Never underestimate the power of music to stir the soul.
At Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, that music is made by both adults and children.
The congregation cherishes Tzipporei Shalom, the youth choir that now is in its 19th year. The choir is so meaningful to CBS that it was the top-rated program in several synagogue surveys, said Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan, the shul’s musical director, who co-founded and co-directs the group with congregant Adina Avery-Grossman.
“I have seen the choir’s impact on the kids’ Jewish involvement,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. “I wish it had been around when I was a kid. This is the kids’ on ramp. Families understand that, especially those parents who sit in on rehearsals.
“The kids are all looking at the conductor or cutting off at the same time. Even first graders know the difference between legato and staccato or differences in volume. It’s done in a fun way, so the kids will internalize the musical concepts.”
“I think there are a lot of paths to Jewish connection, community and spirituality,” Ms. Avery-Grossman said. “Music, and singing in particular, have always been the best on ramp for me. For me, teaching kids to love being Jewish, and helping them to love shul, is a form of prayer and service.”
While most of Tzipporei Shalom’s performances are for its own congregation — the group sings at the conclusion of Shabbat services — its appeal extends far beyond the shul’s borders. The singing group appeared with Safam, recorded a selection on a CD with the noted chazzan Netanel Hershtik, sang with Neil Sedaka and Debbie Friedman, and joins with the synagogue’s adult choir, Tavim, on special occasions. It also participates in an annual community-wide junior choir festival together with choirs from local Reform congregations.
Until now, the choir has been limited to members of the Teaneck synagogue. But now, Cantor Wolff Hanan said, “we’re opening it up.” Describing the move as an outreach effort, she said the purpose of the initiative is not to lure members away from other congregations — some families have joined Beth Sholom specifically to have their children in the choir — but “to welcome people in the community who are not yet ready to join a shul but want Jewish activities for their kids. It’s about building community,” she said. “Thinking outside the box.”
It’s no wonder that parents are eager for their children to join Tzipporei Shalom, which welcomes all children from first grade up. In addition to mastering a diverse repertoire of music in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Zulu, and more, the young singers learn basic music vocabulary and choral singing skills, and explore the cultures and languages of Jews around the world.
“As opposed to most synagogues, which use choirs as part of the service, in our shul’s culture, that was not where they wanted choirs to be,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. “From the get-go, it was an addendum. We brought them up at the end of services, and it actually allowed us to be able to expose them to this breadth of Jewish music from all over the world, which isn’t only liturgical — Eastern and Western European, Ugandan, South African — languages and cultures and musical styles that aren’t specific to liturgy.
She and Ms. Avery-Grossman “get new ideas from something we hear and look it up,” she continued. “We have our eyes and ears open.” While the music performed on Shabbat is a capella, at times the group is accompanied by a piano when it performs on Sundays.
“As a cantor’s daughter, Jewish music permeated my life at home and at synagogue,” Ms. Avery-Grossman said. “A highlight of my childhood was when my dad invited me to sing with the Hebrew school choir. (I was a day school kid.) We sang great songs, oldies but goodies but also whatever was new in Israel. That experience inspired me to get involved decades later to collaborate with Ronit in creating Tsipporei Shalom.”
Cantor Wolff Hanan recalled the time when Cantor Henry Rosenblum — now chazzan of the Forest Hills Jewish Center and former dean of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America — lived in Teaneck and was a member of Beth Sholom. “He listened to the children singing and came up to us at kiddush,” she said, and he told them, “Never underestimate the gift you are giving these children.”
The youth-choir conductors understood his words well. Not only are they both from cantorial families, but “it’s in our blood,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. “We love imparting it to the next generation.” And, she added, “we have a continuum. Two years ago, looking over the sea of 400 faces at Carnegie Hall [at a HaZamir performance, see below], I caught the eye of two kids in 12th grade who started with me in kindergarten.”
Ms. Avery-Grossman pointed out that the young singers learn the music so well, and have so much fun, that “our alumni — some 28-year-olds — come back to visit and can still sing every line they learned from songs we taught them more than 18 years ago.”
Tzipporei Shalom usually attracts between 20 and 30 young singers, and Cantor Wolff Hanan is not sure how many more will join now that the choir has been opened to the community. How old members are “depends on the year,” she said. To ensure that the older children remain fully engaged, “we make them into section leaders, or give them wordier parts. There are ways to engage all the ages so it won’t feel babyish.” And when do they leave the group? “We keep them as long as they want to come,” she said.
Ronit Wolff Hanan’s official title is cantor, but at Beth Sholom — which Ms. Avery-Grossman describes as a “singy congregation” — she is the music director. Born in Tel Aviv and raised in White Plains, Cantor Wolff Hanan spent eight years of her adult life in Israel teaching, performing, and singing musical comedy and jazz. Later, she left that work “to become a mommy full time.” Her children were born in Israel.
The family moved to Teaneck, and joined Beth Sholom. Now her 24-year-old son, Avioz, “has come full circle and is back in Israel serving in the IDF,” she said. Her other child, Adva, is an early childhood educator at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County and co-director of Camp Kef at Ben Porat Yosef.
