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From Teaneck to Lincoln Center

Local HaZamir chapter preps teen singers for annual choral festival

This year’s HaZamir choir at Beth Sholom.
This year’s HaZamir choir at Beth Sholom.

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, some 400 Jewish teens from 31 U.S. cities and Israel will gather next week to stretch their vocal chords.

Except they’re not really swallows. They’re nightingales, members of HaZamir — Hebrew for the nightingale sings. The teens will spend three days rehearsing for the group’s 25th annual concert, an event they’ve been preparing for in their individual chapters all year. On March 18 at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, they will perform a selection of traditional, sacred, and contemporary choral pieces, plus two works especially composed for the occasion.

If you haven’t heard of HaZamir, you’re not alone. Vivian Lazar, who will be awarded the Kinor David (David’s Harp) Award at the performance and has been the group’s director since 2004, concedes, “We’re a well kept secret outside of a small Jewish population.”

HaZamir is part of the Zamir Choral Foundation umbrella organization, which includes choral groups of various ages (including one made up of HaZamir alumni) and offers various concert and leadership opportunities.

It was founded by Vivian Lazar’s husband, Matthew, a noted conductor, who says, “Our aim from the beginning has been the pursuit of musical excellence and mutual respect across the full denominational spectrum, from Orthodox to secular.”

That sounds like a public relation statement— it actually came from a press release — but it seems true. Anyone who wants to join HaZamir must audition. If you are accepted, you attend rehearsals every week to practice the program for the following year’s concert. It is a substantial commitment, one pledged to by the nearly two dozen Bergen County teens who make up one of HaZamir’s most active chapters

Vivian Lazar describes it as “very thriving, flourishing, none the least because of its conductor, Cantor Hanan.

Ronit Wolff Hanan of Teaneck became involved with HaZamir when her daughter, Adva, now 27, wanted to participate in the program. The nearest chapter then was in Caldwell, and she remembers “shlepping there for a couple of years” before deciding it would be easier to just form a local group.

In her role as music director of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom — her active synagogue choir was profiled in the Standard last fall — she knew there was a reservoir of talented young people who might be interested.

Jonah Pitkowsky was one of them. He joined the congregation in 2011, when his father Joel, took over as rabbi. He’s 17 and attends SAR Day School in Riverdale, N.Y. “I’d sung, but not in an organized way until I got to Teaneck and Ronit took me into her children’s choir,” he said. “When I was old enough she asked me to audition for HaZamir, and I did.”

His own musical tastes ran more to classic rock — Elton John, Billy Joel, and, like his dad, Bruce Springsteen. But taking part in HaZamir has opened a new world to him.

“It’s really a rigorous program,” Jonah said. “It offers some of the most advanced Jewish choral music that exists. The amount of knowledge I gain, just to be able to sing the music, the Hebrew and Jewish history, I think that’s very cool.

“Another piece of the puzzle is that I get to meet tons of other Jewish teens, who share this common interest. It’s two hours rehearsal every Sunday. I’ve been doing it long enough so that it’s part of my routine; but it’s the happiest part of my week, so I don’t think it’s a burden.”

But there’s more. Jonah has enrolled in another Zamir program, one that teaches leadership. Every chapter has teen leaders who take special courses and whose job is to make sure that things go smoothly and new members are comfortable and made welcome. They also create social events and give-back programs for the community at large.

Margo Sobel has a similar story. She’s 18 years old and a senior at Teaneck High School. “I sang in her choir when I was a kid,” she says. The cantor “asked me to join HaZamir, but I wasn’t really into it. It didn’t speak to me. But she asked me to come to one rehearsal. I did — and I fell in love with it.”

Margo’s preference was musical theater and the great American songbook. “I didn’t know how to read music,” she said. “That was part of the reason I was so hesitant. But I soon realized you don’t have to know how to read music coming in. You learn through rehearsals and reading sheet music time and again.”

That’s not all she’s learned. Like Jonah, she was a teen leader, and this year she has taken on additional responsibilities as an international teen leader, which means she’s head of the chapter teen leaders, assuring the chapter leaders have the resources they need.

Cantor Hanan calls the program non-denominational, in the sense that though you have to be Jewish to join, all members of the Tribe are welcome, whether Orthodox or Reform. (Beth Sholom is Conservative.)

Or as Vivian Lazar puts it: “No matter what language we speak, we all speak the language of music. That immediately breaks down all barriers.”

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