Chorus connects teens with Jewish musical heritage


NEW YORK, April 18 (JTA) – Most Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties have DJs or live bands.

But this past February, one 13-year-old girl from El Paso, Texas, wanted a more traditional type of entertainment. She insisted that the national Jewish teen chorus regale her and her guests.

So a contingent from Hazamir came and sang traditional Jewish melodies, including “Ki Mitziyon” and “Adon Olam.”

The experience was powerful, said Matthew Lazar, the founder and director of the Zamir Chorale Foundation, which is the parent organization of Hazamir and Zamir, the national adult Jewish chorus.

“It was very fulfilling to hear and see the tremendous effect that the experience had not only on the listeners and the family, but on the singers as well. At the same time, everybody understood what is our motivation: Bringing unity through the art of Jewish music,” he says.

The Texas performance was a rare Bat Mitzvah appearance for Hazamir, but the group appears regularly in senior citizens’ homes, during holidays and at special events.

“Cities love to see the unity and entertaining for the teens,” says Lazar.

Hazamir is the brainchild of Lazar, a piano prodigy who started lessons at age 4.

Lazar later received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music and served on the faculty of the Cantors’ Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Members of this chorale, which is sponsored by the Zamir Chorale Foundation, perform every type of Jewish music – including folk, liturgical and secular – in Hebrew, English, Ladino and Yiddish.

Marsha Bryan Edelman, the national director of Hazamir, said it was started by Lazar to “bring together adults to sing together outside the synagogue dimension.”

He first gathered teen-agers to sing in 1987; the group was officially given the title of Hazamir in 1993.

There are 12 Hazamir choirs in different cities made up of high school students from across the United States.

Lazar said the Jewish backgrounds of the singers vary greatly. “Some kids know” Talmud by heart, he said, “while others don’t know Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.

Lazar says Jewish teens’ unfamiliarity with their musical heritage led him to create the group – but a modern form of advertising gets him some of his singers.

“We reach the NPR type of kids who hear about Hazamir through the Net,” he says.

Members of Hazamir are also recruited through cantors, high-school choir music teachers and parents.

The groups generally meet once or twice a week and are led by a conductor – cantor or someone else in the community.

Leora Skolnick, a 16-year-old member of Hazamir in New York, says, “It’s a really fulfilling experience to be able to sing together with other people who love to sing and are talented,”

Skolnick hopes to continue singing in college.

The experience, says Lazar, teaches the chorus members more than just singing.

“The kids understand what community means from the start because their choir experience is the opportunity to witness how the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Yet the singers know that without them there is no process. The individual and community need each other. This is what our Creator wants from us anyway,” Lazar says.

The culminating event for Hazamir is its performance at the annual Mid-Winter Festival on Presidents’ Day weekend in February. It lasts five days and 200 teen-agers from all over North America gather to sing, attend workshops, do social activities and perform at a gala concert. All of Hazamir’s members attend, as well as individual singers and Jewish teenagers who love Jewish music.

Hazamir occasionally performs at concert halls.

Zamir, an adult chorus in New York, sang along with the National Jewish Chorale, Hazamir and other first-ranked choruses at Carnegie Hall in 1998 in front of 2,500 people, for example.

Hazamir also sponsors a summer tour of Israel, where teen-agers both sing and learn about the Jewish state.

Lazar says Hazamir “gives teens the message that they can love music and their Judaism together.”

Alumni from Hazamir become cantors, music teachers, conductors and even join Zamir. Some even establish a Jewish a cappella group of their own.

Hillel Skolnick, Leora’s 18-year-old brother, will graduate from Hazamir in a few months.

Skolnick says that performing for the Bat Mitzvah was the best trip. It gave the group a “chance to bond in addition to singing beautiful music.”

He says he developed a sense of history being in Hazamir because the group sings songs such of those of Solomoni Rossi, a Renaissance Italian composer of Jewish choral music.

Skolnick plans on joining an a cappella group in college.

At the El Paso Bat Mitzvah, Lazar and Hazamir spent the entire Shabbat with the Bat Mitzvah girl’s family at a hotel.

“It was very moving because people were around the table singing in harmony,” Lazar says.

Recommended from JTA