April 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

HaZamir’s Singing Teens Learn to Be Part of Klal Yisrael

Vivian Lazar knows that HaZamir, the International Jewish High School Choir, which she directs, is more than just a musical organization through which some 400 young Jewish students came together last month to present a gala concert celebrating four-part traditional and contemporary Jewish music.

HaZamir is, in fact, the only international organization of its kind, devoted exclusively to Jewish choral music. When the Jewish teens, some observant, many completely secular, in 25 American and six Israeli chapters, come together locally in their own areas and then as a complete, cohesive group, they stand as testament to the power of music to foster Jewish identity, which can forge community and life-long friendships.

“While we achieve musical excellence in HaZamir, the chorale experience is a portal into the other equally important parts of the HaZamir mission, which is to foster a love for all Jews and, of course, Israel; to give our teens a chance to build and demonstrate leadership skills and to ensure that they will continue to love and support serious Jewish music for the rest of their lives,” said Mrs. Lazar.

Being Different

The organization provides the opportunity for teens whose love of music ventures beyond the ubiquitous popular and rock. At HaZamir, they can be themselves with others who understand the love of serious classical and contemporary music. Much of the music the teens learn at HaZamir includes thoughtful and important new settings of prayers and Jewish liturgy as well as older, more familiar pieces.

“At HaZamir, it is okay to be different from many of our regular high school peers,” said a HaZamir mezzo-soprano who belongs to the group’s Central NJ chapter and is a senior at the Hillel Yeshiva High School in Deal.

For one thing, all HaZamir teens willingly commit themselves to weekly rehearsals in their own regions where they learn all the required music and harmonies by heart. All the students learn what the words mean and the history of the melodies.

Many Chapters

There currently are chapters in Maryland (Baltimore), Massachusetts (Boston), Connecticut (Hartford), Texas (Houston and North Texas), California (Los Angeles and Silicon Valley), Florida (Miami and Palm Beaches), Minnesota (Minneapolis/St Paul), Ohio (Cleveland and Columbus), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), Rhode Island (Providence) and Washington, DC. In New York, there are five chapters (Brooklyn, Long Island, Manhattan, Rockland and Westchester), and four in New Jersey (Bergen County, Central Jersey, North Jersey and South Jersey).

There are also six chapters in Israel, including Ashkelon, Beit She’an, Jerusalem, Karmiel/Misgav, Kfar Saba and Ofakim/Merchavim.

When Mrs. Lazar first became involved with HaZamir, there were only eight chapters, and some skeptics questioned whether the group could actually create the all-star choir that has been achieved. But Mrs. Lazar is not surprised by the group’s growth.

“From the start, I saw the potential,” she said, adding that she always had faith in the teens and local conductors who were attracted to the organization. “We have reached a level of musical achievement that no one would have predicted,” she said.

Annual Festival

Each year, a few weeks before Passover, the entire organization comes together for a four-day festival, which includes a Shabbaton and hours of combined rehearsals. For Mrs. Lazar, one of the most important elements is the way the group and the students themselves ensure that each teen’s religious observance is respected and accommodated.

“In the public spaces, Shabbat is fully observed, all food is glatt kosher, and traditional, Orthodox minyanim are conducted,” said Mrs. Lazar, explaining that even the secular teens would not have it any other way.

“When one of our male teens needed a minyan, all the boys willingly participated,” she said, explaining that, for many of the HaZamir singers, the choir is their only formal connection to Judaism and Jewish learning.

Since the choir’s founding in 1993, Mrs. Lazar said she has heard of many HaZamir youngsters who have become more Jewishly connected as a result of their experience. She has not heard of any Orthodox HaZamir members who became less observant.

Gala Concert

The festival culminates in a gala Sunday afternoon concert performance which, this year, was held before a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall. The concert’s meld of professional-level chorale music; palpable love of Judaism and strong sense of community, friendship, and spirituality was a powerful testament to the success of the HaZamir organization, and, in particular, the talents of Mrs. Lazar and her husband, Matthew Lazar, the group’s founder and leading force.

At this year’s concert, as in the past, many of the chapter directors assumed the podium to conduct the full choir in different songs, but there was no question that Mr. Lazar is the one in charge. He brings his remarkable reputation as a conductor and interpreter of Jewish music to the HaZamir teens, and they respond by delivering a commanding, robust performance.

Mrs. Lazar noted that, as the choir has grown in numbers, some observers have feared the group might sacrifice “nuance and interpretation.” Those concerns were put to rest at Carnegie Hall. The choir, including its superb soloists, showed a sensitivity to dynamics, enunciation and intonation that could serve as a model to professional adult groups.

Techezaknah

A high point of the concert was the presentation of the group’s Kinor David Award to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who was given his plaque from last year’s winner of the award, Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

Rabbi Lookstein, who retired this year as spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and became Principal Emeritus of the Ramaz School, both in New York, has supported Jewish choral arts since he attended Camp Massad and participated in the Massad Choral Group, the predecessor of HaZamir.

After expressing his admiration and appreciation of the group’s performance, he participated in a rendition of Techezaknah (“Be Strong”) whose words, by Chaim Nachman Bialik, have become Massad’s anthem.

The Future

For some of the HaZamir teens, participation in the choir leads to a future in the arts. It is hard to imagine that 18-year-old HaZamir singer Samuel Dylan Rosner, of the Westchester chapter, whose HaZamir-commissioned setting of Psalm 96 was premiered at the concert (with the composer at the piano), will not find a way to pursue composition when he matriculates at Harvard next year.

Others may not become professionals, but, Mrs. Lazar said, many HaZamir graduates go on to sing with other groups and all maintain a love for the kind of music and tradition they backed up with the chorus.

Love for Israel

They will also carry with them a passion for the State of Israel, a fervent devotion for the Jewish state they will need when they step foot on an increasing number of Israel-hostile college and university campuses.

At the concert, it was announced that many of the teens from the HaZamir chapters in Israel will soon be reporting for duty into the Israeli Defense Forces. In their honor and for their safety, the entire chorus sang David Burger’s iconic setting of “Tefillah,” the prayer for the State of Israel and the men and women in uniform who take on themselves the defense of the Jewish state.

For the HaZamir teens, many of whom had formed deep and lasting friendships with their Israeli counterparts, it was clear how personal that song was.

By Susan L. Rosenbluth, TheJewishVoiceAndOpinion.com

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