Survey indicates Jewish singing spurs Jewish engagement

A choir sings at the North American Jewish Choral Festival, which brings hundreds of Jewish singers together for five days each summer. (Larry Sandberg)

A choir sings at the North American Jewish Choral Festival, which brings hundreds of Jewish singers together for five days each summer. (Larry Sandberg)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – In 2006, Lara Torgovnik, 21, started college at New York University as a vocal performance major.

She had little Jewish background — at age 8, she chose music school over Hebrew school with permission from her “very secular” parents – but on a whim one day during her freshman year, something prompted her to Google the phrase “Jew choir.”

That’s the way Torgovnik discovered the Zamir Chorale, a prestigious, New York-based Jewish choir that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall. She auditioned, won acceptance, and on her first day of rehearsal, felt overwhelmed by what she said was a “mind-boggling realization that music can be a means of expressing spirituality, and spirituality can lend a deeper level to my music.”

Now, Torgovnik works in the Zamir office in New York and conducts HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, the organization’s youth choir in Westchester — one of two dozen chapters of HaZamir in North American cities.

After starting to sing in the Jewish choir, Torgovnik added Jewish studies to her program. Her experience – intensifying her Jewish engagement while getting involved in Jewish singing — is not unusual,  a new survey of Jewish choral singers suggests. The survey, conducted online in May and June on behalf of the Zamir Choral Foundation, shows that Jewish choral singers are more Jewishly involved than the average American Jew.

The foundation is the umbrella body for an extensive network of Jewish choral singers and music, including the Zamir Chorale.

Responses to the survey received from more than 2,000 Jewish singers, cantors and music lovers show that people who take part in Jewish choral singing are more likely to do more Jewish volunteering, give to Jewish causes, and belong to synagogues than the American Jewish community in general.

Researchers in charge of the survey stopped short of drawing a causal relationship between Jewish choral singing and Jewish involvement, but they said the study provides strong anecdotal evidence that many people who are not otherwise involved in Jewish life find their way in through their love of Jewish singing.

“There is a somewhat faulty assumption that people who sing in Jewish choirs are already engaged in Jewish life,” said Diane Tickton Schuster, a researcher at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Schuster conducted the study along with Ezra Kopelowitz, CEO of the Jerusalem-based Research Success Technologies.

“Sometimes, being involved in a Jewish choir is their entry point into Jewish life, and we didn’t know that before,” Schuster said.

The foundation’s survey was emailed this spring to nearly 15,000 Jewish choral singers, cantors and music lovers, and the results from 2,000 respondents were compared to figures from the United Jewish Communities’ National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

Seventy-three percent of the choral singers said they volunteer under Jewish auspices, vs. 25 percent of the general Jewish population; 73 percent said they give to Jewish causes, vs. 41 percent of the general group; and 88 percent belong to a synagogue, vs. 46 percent of most American Jews.

While 60 percent of the choral singers aged 45 to 54 sing in synagogue choirs, just 54 percent of singers older than 55 and 43 percent of those younger than 45 do so. Yet they still exhibit higher levels of synagogue membership than their counterparts in the general Jewish population.

One middle-aged Atlanta man said in his written response to the survey that singing in his local Jewish choir “lets me develop musically, spiritually and Jewishly all at one time.”

Allen Podell of Palo Alto, Calif., said that helping others get involved in the Jewish choir he helped to found more than seven years ago makes him feel more Jewish.
“I’m not much on pomp and circumstance, and I have problems reciting things like ‘God created the heavens and the earth,’ which I don’t believe,” said Podell, a retired electrical engineer. “But I certainly feel a connection to Judaism through Jewish music. There is a mystery to life, and Jewish music describes it.”

Increasing Jews’ sense of connection to each other and their heritage was his goal when he created the Zamir Choral Foundation 20 years ago, according to director  Matthew Lazar.

“The music is the hook, but it’s the identity piece we’re interested in — connecting the text of our people with the music of our people, and doing it in community,” said Lazar, who also conducts the Zamir Chorale and HaZamir.

Schuster said that the results from the new survey show that Jewish choral singers engage in Jewish learning opportunities more frequently than other American Jews, and that can be correlated with their higher levels of Jewish involvement. “We began to see the patterns,” she said. “More learning led to greater involvement.”

Lazar and others describe Jewish choirs as one of the few remaining venues where Jews of various religious and political persuasions create something Jewish together. Seventy-one percent of survey respondents said that singing in Jewish choirs makes them feel connected to klal Yisrael — the Jewish people.

“Choir is the embodiment of klal Yisrael,” Lazar said.  “It’s transdenominational and, even more important today, transpolitical — the only place where pro-Bush and pro-Obama Jews come together.”

While many attendees of the Zamir Choral Foundation’s North American Jewish Choral Festival, which brings hundreds of Jewish singers together for five days each summer, sing in Jewish choirs at home, others live in places where no such choirs exist. For them, the yearly gathering has particular significance.

Donald Gerber sings with a non-Jewish community choir in Omaha, Neb. An active member of his Orthodox congregation, Gerber says he has sung “all the great requiems,” but finds a deeper pleasure in singing Jewish liturgical pieces, which are “few and far between” in his choir’s repertoire.

The summer festival, which he has attended  for the past 12 years, has had a deep impact on his sense of Jewish community, Gerber added.

“There’s nothing like it when 500 voices are raised in song and harmony — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox people all together — and it’s all about making music as klal Yisrael, as one people,” he said. “There are no politics involved in singing.”

Recommended from JTA