The Maccabeats Sing On Through Life’s Many Changes

The Maccabeats Sing On Through Life’s Many Changes

And the beat — as in the Maccabeats — goes on.

Created nearly a decade ago in 2007 as a Yeshiva University student vocal group, the Maccabeats have emerged as a Jewish a cappella phenomenon, complete with a global fan base, more than 20 million views on YouTube, and four critically acclaimed albums.

And guess what? They’re still going strong.

While the members say they never dreamed that the group would keep going through the adult milestones of their lives — getting married, becoming parents, launching their careers — when they first hit it big as YU students, their reality is they are still very much at it, and very much in demand.

The Maccabeats are criss-crossing the country — the world, actually — and will be logging their sixth continent in South America with an upcoming gig in Santiago, Chile. And when they perform, they are still bringing an authentic, wholesome sensibility and positive messages to audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish.

“In the early days we would ask ourselves, ‘How long would we be doing this?’” said Julian “Chaim” Horowitz, the group’s musical director and a founding member of the Maccabeats.

“But now we’re just as busy and just as booked up, and we’re still producing content,” said Mr. Horowitz, who lives in Hudson Heights with his wife, Elisheva Koplen, the group’s booking manager, and their 14-month-old daughter, Lily.

“We do what we love and we love what we do. Thank God, our families are extremely supportive,” said Mr. Horowitz.

Just in time for Chanukah, the Maccabeats will be headlining a performance on Wednesday, December 14, at bergenPAC in Englewood that no doubt will include their breakout hit, “Candlelight,” which catapulted the kippah-clad, clean-cut, tie-wearing young men to fame when it hit the internet during Chanukah 2010. The “Candlelight” video is a delightful portrayal of Chanukah based on the Mike Tompkins video and Taio Cruz’s song “Dynamite.” At once a blend of Jewish pride, cheeky humor, and parody of the best sort, it still gets comments today, millions of hits later.

The instant fame of “Candlelight” landed them on the morning news shows, including “Today” and “The Early Show.” Major newspapers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post ran stories about the obscure a capella group. And the internet social network was overrun with traffic — appreciative and warm remarks about how this group reinvigorated Chanukah and Jewish observance.

That fame also happened to land the Maccabeats an invitation to the White House just a few months later for a gala marking Jewish Heritage Month. They sang a barbershop melody for President Barack Obama. They must have made a good impression, because they were invited back again to the White House Chanukah 2015.

When they’re not serenading presidents and other VIPS, including their fans, the Maccabeats are in the throes of beginning their careers in architecture, medicine, law, finance, the rabbinate, just to name a few. Add to that spouses and children — 10 of the original 12 members are now married, and seven have children — and it’s been a very productive couple of years for these young men. A new family tradition that they started was the Maccababy onesie, which each new baby born into the Maccabeats family gets as a gift.

The Maccabeats are now, in alphabetical order, Chanina Abramowitz, Michael Greenberg, Chaim Horowitz, Noey Jacobson, Joshua Jay, Nachum Joel, Ari Lewis, Mordechai Prus, Jeffrey Ritholtz, Buri Rosenberg, Meir Shapiro, and Yonatan Shefa, with two new members, George Rubin, who joined in 2012, and Joey Senders, a 19-year-old first-year YU student who joined at the start of this academic year.

Mr. Senders remembers growing up in Cleveland and being enthralled with the group.

“I grew up loving the Maccabeats,” said Mr. Senders, who is studying finance and pre-med at YU. “Every Jewish kid was looking at them and thinking that this was so cool; that they were so cool. I want to do that.”

So to actually become a part of the group that he idolized was both thrilling and a bit intimidating.

Mr. Senders recalled working on a particular arrangement recently for his part in “Candlelight.” It was something that he needed to rehearse but also something that Mr. Senders reassured Mr. Horowitz jokingly, “Don’t worry. I’ve known this part since middle school.”

