On March 17, the HaZamir international high school choir will celebrate its 20th anniversary with two concerts at Lincoln Center.
While singers, parents, and friends of the choral group all have ample cause to celebrate, event honorees Adina Avery-Grossman and Harman Grossman have more reason than most.
The Teaneck couple, who are slated to receive the Zamir Choral Foundation’s first Kinor David Award for longtime volunteer service, also will get to enjoy the Lincoln Center premiere of “Ashrei HaGafrur,” composed by Avery-Grossman’s father. And – expanding family participation to three generations – the piece will be introduced by their daughter, Zoe Grossman, who is an alumna of the group and the first international chair of the HaZamir Teen Leader Council.
|Adina Avery-Grossman and Harmon Grossman, top, and Zoe Grossman, right, with Shir Dykan of HaZamir Israel.
HaZamir is a project of the Zamir Choral Foundation, a network of Jewish teen choirs founded by Matthew Lazar in 1990. With 22 chapters in the United States and one in Israel, the high school choral group embraces some 300 students. Each chapter learns the same repertoire at the local level, coming together each year to perform as one choir.
This year’s honorees, who are longtime members of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, say they have gained tremendously from their association with HaZamir.
“We began by serving snacks,” Avery-Grossman recalled, noting that the couple’s connection to the group began when Zoe, now 19, joined the local chapter. From there, they went on to become chaperones and hosts for the annual visit of HaZamir’s Israel contingent, learning more about Israelis – and Israel – in the process.
While HaZamir concerts are marked by the performance of high-quality choral arrangements, “it’s not just about the music,” Avery-Grossman said.
“It was an opportunity for my daughter to meet Jewish kids from all different backgrounds and knowledge levels, to understand and connect with them through the universal language of music,” she said. In addition, because the family has no relatives in Israel and therefore had little personal attachment to the country, “the Israel piece [of the program] has been the most life-changing,” paving the way for ongoing relationships among participants and their families.
A family tradition
Love of music is a family tradition, Avery-Grossman said. “I grew up under a piano.” Her father, Cantor Lawrence Avery, was the chazzan at Beth El Synagogue in New Rochelle, N.Y., for more than 50 years. Her mother, Saralee Avery, is a Julliard-trained musician. Her parents used to sing together while their daughter sat literally at their feet.
Not surprising, Avery-Grossman, who is a founding partner of Brandgenuity LLC, a New York-based trademark licensing agency, developed an interest in singing and performing.
“It was a fun outlet,” she said. “I sang in the all-state choir and at Princeton. It was always part of my life.” But as an adult, “it’s been about kids and exposing them to music.”
Her husband, assistant general counsel of Johnson and Johnson and a former president of Beth Sholom, is “a brilliant pianist and loves music as much as I do,” she said, and their son Eli, who sings in an a cappella group at Cornell, “is a talented singer and dancer.”
Avery-Grossman pointed out that while Zoe, who sang with HaZamir throughout her high school years, was no stranger to choral groups – she also sang in the Beth Sholom youth choir and in a capella groups at Abraham Joshua Heschel High School and Brandeis University – HaZamir “is a high-level musical choral experience unmatched by what she could get anywhere else.”
Housed at Beth Sholom, the Bergen County chapter of HaZamir is led by Ronit Wolff Hanan, the shul’s music director, who like Avery-Grossman is the daughter of a cantor. Together, the two women founded the synagogue’s youth choir some 13 years ago. Ironically, while they grew up in neighboring towns, they didn’t meet until they came to Teaneck.
She said that she and Hanan encourage the teens in their synagogue to join the HaZamir chapter.
“It’s a fabulous opportunity for our shul, providing a musical outlet for our kids. But we also draw on kids who belong to Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues, or no synagogues at all.”
Hanan, who has conducted the Bergen County HaZamir chapter for the past three years, said that the chorus, begun in 2007, originally met in Franklin Lakes. The 24 members get together for two hours every Sunday. She estimates that over the past six years, more than 70 teens have sung with the group. “It’s really a team effort,” she said. “We have a wonderful accompanist and parent coordinators.”
Her daughter Adva, now in college, sang with HaZamir for five years and will sing in the alumni group at the Lincoln Center concert.
Music is the common language
Participants in HaZamir benefit “at a bunch of different levels,” Hanan said. “At the local level they make friends and get a nice musical experience. Their exposure to the repertoire, and to the high level of Jewish music, is incomparable. But there’s so much more, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Their bonding with the Israeli kids is phenomenal; and when they go to regional, national, and international retreats and intensive rehearsal sessions, they feel the power.”
Teaneck recently hosted a regional retreat, drawing 170 teens from HaZamir chapters in the Northeast.
“Our 25 kids sang with another 150,” Hanan said. “When their experience is enlarged and enriched to involve so many other kids from other communities, the common language becomes music. The only divisions between them are soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.”
Beth Sholom also benefits from hosting the chapter, she added. “First, to hear music coming out of a shul room is always a great thing. But it also brings people in to the shul and exposes it to the community. The trend of the 21st-century synagogue is to be community-inclusive. Anything synagogues can do that opens the doors to the wider community is a win-win situation for everybody. The walls have to come down.”
Each year, local HaZamir families host singers from the Israeli chapter, who come the week before the New York concert to visit local schools both to perform and to speak with their American peers. This year, the group will perform at Teaneck High School and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County on March 14.
Avery-Grossman, who has hosted Israeli teens for five years, said her family has developed “an unbelievable relationship with the kids and with Israel. Now, when we visit Israel, we’re not there as tourists. They’re our families. We’ve been to their homes. It’s really helped us connect to Israel in a new and personal way, and it’s turned our daughter into a Zionist.”
The teens who come here learn about American Jewish life, she said. And because many are secular, “for some it’s their first exposure to people living observant Jewish lives.” Particularly during the HaZamir singers’ weekend retreat in the mountains, they learn “how to live Jewishly in a warm and fun way. It’s a tremendous learning experience on both sides.”
Avery-Grossman said she has been particularly pleased with the positive effect the group has had on her daughter, who worked with HaZamir director Vivian Lazar to create a teen leadership program and was instrumental in developing a teen leadership Shabbaton in Teaneck.
“It’s absolutely enhanced my ability,” Zoe said, noting that she has gained a lot both musically and Jewishly.
“Musically, I’ve gained a real sense of discipline and really being responsible to learn your part,” she said. She is also part of the group’s chamber choir, where members learn the music on their own. “It requires a lot of control,” she said. “You really learn to sing with other people, to blend with them.”
Jewishly, said Zoe, she was raised in a kind of “Conservative bubble,” attending Conservative day schools, camps, and synagogues.
“There are so many different kinds of Jews in this choir,” she said. “I’ve never been surrounded by so many different Jews. The music bridges all the gaps. It sounds corny, but with so many different political views and kinds of religious observance – it couldn’t be more different – commitment and love for music is what binds us.”
Though she is an alumna, this feeling has persisted, and “I can still sit and talk for hours about the music and the conductors. There will always be a connection.”
Zoe said she started the teen leader initiative when she was a senior in high school and receiving a lot of leadership training in other groups, particularly Ramah and USY.
“I thought it would be beneficial for HaZamir to have something similar,” she said, noting that joining HaZamir “was probably the best decision I made in high school. It’s been an amazing experience and continues to shape who I am.”
Avery-Grossman has expanded her own HaZamir connection as well. During a recent trip to Israel with the Lazars, she called on students in the Israeli chapter who were preparing to come to the United States, visited alumni, and participated in a conversation about starting a new chapter.
She said she is proud that her father’s work will be performed at the Lincoln Center concert “not because we’re the honorees but because they wanted his compositions in the HaZamir repertoire. They were excited to include him in the mix. I’m thrilled that my father – who began his relationship with HaZamir by coming to concerts in which his granddaughter performed and then seeing his daughter become an active volunteer – will now leave a further legacy, as his music is performed by the 300 young singers.”
“It’s a magical musical moment for my parents,” she said. “It helps us celebrate their lives and their contribution.”
For tickets or more information, go to www.celebratehazamir20.org, or call (212) 870-3333.