Musical Magic at Carnegie Hall: The Powerful Lessons of Hazamir

On a cold and nasty day in New York City last weekend, the hottest ticket in town was for a sold-out performance of Hazamir at Carnegie Hall.

For those who are not familiar with Hazamir, it is the international Jewish high school choir, under the auspices of the Zamir Choral Foundation. I am a vice-president of that foundation, as well as a proud alumnus of the Zamir Chorale, Hazamir’s much older musical sibling. Like the Zamir Chorale, Hazamir’s main reason for being is to bring quality Jewish choral music to the Jewish public. It is about musical excellence, and teaching the Jewish world that choral music is not eclusively a musical vehicle for requiem masses and choral symphonies. There is such a thing as great Jewish choral music.

But now that we’ve established that, to grasp the full importance of Hazamir is to understand that it’s about so much more than just the music. It’s about translating that passion for music into a stronger Jewish identity, cultivating meaningful and enduring ties to the State of Israel, serving as a model for a pluralistic Jewish community where every teen participant, from Orthodox to secular, is supported and nurtured as an important person and valued Jew, and learning how to take these valuable Jewish life lessons and model them for a Jewish community that far too often struggles for significantly lesser results.

As of now, there are thirty-one local Hazamir chapters around America and Israel. From Silicon Valley to North Texas to South Jersey, from Beit She’an to Jerusalem to Ashkelon, these Jewish teens gather weekly, with their dedicated and talented conductors, to master the music of our people. I’m not talking about what too often passes for “the music of our people,” like what I hear when I walk into Jewish bookstores and the latest iteration of “shlock rock” and its ilk is playing. I’m talking about the classics of Solomoni Rossi, magnificent settings of the great masterpieces of contemporary Israeli composers, even liturgical settings, and so much more. The choirs, wherever in the world they are, learn a common repertoire, and gather together in the spring to give a joint concert. This year it was in majestic Carnegie Hall, but these remarkable teens have sung in Avery Fisher, Jazz at Lincoln Center… they’ve been seen, and heard, in the best places.

As I sat in Hazamir’s concert last week in Carnegie Hall, the music, as it invariably does, moved me powerfully– sometimes to tears. Here were four hundred teens from around the world singing many of the pieces that I myself had sung during my years in the Zamir Chorale more than forty years ago. I am obliged to admit to the possibility that they may even have performed them better than we did back then—just maybe—but I couldn’t have been more proud of them, and what they have accomplished.

But again, though the music itself was spectacular, it wasn’t only about the music.

On that stage were Israeli teens who, a mere few weeks after the concert, would be reporting for induction into the Israel Defense Forces. Their childhood was about to end in a dramatic way, transporting them from the world of harmony to one of great discord and potential danger. When the American teens sang David Burger’s iconic setting of “Tefilah,” the prayer for the State of Israel, they understood in a clear and immediate way what it meant to pray for the peace of Israel, because it had become personal for them. The music brought them there. And when they all witnessed the presentation of an award to my esteemed colleague Rabbi Haskell Lookstein for his many years of support for Zamir in all of its iterations, despite enormous pressures within his Orthodox world on the matter of “mixed singing” (men and women together, and hearing women’s voices in public song), they understood that being open to the sheer beauty and majesty of the music can transport you to an elevated spiritual place. In a religious world where intolerance is too often the norm, the music of our people is a precious and indispensable ally in the noble cause of reclaiming a sane religious center. Tradition does not have to equal intolerance. The music brought them there,

None of this great program could have come into being without the artistic and musical vision of my very dear friend Mati Lazar, the founder and director of the Zamir Choral Foundation, and his wife Vivian, also a dear friend, whose untiring commitment to the development of Hazamir and insistence on its maintaining the highest musical standards have been nothing short of extraordinary. As Stephen Sondheim famously wrote, the “art of making art” is no less a project than the art itself, a musical version of “im ein kemakh, ein Torah.” If there is no flour (i.e. money), there is no Torah. We’re privileged to have a fine Board of Directors that understands and supports their vision, but the vision is the key, and they have, if you will, made the vision sing.

Last Sunday’s concert was a great event for Hazamir and for the Zamir Choral Foundation, but it was also a great event for the Jewish people. For a few hours in Carnegie Hall, the Jewish world looked like a hopeful place, with a secure future.

Kein y’hi ratzon! So may it be God’s will…

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.