Cantor Wolff Hanan took up her official role as the synagogue’s music director in 2012. But for a good 10 years before that, she volunteered at the shul as a High Holy Days chazzan, as co-conductor of Tzipporei Shalom, and working with Avery Grossman, as co-teacher of the Lunch & Leyn program for fifth graders. She holds a bachelor of fine arts degree from New York University and a masters in sacred music from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where she was invested as a chazzan in 2012.
Among her other jobs, Cantor Wolff Hanan is a singer and soloist with the Zamir Chorale and is the co-founder of the Bergen County chapter of HaZamir: the International Jewish High School Choir, which she now conducts. The auditioned group is open only to ninth through 12th graders.
This year, however, the Zamir Choral Foundation will launch the HaZamir Preparatory Program, HaZa-Prep, designed for seventh and eighth graders. The program “will give students a solid foundation in rehearsal technique and choral singing skills while being exposed to high level Jewish choral music, all through an age-appropriate, hands-on curriculum developed specifically for them,” Ms. Wolff Hanan said. And the addition of HaZa-Prep, “we now have programs open to grades one through 12,” she added.
Vivian Lazar is the director of HaZamir and HaZa-Prep. “The HaZamir Preparatory Program was designed to nurture the musical soul that resides in Jewish teens,” She said. “It will accomplish this by teaching the tools necessary to perform Jewish choral music at the highest standard in an environment that is educational and fun. There are many such programs in the secular world but there has never been a Jewish choral preparatory program before.
“When students start studying music at an early age, they are actually learning another language,” she continued. “The earlier they start learning this language, the more fluent they become. When students master choral skills in a choir, they grow in self-esteem without feeling exposed as a soloist might. They exhibit self-discipline and take pride in being part of a greater whole. Our program is designed to teach the musical skills all choristers must know in a warm and nurturing Jewish environment.”
“Choral singing is a team sport,” she added. “No one can choral sing alone, so choral singing mimics community at its best. Every voice counts but together, the many voices become one profound voice, breathing together and experiencing transcendence within a strong performance.”
HaZamir, now celebrating its 25th year, has 38 chapters throughout the United States and Israel. It provides a unique opportunity for Jewish teens of all denominations and backgrounds to sing sophisticated Jewish choral music in a fun, social environment, Ms. Lazar said. It has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall), and Jazz at Lincoln Center. The foundation also sponsors a “highly selective” chamber choir and offers a college credit program for high school juniors and seniors, she said. The Bergen chapters of HaZamir and HaZa-Prep meet on Sunday afternoons at Beth Sholom.
HaZa-Prep is piloting in only a few chapters — other pilot chapters include Boston, Baltimore, and Beit Shean, Israel — and will have an “umbrella curriculum” for all chapters, Cantor Wolff Hanan said. Participants will learn the same music and have a chance to visit and rehearse with one another. As they enter ninth grade, “They will have the techniques and skills to move on to HaZamir.” The Zamir Choral Foundation, which sponsors both programs, will organize joint programs for HaZa-Prep Bergen County and other HaZa-Prep chapters, and occasionally HaZa-Prep will join its high school HaZamir counterparts as well.
HaZamir has had an enormous impact on her daughter, Zoe Avery-Grossman, her mother added added. “The music really spoke to her, and she connected to her Jewish identity and Jewish texts and history in new ways. She met Jewish teens from all over the U.S. and Israel. She also made long-lasting friendships. HaZamir encouraged her to grow as a Jew and as a musician. It also honed her leaderships skills, as she helped to create and launch the first Teen Leadership program.”
Zoe, 24, is a recruiter for the Israel gap-year program Nativ. She sings each year with HaZamir alumni and has headed leadership training programs for the teen leaders. A HaZamir board member, she assists with marketing, branding, and fundraising. She also is very involved in supporting HaZamir Ha Sharon, “our chapter in Hod HaSharon. Our community hosts the Israeli singers from Hod HaSharon in the spring.” She added that not only does Zoe have HaZamir friends from all over the United States, but from Israel as well. “The Israel piece is especially important to us, as we do not have family in Israel. These kids and their families feel like our Israeli family.”
“HaZamir is an experience like no other,” Ms. Wolff Hanan said. “It’s an enrichment — not instead of the synagogue choir but in addition to it.” While ads are placed throughout the community each year to attract new members, “the best recruitment is by kids talking about it. When Matti” — that’s Matthew Lazar, the group’s founder and Vivian’s husband — “envisioned it, it was just one chapter in Manhattan. Now it has 38 chapters.” Vivian Lazar pointed out that the Zamir Choral Foundation also has established choirs for adults — the Zamir Chorale — and for 18- to 30-year-olds — Zamir Noded.
For more information on Tzipporei Shalom or the Bergen chapters of the Zamir Choral Foundation’s HaZamir and HaZa-Prep, email Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan at email@example.com.