Shirah still going strong at 18
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Shirah still going strong at 18

Community chorus looks to the future

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For a choir, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” says director Mati Lazar.

As Shirah, the Community Chorus at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, prepares to celebrate its 18th year with a gala concert on June 10, founding director and conductor Matthew Lazar says he is proud of what the group represents.

“Shirah is a community,” said Lazar, known to his friends as Mati.

“It’s a group of people who care about each other, making music together, and expressing their Jewish identity together. Whatever differences there might be, when we make music together, we are one entity and one people.”

“The goal of Shirah – and of all choirs – is finding a way to promote and express Jewish identity through music,” said Lazar. “It’s a paradigm of community, the perfect balance between the individual and the group. It’s a perfect example of the saying, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.'”

In addition, said Lazar, choral singing benefits the entire community.

“Choirs come together for a greater purpose,” he said. “It’s inspirational for the watcher, who enters ‘music time’ as opposed to actual time.”

Contrasting music and sports, Lazar pointed out that while sports are competitive, music is “unifying.” Citing the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, he suggested, “When two people speak at the same time, the result is cacophony, whereas when two people sing at the same time, it’s harmony.”

Lazar said the choral group, founded in January 1995, came about through the matchmaking efforts of JCC executive director Avi Lewinson, who recognized “the confluence of interest and ability.” According to the conductor, JCC members Bernie and Ruth Weinflash had the idea, he had the ability, and Lewinson had the location.

Shirah, born of a shared desire to offer Jewish choral music at the Kaplen JCC, found a ready home at the facility’s Thurnauer Music School, said the school’s founding director, Dorothy Roffman.

“Jewish choral singing is an incredibly important expression of our cultural heritage,” said Roffman, adding that Shirah embraces Jews of all backgrounds. “There’s a tremendous range in age, religious commitment, and cultural background. It’s very pluralistic.”

Roffman said that programs for adults – such as Shirah – are gaining in popularity as people live longer, maintaining both their interests and their vitality. As a result, she said, the Thurnauer School is becoming more involved in developing programs for active adults.

Applauding Shirah’s success, Roffman also said, “Mati is a force. He’s incredibly knowledgeable, and you’re pulled along by his passion for Jewish choral music.”

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Love at first sight

The creation of Shirah owes a great deal to founding patrons – and longtime supporters – the Weinflashes.

Now living in Fort Lee, former Cresskill resident Bernie Weinflash said that on the 20th anniversary of his father’s yahrtzeit, he wanted to find an appropriate way to memorialize him.

He and his late wife, Ruth, to whom the June 10 concert is dedicated, decided that since his father had loved both Jewish music and Hebrew liturgy, the most appropriate way to honor him would be through song.

“Actually, I was just looking for an excuse to do it,” joked Weinflash, who approached the leadership of the Kaplen JCC in 1994 with his idea for a Jewish choir. “A culture without music will not last.”

Peppering his remarks with snatches of Yiddish melodies and lyrics, the soon-to-be 92-year-old music lover said he grew up in a household filled with song. His late brother, who later became a cantor, played the piano.

“We sang all the songs,” he said, joyfully tossing off lyrics from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. “I wanted to be instrumental in maintaining Jewish tradition through song.” And while his wife, at first, did not share his passion for music, she later became Shirah’s greatest fan, he said, adding, “She took to the chorus like a fish to water.”

“You’ve got to walk along and sing,” said Weinflash, paraphrasing words he heard from his own mother. “I thought that even the short stories of Sholom Aleichem [might] not survive,” but Jewish melody, he believed, had a better chance of perpetuating Jewish tradition.

In 1994, he approached David Dubin, then JCC executive director, who handed the project over to Lewinson, then assistant executive director.

“Avi’s magnetic, and he wants to do good for the Jewish people,” said Weinflash. “We had long chats about who should do this, and Mati’s name kept coming up.”

Now, 18 years later, Weinflash is proud of the legacy he has helped to fashion.

“I’m following Sholom Aleichem’s direction,” he said, pointing out that the author had written an ethical will. “I want to leave the continuity of Jewish music.”

For his part, Lewinson is proud to have been the “shadchan” (matchmaker) for the creation of Shirah, and the affection between himself and Weinflash is clearly mutual.

“I don’t have the reputation for being a shadchan,” he joked, “but this happens to be one of my great successes.”

“I can’t say enough about the Weinflashes,” he said. “Bernie did this from his heart. His wife was also an amazing woman. I’m blessed to have known them.”