Nachum Joel, who lives in Riverdale with his wife, Atara, and 2-year-old son, Aiden, said that five years ago he could “not imagine being 30 and still doing this.” (For the record, he is 29.) “I wake up and I realize how much of a miracle it is that we do what we do. Sure, there are many more challenges because of our families and our jobs, and not everybody is living in Washington Heights any more. But we love what we do and no one takes it for granted. Every time I get up on stage, it’s brand new.”

Mr. Joel, who is the son of YU President Richard Joel, regards these experiences as incredible, and points out  the poignancy of being invited to play —  and to pray — at the White House.

“My great grandfather was a locksmith in Vilna,” he said. “Who could imagine this? It’s unfathomable.”

aoc02-l-maccabeatsstandingFor the group, logistics have become a challenge. The members try to get together once a week for practice and spend much time communicating online. Traveling takes them away from family, except when they can sometimes bring them along.

All those years and gigs have fostered a special kinship with each other. Once a year the group meets in Teaneck for a “Maccaton.” That is a Shabbaton where all the families of The Maccabeats gather.

Earlier this year, the group joined with the African American a capella group Naturally 7 in a soulful cover of James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light” in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The video was created by Uri Westrich.

Noey Jacobson now lives in Los Angeles, where he is teaching Tanach at a modern Orthodox high school. He is  pursuing an individual music career and still working as a Maccabeat. He recently got married and feels the pull of his new family responsibilities and geography when it comes to performing with the group. But still, he flies in for filming and makes sure to rehearse before a gig because he is not around for the weekly musical meetings in the New York area.

“The story of the Maccabeats is the story of social media and the power of social media,” Mr. Jacobson said. What’s also very unique about the group is its broad appeal. “We appeal to large sections of Jewish audience whether it is Orthodox, Reform, Chabad.”

While the Maccabeats “bread and butter is the holiday genre,” Mr. Jacobson said, he would “love to get more original music.

“I absolutely still love it, and being a part of the group, so I go the extra mile.”

Meir Shapiro, who is an architect and lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his wife, Jordana, said that the Maccabeats have evolved into “weekend warriors.”

“It’s such a blessing to be a part of this, and that it keeps going. We wouldn’t have it any only way because we love what we do,” Mr. Shapiro saidm who grew up in Passaic .

“We’re not naïve college students anymore. We’re fathers, husbands, businesspeople, and we bring more maturity. We don’t let the trends control us. We do what we are supposed to do, and it has reinforced those ideals all along.

“We’re making people proud and happy about religion and this experience has matured us,” he added.

Emmy-award winning actress Mayim Bialik, who once called herself “their number one fan,” said, “They were trend setters, really. Their talent and uniqueness stands apart from so many of the groups that try to imitate their style. I am thrilled for their success both professionally and personally.

“It’s inspiring for young Jews, and exciting for mature Jews. And to see a wholesome and positive set of guys who are so talented and sincere is heartwarming for all fans, I think.”

Ms. Bialik added that she and her young sons are big fans.

“We still love ‘Voices From The Heights’ and ‘Out of The Box’ very much, but we also loved their version of ‘Brave.’ Just this past Sukkos, we were all singing the take-off they did on Gangnam Style, ‘Sukkos Style’ as we set up our sukkah.”

For his part, Paramus native Josh Jay, who is in medical school and will be moving to Brooklyn with his wife, Sara, said that beyond lasting beyond everyone’s expectations, the members of the Macabbeats may well get more from their audiences than they give.

“We’ve outlasted our own predictions and we’re flattered and humbled that we have managed to continue. All the great experiences have been wonderful. The traveling, the singing at the White House, meeting so many people,” said Mr. Jay.

“But it’s the kind of feedback that we get when someone sends an email telling us that they never thought much about being Jewish, but felt proud seeing our video, and it motivates them to be a little prouder of their own Judaism. Or when they tell us that our music made their day. It’s that uplifting feedback, it’s the fact that we believe that we are having a positive impact, that is really what keeps us going.”

Heidi Mae Bratt is the editor of About Our Children.

read more: