Bonding through music

Bonding through music

HaZamir unites teens from U.S., Israel

Emily Knopf sings with her friends at HaZamir.

Ask members of HaZamir, The International Jewish High School Choir, what the group means to them. Although making beautiful music is always near the top of the list, you’ll also hear glowing testimonials about friendship, growth, and a deepening connection to Israel.

Founded more than 20 years ago, HaZamir now brings together some 350 teens from 27 chapters across the United States and Israel. The Bergen County chapter, created in 2007, meets at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, under the leadership of Cantor Ronit Hanan.

“I started as a parent when Bergen County didn’t have its own chapter,” Cantor Hanan said. “My daughter and another Teaneck girl traveled down for rehearsals at Kushner [Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy] in Livingston.” After spending a weekend as a parent/chaperone for a HaZamir retreat, “I was hooked.”

“I needed a tissue box at every rehearsal,” she recalled, describing a scene where teens – equipped with the repertoire they’d been learning in their individual chapters, some of them quite small – “came together and were singing as a huge group. They’d spent all year learning a common repertoire in individual chapters and were amazed at the sound they could create together,” she said, adding that “it got parents in tears after the first few notes.”

On March 22, when all the members of HaZamir come together for the group’s annual concert at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, that excitement will reach its peak. But before that concert, the teens will have spent a weekend davening together, singing, making new friends, and renewing ongoing friendships.

“There’s a whole new dimension when they gather together for their retreat,” which this year will take place in the Catskills at Hudson Valley Resort and Spa in Kerhonksen, New York, Cantor Hanan said.

Ties to HaZamir persist even after teens become alumni, she continued. Many former members join the group’s alumni choir, while their parents continue to help out at local chapters. “They call themselves ‘lifers,'” she said. “They’re so grateful for what it gave to their children.”

HaZamir “provides a really high quality of sophisticated Jewish choral music that you can’t necessarily get in a local Jewish setting. Because they’re performing with hundreds of children, they can choose a repertoire that can’t be done in small local groups.”

In addition, when they are at festivals and retreats, members of local chapters get to work with a variety of conductors “and experience the music through the eyes of 26 different conductors.” While not all conductors get to lead the music at the gala concert, they nevertheless have a chance to work with the teens in some capacity.

Cantor Hanan, who also works with the national HaZamir office as director of special projects, pointed out that the choir is “pluralistic, Zionist, and promotes cross-cultural exchange.

“I love seeing how kids who join us really love it,” she said. “We see them grow and mature. It’s lovely to watch.” In terms of music education, “We ask a lot of them, and they learn an amazing amount.”

She also noted that through HaZamir’s teen leadership initiative, two teen leaders from every chapter receive leadership training and the opportunity to use their new skills during retreats and social activities.

This year’s performance pieces range from music by Louis Lewandowski, a favorite of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who is being honored by the group this year; to a piece by Cantor Gerald Cohen of Scarsdale, commissioned specifically for HaZamir; to a new arrangement of popular songs performed by the Israeli singer Achinoam Nini.

“We always include something from the pioneering days of Israel,” Cantor Hanan said. The teens learn both music and Hebrew, “finding out about a different culture on a different level.”

She noted also that members of several Israeli chapters have a chance to “become ambassadors.” In Bergen County, teens from Kfar Saba spend a day at Teaneck High School, “where most students speak no Hebrew and have no exposure to any Israelis. The American students realize that not all Israelis are toting guns but are normal, like them.” At the end of the visit, she said, the teens from both countries invariably end up singing popular music together. This year, the Israeli students will have an opportunity to tour the school.

This is the third year that Kfar Saba teens will be visiting Teaneck High School, Cantor Hanan said, and the visit includes a choir-to-choir performance. Various choirs from the high school perform first, followed by a set from the Israeli singers.

At the end, all the choirs join together to sing a piece from the HaZamir repertoire. Before the visit, Cantor Hanan provides the Teaneck High School choir director Steven Bell with the music, which he teaches his students.

Adina Avery-Grossman, a member of Teaneck’s Beth Sholom, said this is the seventh year that local families are hosting teens from Kfar Saba. This year’s group includes 24 teens, who are divided among some 10 homes. An additional 13 teens, from HaZamir Jerusalem, will be housed in Westchester County. Israel’s HaZamir now includes five chapters.

“The experience is transformational for both the Israelis and the Americans,” Ms. Avery-Grossman said. “For some of us American families, the Israelis become our family in Israel. We track their successes in school and their transition to the army. We visit them when we are there. We worry about them when the news from Israel is grave. When we pray for Israel and its well being, we see our HaZamir Israel friends.”

The Israeli teens learn something as well.

“The Israelis come to appreciate how we live Jewishly in America,” Ms. Avery-Grossman said. “Some of the Israelis are shocked to meet knowledgeable, practicing Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox Jews, passionate and joyful about living Jewishly. The singers from America and Israel get to grapple with some pretty weighty topics, including what it means to be Jewish and to love and support Israel. At the end of the week, they make friendships that last a lifetime.”

Aaron Noriega, a teen leader from the Bergen County chapter, said that while he’s “into musical theater, HaZamir is my number one priority.” This year, his family is hosting Israeli students for the fourth time.

His mother, Hana Noriega, is one of the Bergen County coordinators.

“We interface with the national office, send out emails about the events we do, and organize snacks during rehearsals,” she said, noting that the chapter includes 29 teens from all over Bergen County – and some from outside. She and Aaron live in Passaic County.

Noriega said her daughter, Sonia, now 23, participated in HaZamir several years ago, and Aaron has been with the group since 2011. While Sonia is no longer in HaZamir, “she loved it and still communicates with the Israelis by Facebook.”

Noting that Aaron is very musical, his mom said that “this is the only way to be with Jewish teens.” A senior at Manchester Regional High School in Haledon, he has been able “to put together his love of music and a Jewish social life” while living in an area that doesn’t have many Jews.

“It’s like the best thing in my life,” Aaron said. “I love that you can make friends with people all across the country and Israel. The music we sing is unparalleled, and Ronit is a fantastic leader. She asks the most of us. She wants us to sound good.”

Aaron said he didn’t know he could harmonize as well as he does now. It has also taught him “how to spontaneously jump in and harmonize with prayers. It sounds beautiful,” he said. “It offers a beautiful, new level to the prayer.”

Calling himself “a future musical theater major in college,” Aaron said he would encourage other teens to join if they “like making lifelong friends, singing beautiful music, and learning the meaning of Judaism.”

Emily Knopf of Teaneck, a HaZamir member for three years and a tenth grader at SAR Academy, said she has always participated in school choirs.

But when she sings with HaZamir, “it’s amazing – there’s no feeling like it. When we’re singing together, our hearts beat in unison. It’s like one body, so much power. It’s like floating; you feel like you’re someone else.”

While singers come from many different places, “we share a common love of music. We form a bond.”

This year, Emily’s family will host Israeli students for the third time – the second time with the same girls. Emily keeps up her cross-Atlantic friendships through Facebook.

The young singer said she has learned a tremendous amount through her participation in the choir.

“I could always read music, since I played instruments,” she said. “But I never tried to read for vocals. Also, there’s a huge emphasis on posture, how to hold your binder, how to open your mouth, hold notes longer.”

She said that when students from one chapter get to work with conductors from other chapters “who see pieces in a new way, we get a different perspective on the same piece, how it can sound, and the different stories it tells. Music is multilayered and tells different stories.”

Emily said she hopes to become a teen leader and will go through the interview process. “You plan chapter events, assist the conductor, and make sure everyone is having a good time. You’re an intermediary, a resource for kids.”

She has made some of her best friends through HaZamir – from those who sing opera to “those who love Dr. Who.” And participating in HaZamir has had another, unexpected effect as well.

“Every day we have to say a prayer for the IDF,” she said. That prayer has become more meaningful to her now that she has friends who are going into the Israeli army. “I started thinking about my own friends in Israel,” she said, noting that she now has a “personal connection.”

Emily’s mom, Lisa Shulman, echoed that sentiment. She said that when she learns at the annual concert who will be going into the army, “it sends shivers up your spine,” reminding the American families that the lives of their children will take a different path.

Ms. Shulman said she has been to past concerts because her son, Robbie, was in the choir. Now, while Emily “has definitely taken on the mantle,” Robbie continues to attend choir festivals, leading services in the Carlebach style.

Talking about the upcoming concert, Emily said that while “it wouldn’t be catastrophic to make a mistake, my voice contributes. We’re all relying on each other.

“We feel such a bond – we want everyone to do an amazing job.”

Aaron Noriega, center, with friends at a HaZamir rehearsal.
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