Andrew Brown’s love for Jewish music was first kindled several years ago when he was a religious school student at Temple Sinai, where Rabbi James Gibson, musical director Sara Stock Mayo, and teacher Carol Congedo made music a central part of Jewish life.
So, it is only fitting that now, as a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, Brown should come back to Pittsburgh to share the Jewish music of his school’s Jewish a cappella group, the Shabbatones, with his home congregation.
The group will have three shows at Temple Sinai this weekend — two of which will be open to the public — and will also sing for the residents of Weinberg Terrace.
Brown, a Pittsburgh Allderdice graduate, has been a member of the Shabbatones since his first semester at Penn. Now he’s the group’s business manager.
“It’s really added a lot to my college experience,” Brown said of the Shabbatones. “Having this familial group around, and having this outlet for Jewish engagement on campus is really terrific.”
Formed in 2001, the Shabbatones is run entirely by its student members, who do everything from booking gigs to arranging the music. The group currently has 15 members, both men and women, each of whom auditioned before being selected.
Members come from diverse backgrounds ranging from Orthodox to non-Jews, according to senior Marlee Stesin, president of the group.
“Getting to know Jewish kids from a wide range of backgrounds was really important to me,” Stesin said of her decision to join the group her freshman year. “And the Shabbatones has been a great opportunity for me to continue singing, which I’m really passionate about, and to continue to do that with other Jewish kids has been really meaningful.”
The Shabbatones sing a variety of genres, from liturgical songs in Hebrew, to the songs of American composer Debbie Friedman, to modern Israeli pop music. About 60 percent of the group’s songs are in Hebrew, and about 40 percent are in English, Brown said.
While the Shabbatones perform one big concert on campus each semester, the group also takes weekend trips to sing at synagogues in other cities, such as New York and Washington, D.C. It also travels during winter break to perform — usually someplace warm, Brown said.
This will be the group’s first visit to Pittsburgh.
University a cappella groups have become a bit of a phenomenon. The University of Pennsylvania has a dozen in its umbrella a cappella council, many of which have some sort of ethnic or religious spin, including Full Measure, a Christian a cappella group, and Penn Masala, which performs South Asian-Western fusion.
Jewish a cappella groups are now common at most universities with large Jewish populations. The University of Maryland has three separate Jewish a cappella groups.
Pittsburgh also has one — the VoKols —which is affiliated with Hillel Jewish University Center, and auditions students from Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne, according to its president, Jenna Moen. The VoKols sing Jewish and American pop music, and about half its members are not Jewish. The group performs on campus as well as in area synagogues.
While in town, the Shabbatones — all 15 of them — will be staying at the home of Brown’s parents, Betsy Levine-Brown and Marc Brown, which is within walking distance of Temple Sinai. Since the Shabbatones has several Orthodox members, the entire group walks together to synagogue for its performances on Shabbat. They will use no microphones at Temple Sinai during their show.
“It’s a nice thing that we’re very accommodating to those Orthodox members,” Brown said.
The Shabbatones has received its share of accolades, including taking third place in Kol Ha’Olam, the first ever Jewish a cappella competition, in 2011, where it was voted “Audience Favorite.” And the group just came out with its sixth CD, “Honey and Hot Sauce.”
Although Brown will be graduating at the end of this school year, his sister, Rebecca — a freshman member of the group — will keep a bit of Pittsburgh in the Shabbatones.
“I’m really excited to come to Pittsburgh and to sing at my temple,” she said. “It will be a blending of the two worlds.”
Want to go?
Where: Temple Sinai
When: Friday, Nov. 15: The Shabbatones will participate in Shabbat evening services at 7 p.m. Services are open to the public.
Saturday, Nov. 16: The Shabbatones will perform in the Barnett Chapel at 8 p.m. A meet and greet reception with the performers will follow the concert. There is a suggested donation of $10 per person for the Saturday evening concert, and reservations can be made by contacting email@example.com by Monday, Nov. 11.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)