“Such is the life of a musician — to juggle different aspects of music to make up a complete experience,” Elliot Roman said. Mr. Roman, who grew up in Haworth and lives in Manhattan, is the up-and-coming 24-year-old conductor of the Bergen County chapter of HaZamir, the International Jewish Teen Choir, for this new season.
Mr. Roman started playing piano when he was 3. At 12, he learned the flute. “I began composing my own music in high school,” he said. His undergraduate studies in composition and piano began at the Manhattan School of Music in 2017, and his broad background in music, which includes composition, scoring, and directing, led to his teaching piano at the Westwood Music Studio and becoming a choral accompanist for two other Zamir choruses, Zamir Chorale and Zamir Noded.
Before and throughout his formal academic training, Mr. Roman has remained involved in an array of eclectic musical endeavors. “In 2021, when I began my graduate work, I started a freelance chamber ensemble — playing predominantly string orchestral works — made up of approximately 15 musicians from the Manhattan School of Music and other New York area musicians,” he said. “We have a number of key players who play often and recruit friends.” The group, billed as underStaffed, performs at unconventional spaces in New Jersey and New York, ranging from the Englewood boat basin to the Czech consulate.
Elliot Roman’s enthusiasm for everything he does musically is palpable. His goal has been to stay as open-minded and comprehensive in his studies as possible. “If anything new or interesting comes up, I’m prepared to do it,” he said.
Mr. Roman’s mother, Lois Roman, still lives in Haworth. His older sister, Danielle, first learned about HaZamir through Cantor Rica Timman at the family’s synagogue, Temple Beth El in Closter. “My sister has always had a beautiful voice,” Mr. Roman said. “For her, joining HaZamir Bergen County was an on-ramp to an expanded Jewish life.”
He believes that Danielle’s experience with HaZamir provided her with exposure to other musicians and the opportunity to take part in an international youth movement, and he enjoyed watching her perform.
Although Mr. Roman never joined HaZamir — in fact, one of the few areas of music in which he is not active is singing — he always felt connected to it. That’s why he was so happy to take on this new role for the choir’s 2023-24 season.
“Singing with HaZamir is a pluralistic and inclusive experience,” Mr. Roman said. “From September’s Bergen County season kickoff, with about 10 singers, to January’s InterVisitation, an annual two-day intensive retreat for United States HaZamir chapters, with 100 to 200 singers, to April’s three-day festival retreat and gala concert, scheduled in 2024 at Carnegie Hall and featuring 300 to 400 singers from the United States and Israel, teenagers from both traditional and secular backgrounds learn and rehearse a group of songs under the direction of their respective local chapter’s conductor.
“Every chapter is learning the same music. When they all come together to sing the same group of songs, it’s magical.”
In each HaZamir chapter in the United States and Israel, the choral conductor is expected to be comfortable singing in Hebrew, to understand the meaning of the texts being sung, to identify talent, to continue the Jewish choral tradition, and to lead by example, making sure to balance artistic discipline, expectations, and humor.
“HaZamir is a well-oiled machine,” Mr. Roman said. “Ultimately, what is most fulfilling about participating in the HaZamir mission is watching the teens evolve from not knowing anything about the music when they begin rehearsals to becoming adept as musicians who are comfortable in their own skin by the time they perform with their peers on the international stage.”
Each of the ensembles — HaZamir, the international organization for teenage singers, Zamir Noded, for young to young-ish adults, and the Zamir Chorale, for adults, are New York-based. Young singers’ musical talent is nurtured as they are helped to move up the ranks in Zamir, and then out into the wider musical world. “Alumni of our ensembles have viewed their experience as a stepping stone to amazing professional opportunities,” Mr. Roman said.
Mr. Roman began his work as a piano accompanist with the Zamir Choral Foundation, the umbrella organization for the range of Zamir ensembles in February 2022, following an audition with Matthew Lazar, its founder and director.
After a Zamir Noded rehearsal at The Interchurch Center in New York City, Mr. Roman played Kurt Weill’s “Kiddush” for Mr. Lazar. “Matthew gave me instructions on how to shape the phrases using articulation, dynamics, pacing, and pedaling,” he said. “Immediately following, I was invited to play with the Zamir Chorale.”
Next, “At Zamir Chorale’s February 2022 North American Jewish Choral Festival, I was asked by Matthew Lazar to be a conducting fellow.”
The Zamir Choral Foundation’s social media outlet steered Mr. Roman toward a conducting opportunity with HaZamir Bergen County. “I had the pleasure to work with, be mentored by, and grow as a co-conductor alongside the accomplished Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman, director of education and administrator for the Zamir Choral Foundation and conductor of HaZamir Long Island.” Mr. Roman said.
“Shortly thereafter, the news was made public that I would be conducting HaZamir Bergen County myself,” Mr. Roman continued. “Marsha showed me the ropes — she knew how to lead an organization that’s been around for 30 years. She knew it was important that I understand how things were run both musically and administratively.”
Mr. Roman’s new responsibilities include choosing soloists and booking rehearsal and performance spaces. “Some musicians prefer instrumental playing or singing, but I’m eager to take my group from Point A to Point B,” he said.
HaZamir’s international director, Vivian Lazar, Matthew Lazar’s wife,believes that everyone should laugh several times during rehearsal. “Elliot is a fine young man with strong Jewish values, exceptional musical talent and intuition, a great sense of humor, and a compelling personality,” she said. “We know what he’s capable of doing since he was mentored last year. He has an ineffable ability to inspire students.”
In addition to his role as a conductor of the Bergen County Chapter of HaZamir, Mr. Roman will continue to play piano for the Zamir Chorale and Zamir Noded. He’s now looking for new members for HaZamir. “We’ve reached out to Bergen County synagogues, religious leaders, posted flyers in local stores, and advertised on social media outlets to spread the word about auditions for the fall season,” he said. “For eligible teens entering grades eight to 12, it’s a commitment that can be balanced with other high school extracurricular activities.”
Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan of Teaneck, conductor emerita of HaZamir Bergen County and former music director of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, also is the mother of Adva Hanan, who joined HaZamir when she was in eighth grade. Cantor Hanan reminds young singers who are interested in joining HaZamir that the local chapter is part of a network that includes all the United States and Israel. “It’s much bigger than being part of something local,” she said. “Like-minded teens take part in musical and cultural sharing. Instead of singing with five or 10 or 20 teens, by the end of the season, they are singing the same songs alongside hundreds of kids.”
She said that HaZamir is some students’ only Jewish activity. Others are steeped in Jewish life, but it still gives them the opportunity to expand what they already know.
She worked with HaZamir for many years, but the joy never wore off for her. “As a musician, when I heard the voices come together for the first time, I was blown away,” she said.
For more information about HaZamir, including how to join, go to www.HaZamir.org or email HaZamirBergen@gmail.com.