My work in the pulpit rabbinate is, of course, centered on the synagogue that I serve in Forest Hills. It has been my family’s community, and my professional home, since 1981. But it is equally true that my rabbinate extends beyond the parochial walls of my congregation, involving me in many causes and projects that impact not only my community, but also the Jewish world at large.
Of these “external” involvements, the one that most often brings me special satisfaction is my service as a Vice President of the Zamir Choral Foundation, the parent organization of the Zamir Chorale, Zamir Noded, the North American Jewish Choral Festival and HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir.
HaZamir is actually a network of twenty-six chapters of high school-age teens, twenty-one of which are located in cities across the United States, and five of which are in Israel.
Dedicated to providing teens with a high level choral experience in a Jewish environment, HaZamir chapters extend from Baltimore to Beit She’an, Kfar Saba to Cleveland, New York to Jerusalem and many other places along the way.
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.
Long before HaZamir was created, during my college years in the late sixties and early seventies, I sang with the Zamir Chorale, the original iteration of Zamir, here in New York. Without a doubt, that experience played a critical role in shaping the Jew, Zionist, and person I was to become as an adult.
Many of my closest friends today date back to those years in Zamir, and my love affair with the music of Israel, which began in Camp Massad, flowered in earnest during my years in Zamir. I pretty much remember every arrangement of every song that we sang, and if you put me in a room with an alto, bass and soprano from those years (I sang tenor), you’re virtually assured (I apologize in advance!) of getting a performance of a Zamir classic, whether you ask for it or not. Be forewarned!
This past Sunday, as the culmination of a three-day joint retreat, all of the Hazamir chapters, from the United States and from Israel, performed in concert in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Thanks to the inspired vision of Mati Lazar, the Founder and Director of the Zamir Choral Foundation, and his wife Vivian, the Director and driving force behind Hazamir, what began as a modest effort to do for high school youth what Zamir had done for us in college manifested itself in all of its glory. Three hundred and fifty high school students from America and Israel took the stage at Lincoln Center and delivered a polished performance that any choir of any age would have been proud of.
As a Zamir alumnus whose two older children both sang in Hazamir some years ago, I can attest to the pride and satisfaction that came with watching my children enthusiastically embrace what is such an important commitment for me. It felt as if I was witnessing the passing on of a mesorah– a sacred tradition. At a concert in Carnegie Halls in which Zamir alumni were invited to sing with both the Zamir Chorale and HaZamir, I had the privilege of standing next to my children and singing Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms along with them. It was a musical high that I will never forget. I heard their voices singing that exhilarating music with me, making harmony with me, and the experience was overwhelming.
Every HaZamir parent feels a variation of that pride. It’s not just watching your child perform; lots of parents have that pleasure, and I am not, God forbid, minimizing their experience. But watching these teens connect to Judaism, and Israel, and each other via the music. That is the special magic of HaZamir. It is unique.
But as a rabbi and communal leader, who is charged with the responsibility of helping to guide my congregation through a terribly difficult time for the American Jewish community and Israel, I sat in that concert this past Sunday night and quietly gave thanks for the existence of Hazamir, and for what it represents. There before my eyes, in living color, were young Jews from both Israel and North America, of every possible iteration of Judaism, singing in perfect harmony … and the metaphor was not lost on me.
There were boys in black velvet kippot standing next to boys with no kippot. There were girls from religiously observant homes and schools standing next to girls who surely hadn’t set foot in a synagogue for years, if at all until, they experienced a HaZamir retreat. There were boys standing next to girls, and singing with them. That wasn't a given these days.
And yes, I am sure that there were among those three hundred and fifty teens those whose families were thrilled with the election results in Israel, and those who felt quite the opposite way. But on that evening, all that mattered was finding the harmony, and it is all that matters whenever they are together …
In her introductory comments before the concert began, Vivian Lazar pointed out that you can’t do choral music alone. It is a communal activity. The truly wise person would draw the appropriate lesson from HaZamir’s remarkable achievement. You can’t do Judaism alone either, nor can you do it justice when you’re hearing only one voice.
Yachad Na’amod, the title of a powerful piece that HaZamir performed meaning “Together We Stand," should be the mantra of all Jews during this difficult time, no matter what it asks of us. I realized, as I sat there, that I needed to be reminded of it, too. Yachad Na’amod!
Thank you, Hazamir, for such a glorious and meaningful evening!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.