Teen Idol
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Teen Idol

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the five finalists onstage at the Teaneck Teen Idol contest.

It’s about so much more than singing, says Jack Aaker, co-producer of the annual Teaneck Community Chorus’s Teaneck Teen Idol contest.

Mr. Aaker, secretary of the chorus board, said the singing group, which “tries to support inclusiveness and diversity … wants to make sure we support our youth.” Indeed, he said, “this is the only performance venue where kids from all the schools in Teaneck can get together and perform.

“We want to give them a performance opportunity, but our vision is to try to help kids meet from all the different schools,” he said.

Last year, the chorus, which was founded in 1999, received the Matthew Feldman Award for Community Relations for those efforts. The honor, presented by the Teaneck Community Council, “is the highest award for community relations,” Mr. Aaker said.

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Atar Schulhof, 14, of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva HIgh School for Girls, clutches the winning trophy.

The seventh annual Teen Idol contest – won this year by 14-year-old Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls student Atara Schulhof of New Milford – “brings the students together,” he said. “The kids were so supportive of each other.

“They all know how difficult it is to perform, and there was a sense of community and mutual support.”

Participating students must be between 13 and 18 years old, and either live in Teaneck or go to school there. While this year saw some 40 applicants, in earlier years the contest has drawn as many as 60 contenders.

According to Mr. Aaker, the 13 semifinalists who sang on January 18 represented the greatest range of schools in the contest’s history, including the Ma’ayanot, Yavneh Academy, the Community School, Teaneck Community Charter School, Teaneck High School, and Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

“This couldn’t happen without our vocal coaches Gail Smith and William Wade,” Mr. Aaker said, noting that both are accomplished musicians. “I’ve heard from parents that it’s rare to get this level of professional coaching.” He said that students come in with ideas for songs, and the coaches “help guide them to songs that work for their voices and ages.”

This year’s judges included Jackie Kates, a former Teaneck mayor who is now Holy Name Medical Center’s community relations and public affairs coordinator; singer/actor Kahlil Daniel, who won the first Teaneck Teen Idol contest in 2005, and the Teaneck International Film Festival’s executive director, Jeremy Lentz. They were asked to pick the top five finalists. Ultimately, however, the audience voted for the winning performer.

Ms. Kates said she’s been associated with the contest “since the beginning. It’s always great to spotlight Teaneck talent, particularly Teaneck youth. This event is very special because we don’t have many opportunities for young people who go to different schools to get together and work on something together.”

Ms. Kates, a member of the chorus’s advisory board, said she can see that “bonds are developing.” As each performer waits for his or her turn, it’s clear that “they’re all in this together. You don’t see nastiness or competitiveness. It’s great for the chorus to make this opportunity available for kids to come together. I feel privileged to be part of this.

“Generally speaking, this was the highest caliber of performers that I’ve seen in any year,” she continued. “There are always kids who knock your socks off, but this year there weren’t any clunkers. We had a really great selection. There were so many talented kids. It’s wasn’t easy to eliminate some.”

She noted that while the audience includes the performers’ friends and family members, she believes that the final result is determined by talent.

“Atara was great,” she said. “She brought a whole different approach to it.” Usually, she said, students perform popular songs or show tunes.

“She was different,” Ms. Kates said, noting that one of Atara’s choices was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

“It was spiritual, but not heavy. Her beautiful voice and open heart brought a completely different element – and she did it so well. I was delighted to be able to choose her.”

Atara – who also sang “Let Her Go” – said that while she was happy with her performance, she truly did not expect to win, particularly since so many members of the audience were there to support singers from other schools.

“I had mixed emotions,” she said. “I was shocked, proud, and very happy.”

The teen said she is particularly proud because she is the first Orthodox Jew to win the contest.

“I think the fact that an Orthodox young woman won was very good for the Jewish community,” she said. “I was really happy and proud to represent the Jewish people.”

Atara was awarded $250, a “huge” trophy, and a two-hour recording session at a New York studio. She was “a little nervous at first,” she said, “but it felt good to be there and sing.”

She has performed before, both with the Teaneck-based Black Box Studios and in school productions. Later this year, she and some musical friends will put together a concert to benefit Emunah.

“I’m so excited and honored to have been chosen as the Teaneck Teen Idol,” she said. “It was great to share the stage with other great talents in our community, [Jewish contestants] Leora and Yechiel Hyman and Talia Kupferman. I love singing, and to be acknowledged in this way is something I’ll never forget.”

Atara said that during the few weeks between tryouts and the actual performance, she got to know the other contestants quite well.

“It was a great experience to meet people from other schools,” she said, noting that she probably would not have gotten to know them otherwise. “The competition gave me a chance to meet them.”

That is exactly what Mr. Aaker and the Teaneck Community Chorus are aiming for. Stressing the importance of community, Mr. Aaker said that “what’s special about Teaneck is its great diversity. The competition almost creates its own community of performers.

“It helps bring kids together, and whenever you create a sense of community, that’s nice. I’m so happy we’re doing it.”

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