Over the years, I have written a number of columns on the North American Jewish Choral Festival, an outstanding program sponsored by the Zamir Choral Foundation, of which I am an officer and board member. The Festival, now in its twenty-sixth year, brings together hundreds of Jewish choral singers, mostly from North America but also from Israel. For four days, they are immersed in the glories of great Jewish choral music. There is no other program like it in the Jewish world. As an alumnus of the Zamir Chorale from the late 60’s and early 70’s, I always look forward to it. It is, invariably, exhilarating.
Over and above the music, what distinguishes the NAJCF is its ability to transcend the normal divisions that so frequently plague the Jewish world and bring together in harmony – both literally and figuratively – Jews of different types and ideologies. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox (there are three functioning minyanim at the Festival), kippot, no kippot, secular, observant, left-wing, right-wing … all find harmony within the music and lyrics of the repertoire. If only for that reason, the Festival would have earned its place in the Jewish world – just to have all these different kinds of Jews in the same place at the same time, enjoying each other’s company, reinforcing their Jewish identities, and their connections to Israel. The NAJCF models religious pluralism.
But the Festival is about music – great Jewish music. In a Jewish world where so much of what passes for music is at best mediocre singable melodies, this is a reminder that great choral music is not exclusively the domain of the non-Jewish world, and certainly not of the Church.
All of this has been as true this year as in all my previous experiences at the NAJCF. But this year’s Festival included a totally different kind of musical/spiritual event that took everyone by surprise, in a delightful way.
It happened, purely by chance, that the hotel where the Festival is held – The Hudson Valley Resort and Spa in Kerhonkson – will be hosting a two-week sleep-away camp program for an organization of religious Hindu youth in the New York-New Jersey area, beginning this coming Saturday. The goal of the program is to teach traditional Hindu values and practices to American Hindu youth … much like Camp Ramah, USY, or any religious youth group or summer camp would in the Jewish community.
In advance of that program, its staff, a group of about twenty-five older Hindu teens and young adults, was already at the hotel, preparing for their campers’ arrival. Essentially, what we encountered was “staff week.” As one of the Festival choruses entered its rehearsal hall, its members encountered the Hindu youth, sitting on the floor in the back of the room, chanting “ohm,” and preparing to offer traditional Hindu prayers in their uniquely haunting melodies.
Long story short …The Jewish chorus was fascinated by what the Hindu youth were “singing” in Hindi (very passionately!), and the Hindu youth were fascinated by what the Jewish chorus was singing in Hebrew. Ultimately, after some back and forth, the Hindu youth were invited to perform their chants at the evening program, where they could share with us what the values were that animated their faith, and hear their prayer mode, which is so unlike our own. And to make the event even sweeter, a member of our Festival’s faculty who is herself of Indian origin, Rahel Musleah, taught the Hindu youth a Hindi translation of Rabbi Nachman’s famous “Kol Ha’Olam M’od, Gesher Tzar Me’od,” (All the world is a narrow bridge), that she had found on a trip to India. And there we were, Hindus and Jews, finding a way, through music, to have a meaningful shared experience… singing together about faith, doubt, and fear, in Hebrew and in Hindi!
Every year, the Festival prints a T-shirt that its participants can keep as a memento of the experience. This year’s T-shirt had on its back a quote attributed to the late, great Ella Fitzgerald: “The only thing better than singing is … more singing.” There is so much anxiety now in the Jewish community, so many things to be concerned about – losing oneself in great music is the perfect antidote. It doesn’t make the world go away, but it does enable you to access a higher consciousness that transcends the problems of this world, if only for a few moments, like musical meditation.
There was nothing more improbable than the chance encounter of hundreds of Jewish choral singers with a few dozen young “frum” Hindu teens and young adults. On paper we had nothing in common, and the Choral Festival is not an interfaith outreach program. But through music, we found a common language.
And that’s exactly what makes the North American Jewish Choral Festival such a significant event. On paper, its many participants don’t necessarily have a lot in common. But what they do have in common is a love of Jewish choral music. And because of the music, there is always a chance to find harmony.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.