Sounds of joy

Sounds of joy

Children's choir ranked number one by congregation

Tzipporei Shalom sings in the 2014 junior choir festival at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge.

Perhaps if Tzipporei Shalom’s music were to be reviewed by a professional critic, the word “wow” might not find its way into the finished product. But to the congregants of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck – home to the children’s choir – the word seems just about right.

“It was the top-rated program in two synagogue surveys,” said Ronit Hanan, the shul’s musical director, who co-founded and co-directs the group with congregant Adina Avery-Grossman.

The a capella singing group has appeared with Safam, recorded a selection on a CD with the noted chazzan Netanel Hershtik, sung with Neil Sedaka, and joined with the synagogue’s adult choir, Tavim, on special occasions, most recently at CBS’s recent Shabbaton. They also participate in an annual community-wide junior choir festival together with choirs from local Reform congregations.

But most performances are for its own congregation, at the conclusion of Shabbat services.

Now composed of some 30 youngsters in first through sixth grades, the choir began with seven children. Four of them were the two directors’ own kids.

They practice every Saturday morning and, according to their parents, they’re determined to get to shul on time. “She wants to leave early for shul, which gets us to shul earlier,” noted Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, mother of first-grader Liora Palavin. And parent Aviv Efrat drives all the way from Montvale so that sixth-grade daughter Chantal can get to rehearsal.

“She’s been doing it for a couple of years and really enjoying it,” he said. “It’s the reason we are members. It’s pretty impressive the way our child is guiding us into shul.”

Both parents and choir members credit directors Hanan and Avery-Grossman with the group’s success. And not only do they make beautiful music, the singers – by their own report – are having fun.

The directors – both daughters of cantors – didn’t meet until they came to Teaneck, despite the fact that they grew up living some 10 minutes apart.

Ronit Hanan is a trained cantor but does not hold that position in the Teaneck congregation. “They created a position for me as music director,” she said. “There are so many phenomenally talented people here and they haven’t had a cantor and didn’t want someone to take over and lead services every week. I lead sometimes, but it’s still largely lay-led. Members really feel engaged and involved.”

As part of her job, Ms. Hanan helps interested members learn how to lead services and “hone their skills. I’m able to be an enabler,” she said. She also helps lead High Holiday services and conducts the Bergen County chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir.

Neither director remembers exactly how and when Tzipporei Shalom was created, but Ms. Hanan thinks it “was 1997 or 1998, when my daughter was in second grade. A congregant approached us, and said there was a little down time when the children were not in services. Maybe, she said, we could start a children’s choir.

“It took two minutes to say yes. We’re both daughters of cantors and we have a large and eclectic Jewish music repertoire and musical training.”

Ms. Hanan said that in many Conservative synagogues, “a children’s choir will do musical selections as part of the service. It’s the culture of our shul not to have that during services. They just come up and perform a few songs at the end of the service.”

The music they sing includes many Israeli and chasidic pieces, but they are “not necessarily liturgical,” she said. In addition, “we try to punctuate each year now with something really special.”

In 2013, the group made a recording of its greatest hits. Some 10 years ago, the synagogue had a musical celebration – including Tzipporei Shalom, and invited the late singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman to join them.

“Last year we were guest performers with Safam, and this year the older kids sang with Cantor Netanel Hershtik,” Ms. Hanan said. “He wanted a children’s choir to sing a Meir Finkelstein piece on his new album. They recorded at Avatar Studios in Manhattan.”

The young singers may participate in the choir starting in first grade, “and can stay as long as they want,” usually until sixth or seventh grade. There are no auditions.

“Anybody who likes to sing and can get to shul on time” is welcome,” Ms. Hanan said, adding that by seventh grade, the youngsters are busy with b’nai mitzvah, and by the time they’re in eighth grade they can audition for HaZamir. The Bergen County chapter of HaZamir, which has about 30 members this year, meets at CBS.

The singers’ different ages do not affect the music, Ms. Hanan said. “Everyone will join in on the chorus, but a small ensemble will do the wordier verses.” In addition, the older children may serve as section leaders and may even come up and conduct if the group is singing a three-part round.

Neither director anticipated the choir’s huge success.

“We had no idea,” Ms. Hanan said. “It was just an experience for kids on a Shabbat morning. But it worked so well that it became a holistic part of the synagogue.”

It became an important part of the children’s education as well, she added. “We teach them Hebrew, Jewish culture, and musical terminology. They know the meaning of an upbeat and a downbeat, a crescendo and a diminuendo, legato and staccato. They also learn about working together, teamwork, and blending as a group.”

Ms. Hanan and Ms. Avery-Grossman choose the music.

“We keep our eyes and ears open,” Ms. Hanan said. When they hear something that might work, she often transcribes and notates the piece before teaching it to the children.

Tzipporei Shalom is “precious” to Ms. Hanan. “I call it ‘Kvelling 101,'” she said. “I get a huge kick out of the kids, and I learn from them. The enjoyment goes both ways. I adore sharing the joy of Jewish music with the next generation. When the group exploded, it was just the icing on the cake.”

Ms. Avery-Grossman, a partner in the trademark licensing agency Brandgenuity, notes that while she and Ms. Hanan had never met before moving to Teaneck, “we grew up on parallel planes. The legend goes that my dad recommended her dad for a cantorial position.”

Echoing Ms. Hanan’s statement that the two had “no grand plan,” she explained the way the group grew. From a core group of about seven children, “we grew to 12 to 15, and by our fifth or sixth year had a critical mass of 20. Now it fluctuates between 25 and 40.”

Ms. Avery-Grossman said that there are many reasons for the group’s success.

“We don’t just teach Hebrew songs,” she said. “They sing in multiple languages, which is intriguing to them. They’ve sung in Yiddish, Zulu, Hebrew, Lugandan, and Ladino. They’re challenged in new ways. We treat them like musical professionals, make the music serious. They understand that they can’t start singing without a note and a count.” Members are also taught “how to stand, how to use their voices like color, how to present, and how to [achieve] dynamics. We’re trying to make music.”

She and Ms. Hanan work well together.

“There has never been a competition about how this is run. We bring different skills to the party. Ronit has the musical training and skills. I studied voice but I don’t play the piano or have a degree. I’m more irreverent, Ronit is more professional. We don’t compete for airtime.”

As cantors’ daughters, she said, “It’s hard to be a civilian. Having a role and something to do motivates me to come.” And when the children sing, “I get chills. I feel that God is in the room, a spiritual elevation – moments of joy.”

Ms. Avery-Grossman said that she and Ms. Hanan “acknowledge the role that our fathers played and pay it forward. We’re doing stuff we learned as kids.”

Among her own strengths, she said, is her understanding of “what the audience is looking for. The shul is looking for joyful and emotionally connected synagogue moments – sometimes from prayer and sometimes from other things. For some, it comes through music. They see a hopefulness in watching the kids sing this music and carry on tradition. They’re also taken by how disciplined and professional the kids are.”

As for the kids themselves, “they love it. No one quits or has a bad time. They’re made to feel great about themselves and learn something new. They’re like Navy Seals – they take it so seriously. That we can get 6-year-olds to enter and end in unison is the ninth miracle of Chanukah. Some things they shouldn’t be able to do, but they do it because we set a high standard.”

And the young singers respond, she said. “They grow in confidence, being up in front of people. And there are some with true talent.”

She said she hears from the children’s teachers how even the youngest choir members raise their hands in school and say they performed a particular song. Then they sing it.

“They take it with them,” she said, recalling that her own now 24-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter remember even the trickiest songs they performed with Tzipporei Shalom. “It becomes part of them. They’re so young, spongy, and impressionable. They never forget it.”

Singing is a “huge” part of the congregation, she said, citing Tavim, Kolenu – a musical minyan – Tzipporei Shalom, a Russian choir, and Ronit – “who constantly teaches new melodies to the congregation. We’re always looking for ways to improve the music so it can help people connect and grow and be inspired.”

“People thank me for working with Tzipporei Shalom,” she said. “They can’t believe I’m still doing this, since my own kids are 21 and 24. But what a gift it is to me. It gets me to shul, I feel useful, and I contribute to the community. It’s something I can do without spending a lot of time. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.”

She added that although she and her co-director wonder where new members will come from every year, “the next year the little ankle biters come out of nowhere.”

Seven-year-old Liora Palavin, a first-timer, said that when she saw the group perform at shul “and how they learned the music, it was really cool, and I wanted to be a part of something really cool.” She’s always on time for rehearsal, she said, because she tells her parents, “Let’s go, so I won’t be late.”

“Some songs are hard and some are easy,” Liora said. “The different languages are fun.” She would tell her friends to join “because they would have fun and would probably enjoy it and probably be proud of themselves when they do all the shows.”

Benjamin Mann, whose 6th-grade daughter, Ariella, is now in the choir, said that she is the third of his three children to perform with Tzipporei Shalom. His son, Matan, now 17 and singing with HaZamir, sang with the children’s choir from the time he was 5 through the end of sixth grade, as did his daughter Orly.

“When Matan was in fifth or sixth grade, we heard all three at one time. It was a special year for us,” Mr. Mann said. Not only was the choir fun for his children, “but they learned a ton of music.” His children bring the choir songs home, “and they’ve made it into our house as part of our repertoire.”

Crediting the two directors for the group’s success, “we feel privileged to have them teach our children,” he said.

For her part, Ariella said she “loves” the choir, participating in it along with some of her friends from SSDS of Bergen County. “I love to learn new songs that not everybody else knows,” she said. “Sometimes the different languages are hard to pronounce, but it’s fun to learn different languages.”

Learning music takes persistence, she added. “We keep singing until it gets stuck in our brains.” In addition, “We’ve got really good teachers. On weeks when we don’t have rehearsals, it’s not as much fun.”

read more: