‘We are more than a choir. We are an incubator’
HaZamir chapters rehearsing for 30th anniversary gala performance at Lincoln Center
The alto voices of Abby and Sarah Barbag, 15-year-old twins from Livingston, comprise half of the MetroWest Chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir.
But they are hardly alone. Abby and Sarah’s four-person chapter will be joining 300 Jewish teens from 26 American and 10 Israeli HaZamir chapters for three days of activities and rehearsals that will culminate in the 30th anniversary gala concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center on March 19.
“I love all the different voice parts coming together, and people from all over the country and Israel coming together in song and friendship,” Abby said. “It is truly amazing.”
Sarah calls the yearly HaZamir gathering “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” where all the rehearsing that goes on separately melds into a polished performance by the far-flung chapters.
“I enjoy meeting new people and forming new friendships,” Abby said. “Everyone is so genuine and welcoming.”
Matthew Lazar, founder and director of Zamir Choral Foundation, created HaZamir in 1993 as a venue where talented singers in ninth through 12th grades can explore their Jewish identities and love of music with peers from a range of cultural and economic backgrounds and levels of religious observance.
HaZamir, which has been under the direction of Mr. Lazar’s wife, Vivian, for the last 16 years, presents Jewish choral music on some of the world’s greatest stages.
“We are more than a choir; we are an incubator for developing future leaders who find their voices and purpose,” Mr. Lazar said.
“Many HaZamir graduates have gone on to musical careers and have assumed leadership roles in their communities,” he continued. “Thirteen HaZamir alumni are now conductors or coordinators of their own HaZamir chapters. Together, the singers of HaZamir create unity and long-lasting connections to one another and Judaism through excellence in music.”
The 30th anniversary gala also celebrates the upcoming 75th anniversary of the State of Israel. A variety of musical styles will be featured, including popular music, classic Israeli and Jewish American selections in English and Hebrew, and a gospel-style song. Two new classical music commissions, written specifically for HaZamir, will be premiered. In addition, a choir of about 80 alumni and an honors chamber ensemble will perform.
HaZamir alumnus Jonah Pitkowski of Teaneck, 22, said his five years in HaZamir’s Bergen County chapter were an opportunity to connect with peers through a shared common goal.
“There are lots of Jewish youth groups, and no shortage of ways for Jewish teens to connect,” he said. “But this is special because you have a shared sense of purpose that allows you to connect more deeply with people you might not have had a chance to meet otherwise – Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Israeli teens all coming together.”
The five gala concerts in which he participated remain cherished memories, he said. “We’d rehearse the whole year with our chapter, and then suddenly we’re singing with close to 400 people from across the U.S. and Israel. Your roommate might be from Israel or California. There is something amazing about singing on the stage in Lincoln Center; it’s not lost on me how rare that experience is.”
Mr. Pitkowski, now a senior in the joint program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, added that he “learned a ton through the music. Today, when I open a Bible or prayerbook, certain passages will trigger a memory from HaZamir. Everything we sang connected to a piece of Jewish heritage, history or Israel and that was really meaningful for me in my formative years.”
Vivian Lazar has professionalized and expanded HaZamir — which translates to the Songbird — from eight chapters to nearly 40 in the United States over the past 16 years. She said that one of the first changes she made was having every chapter learn the same repertoire of music each year. That gives them a greater sense of cohesion.
“HaZamir is not just a choir,” she said. “It’s a community and a youth movement, and it’s thoroughly inclusive with a culture of respect and tolerance. We are proud to have Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated members, including kids who are gender fluid.”
The only difference that distinguishes members is whether their voices are soprano, alto, tenor, or bass.
“Each chapter might not have all four voice parts, but when we get together as an international choir, we have them all,” Ms. Lazar said.
Participants feel a strong sense of achievement, she continued. “This is something you don’t get in a youth movement where you just hang out. We do have a lot of social activities in HaZamir but also an end goal that everyone is working toward. And everyone shares the common language of music.”
The MetroWest chapter, under the direction of alumnus Joshua Gonzales, is not the smallest. That distinction belongs to a brand-new chapter in Atlanta, comprised of a single singer, who started out in the Silicon Valley chapter.
“When his family moved to Atlanta, he said, ‘I’m not moving unless you build me a chapter.’ And that’s not the first time this has happened,” Ms. Lazar said.
HaZamir Bergen County, conducted by Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman and Elliot Roman, has a membership of about 10. The county also has a preparatory choir for younger singers. “It’s the first and only Jewish choral prep program in the world,” according to Ms. Lazar.
The 16 songs on the gala concert playlist include one composition written for the ultimately pandemic-canceled 2020 gala. For all the songs they learn, members are guided to understand the meaning of the words, if they are in Hebrew, as well as the history and deeper meaning behind the composition.
“Our educational curriculum, InChoir, delves into the text of all the songs we sing,” Ms. Lazar said.
For example, when the singers learned a composition by Cantor Gerald Cohen called “Pitchu Li” — it’s based on Psalm 118, verse 19: “Open for me the gates of righteousness” — they were asked to consider and discuss the difference between wonder and amazement.
“There are no right or wrong answers,” Ms. Lazar said. “The curriculum lets kids think and dig deep as they talk among each other in facilitated conversations.”
The gala concert will feature a new piece by Cantor Cohen, commissioned by a HaZamir parent in honor of first responders during covid. Another song, written by world music composer Nick Page, is titled “A Promise I Will Keep.”
“Nick is not Jewish, but he’s part of our community,” Ms. Lazar said. “When he ‘met’ Jewish music, he understood Jewish music has memory. And this piece is about doing good in the world.”
The compositions chosen for the choir generally are complex and require rigorous weekly rehearsals in each chapter; sometimes several chapters join for rehearsals. There’s also a larger overnight retreat in January, as well as the festival in March, which includes intensive rehearsals before the Sunday concert. The Saturday rehearsal during that weekend is a cappella in deference to Shabbat.
“I believe if you set the bar high, kids don’t just reach the bar; they exceed it,” Ms. Lazar said. “And HaZamir has proven that over and over again. If you close your eyes, you will not know you aren’t listening to professional artists.”
The only conditions for joining HaZamir, however, are that “you must identify Jewishly, and be able to carry a tune and hold your own part in a four-part arrangement.”
Ultimately, Ms. Lazar would like HaZamir participants “to walk away with an understanding that the Jewish people have to stay together and support each other just like members of a choir have to support each other. In a musical community, every voice counts, and no voice is more important than another.
“Similarly, the Jewish people are a team — whether Orthodox, Reform, or atheist doesn’t matter. Our mission is to strengthen Jewish identity, especially as these kids are going to college campuses where being Jewish is anything from not popular to dangerous. We strive to give them courage and pride in addition to beautiful voices.”
Tickets for the gala are available online at www.jazz.org, by calling CenterCharge at 212-721- 6500, or going to the box office at Jazz at Lincoln Center, at Broadway and 60th Street in Manhattan.
For more information, go to www.hazamir.org.