists and is thriving. I myself sang in Zamir in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and it was a powerful vehicle for enhancing my own commitment to Judaism, Israel and the Jewish community as a whole.

The original Zamir Chorale still exists and performs. The foundation organizes an annual North American Jewish Choral Festival that draws hundreds of choral singers from around the country every summer. It commissions and performs new Jewish choral music and has created a new, college-level version of the Zamir Chorale, called Zamir Noded.

Hazamir, the group that performed at Carnegie Hall this past weekend, started twenty-one years ago, blending the founding vision of Matthew Lazar with the drive and determination of his wife Vivian, herself an alumna of the Zamir Chorale that I also sang in, whose love of children and organizational skills helped make of her husband’s dream a glorious reality.

What began as a small project now has twenty-four branches across the country and Israel. Singing a shared repertoire, the local chapters of Hazamir gather each year for a weekend together, followed by a gala performance at a major concert venue in New York City.

The Israeli members of the choir are invariably stunned, in the best possible way, to hear an entire concert hall sing Hatikvah at the conclusion of the annual concert. They had no way to know, or appreciate, that there are American Jews who care so deeply about Israel. And the American teens begin to realize that the Israelis with whom they are singing are not worrying about which college they might be attending, but rather which combat battalion they might be drafted into. They, too, had no way to adequately appreciate what it means to be a teenager in Israel.

And then, there’s the music…

Walk into a Jewish bookstore these days and you’ll probably find shelves upon shelves of Jewish music. I’m no musical snob, and my tastes are truly eclectic, but Jewish music has suffered greatly from being “dumbed down” to the point where most of it sounds like dance tracks for simcha dancing at a Jewish wedding. That’s all well and good at a wedding, but in terms of music qua music, there’s very little of quality.

Listening to the hundreds of Hazamir teens from around the world sing on the Carnegie stage, and some of their smaller ensembles as well, I had trouble believing what I was hearing. Hazamir, like its parent choir, stands for excellence, and excellence would be a fair way to describe the sound they produced on that hallowed stage. In piece after piece, from Israeli classics to new compositions to novel interpretations of liturgy, the ensemble sound of the international choir– which, remember, only gets together as a group one weekend a year– rivaled any high school choir that you might hear anywhere, and I dare say that the same would be true for quite a few collegiate choirs as well.

It was simply magnificent, and harmonious, in the fullest sense of the word. There they were, Jews (who happened to be teens) of all different stripes and labels, creating harmony in a way that transcended words. We Jewish adults all too rarely do that. I felt as if they were singing to me, and to my fellow rabbis and Jewish leaders, saying “look at us, it can be done!” On that stage were, in addition to glorious music, tolerance, respect, love of the Jewish community, and love of Israel. It was a breath-taking experience to behold.

In fairness, I will admit to a bias. Matthew and Vivian Lazar have been precious friends of mine for more that forty years, and of my wife’s for almost as long, so you might be tempted to think that I am, as Jewish law would say, pasul l’edut… disqualified from being an objective witness. Well, to some degree that might be true. I am not objective. But even so, I would encourage you to ask anyone you know who was at that concert to describe the experience, and I’m sure you would get the same reaction, even if they weren’t aware of the backstory. To learn more about Hazamir, and the Zamir Choral Foundation, visit their website, and click on the Hazamir tab.

As Zamirniks and Hazamirniks always sing, Heyeh ve’heyeh HaZamir! Long may Hazamir endure and prosper!

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.