“Bernie has a heart of gold and a love for Jewish culture,” he added. “He has always understood the importance of Jewish peoplehood – whatever someone’s denomination – and the role of the JCC, with its pluralistic nature.”

Weinflash, he said, also understands that people find their own entry-ways into Jewish life, whether through art, music, or literature.

“He’s beyond generous,” said Lewinson. “He knows that ‘different strokes’ resonate with different people,” he added, pointing out that Weinflash had also helped fund a project through which people came together to write their “Jewish histories.”

The Kaplen JCC executive director recalled the founding of Shirah and his own luck at being approached almost simultaneously by Lazar and Weinflash. He had already met with Lazar when Weinflash approached him to speak about the importance of Jewish choral music.

“I had met with Lazar and was blown away by his vision and love of choral music – he is the Jewish choral conductor in the world. I wanted to bring more Jewish culture and programming to the JCC, but I didn’t have the budget. Then Bernie came in. How lucky I was to be the shadchan. I set up a meeting and it was love at first sight.”

Lewinson said he is “incredibly proud of Shirah.”

After he sang its praises to the JCCA – the umbrella organization of Jewish community centers – the group was invited to sing for the organization’s biennial conference in front of 1,000 people.

According to Lewinson, “They were unbelievably well-received.”

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For the love of music

Recalling the creation of Shirah, Lazar – who is also the founder and director of the Zamir Choral Foundation – noted that “many singers wanted to have a choir on the ‘other side of the Hudson.'”

Lazar was interviewed a day after the Zamir Chorale gave a rousing performance at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall for Yom Yerushalayim.

Some of those who wanted a choir on the New Jersey side, Lazar recalled, had attended the North American Jewish Choral Festival, organized under the auspices of the foundation, and were inspired to form a local chorus. Others came because they simply wanted to sing Jewish music.

The group began with more than 100 singers; about 16 members of the original group are still singing with them today, said Lazar. They stay because “they get something out of it that they can’t get elsewhere,” he said. “It’s an expression of both Jewishness and music.”

Some 250 singers have been members of Shirah since its founding. Of the alumni – those who moved away or had to stop singing for whatever reason – many will be returning to sing at the 18th anniversary concert.

The singers, who range in age from 40 to 80 and rehearse every Tuesday night at the JCC, come from northern New Jersey, Rockland County, and the New York metropolitan area.

The current group includes 51 singers from Bergenfield, Cresskill, Englewood, Fair Lawn, Teaneck, Hackensack, Fort Lee, Leonia, Northvale, Oakland, Palisades Park, River Edge, Ridgewood, Tenafly, Milburn, Kinnelon, Maplewood, Chestnut Ridge, Mt. Vernon, Nanuet, New City, and New York City.

Shirah performs twice a year at the Kaplen JCC and has been featured in many concerts in the United States and Israel, including at Avery Fisher Hall, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and BergenPAC.

Choral singing is a “form of education and fun,” said Lazar. “It engages both sides of the brain.”

First, he explained, it uses text, causing the brain to work at processing the meaning of the text, as well as its context. In addition, “The other side of the brain is involved in making music, singing. You’re also being affected by the sound others are making. Those are two different human qualities coming out, being co-joined.”

“The main thing about singing in a choir is that all of you are breathing at the same time,” he added, calling the experience “thrilling.”

“You’re all thinking about the same texts and being affected by the same harmony within the context of a community.”

Lazar, who selects the music, said that while he sometimes composes the arrangements, he often finds music that has already been composed for a choir. Raised by “two very special people who loved being Jewish and loved music,” the Manhattan resident has been working with choirs for some 40 years, “both as a vocation and an avocation.”

Lazar said anybody can join Shirah, although a certain level of musicality is necessary.

“Some people who don’t read music have learned to follow,” he said. “And there are some people who are very good readers.”

What is needed, he said, is the time and commitment.

The Kaplen JCC choir contains singers of “every possible denomination and nondenomination,” he added. But more important, it “crosses transpolitical lines. It’s beyond politics. These kinds of choirs are one of the few places where you can get that. We’re singing a text…of the Jewish people, agreeing on the history of the text.”

Lazar said that while the upcoming concert celebrates the group’s 18th year, “We’re looking to the future. One reason for our success is the leadership of the members of the choir,” he said. “We’re incredibly lucky to have truly dedicated and devoted managers and very active committees. People step up and galvanize the choir.”

For further information about Shirah or the June 10 program – made possible through the Bernie and Ruth Weinflash Shirah Fund,The Ethel and Irving Plutzer Fund, and The Rhoda Toonkel Fund – call Michael Reingold, (201) 569-7900, ext. 1461.

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