On March 16, Cantor Joel Caplan and about 20 teens gathered at Daughters of Israel, as they have almost every Sunday afternoon since September, to rehearse the songs they’ll be singing at Carnegie Hall on March 30.
The teens, members of HaZamir North Jersey, are counting down the days until they and close to 300 peers from across the country and Israel will perform in the 21st annual gala concert of HaZamir: the International Jewish High School Choir.
Caplan — still dressed as a Renaissance Man from that day’s Purim celebration at his synagogue, Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell — headed straight for the piano when he arrived at the senior facility in West Orange. There was plenty of chatting and giggling among the girls, dressed in long-sleeved black shirts and skirts, while the boys, in white shirts, black bowties, and black pants, had plenty to say to each other, and the girls, as well.
It wasn’t long before Caplan had the group singing a version of “Ein Keloheinu” with a challenging four-part harmony, and he started taking sections apart. “Amelia, just your soprano, please,” he said.
“Annie — just you.”
“Dana, I don’t hear you.”
After 15 minutes or more of this single section of “Ein Keloheinu,” the full group sang and then moved on to “Haflei Vafehleh,” which focuses more on the basses.
At 13, Samantha London of North Caldwell is singing in the choir for the first time, following in the steps of her two older siblings. “We’re kind of a singing family,” she said. She enjoys the choir “because there’s a lot of socializing and we get to make new friends.” Asked about the concert at Carnegie Hall, she said, “I can’t wait! I’m doing a countdown on my white board at home.”
For Sam Gersho of Millburn, a senior at Millburn High School, the March 30 Carnegie Hall appearance will mark his fifth and last concert with HaZamir. “I like getting to perform Jewish music and being with friends,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of friends” through HaZamir.
Cantor Matthew Lazar started HaZamir in 1993 as an opportunity for Jewish teens to sing together in high-level ensembles. (It was preceded by the Zamir Chorale, the adult choir also founded by Lazar.) Today there are 24 chapters across North America and Israel that each performs locally as well as at the annual festival in New York.
Caplan said he was inspired to introduce HaZamir in this area after seeing Cantor Charles Osborne working with such a group in Newton, Mass. “It was a wonderful sound, a wonderful thing,” he said. “Being part of a network, being able to sing at Carnegie Hall, that’s an experience I could never offer on my own,” he said.
He also had his three children in mind, the youngest of whom is now finishing college. “Other dads could coach baseball; this was something I could do” with them, he said.
He loves working with the teens. “It’s such a joy…. It’s a self-selecting group, and it provides a tremendous opportunity to the kids in my own shul. These kids are in high school, and they are singing concerts at Lincoln Center” — where they performed last year — “and Carnegie Hall.”
Although there is no formal audition process, and participants need not read either Hebrew or music, Caplan does have one rule: Teens must be able to sing on pitch and hold onto their own parts. For the most part, he said, kids know if they can sing or not. “But very infrequently, I have to tell a kid they cannot be a part of the choir. That’s the hardest thing I have to do — ever.”