Amanda Russell had hoped the day she began her college experience she would also be able to combine two of her greatest interests — Judaism and music.
“I was just looking to join an a cappella group on campus and I was also looking for a way to get involved with Hillel, so it sort of combined,” the 19-year-old junior at the University of Pittsburgh said.
She was talking about the Vokols, an a cappella group made up entirely of Pitt students. Most of the group’s songs are not just American pop hits but also Israeli and Jewish popular music.
Russell and 15 other members, both male and female, comprise the Vokols, which was formed in 2006.
Deb Jacoby, a former Hillel Jewish University Center employee, was the force behind the group, said Rebecca Lustig, its former music director. “We didn’t really know each other and she brought up the idea of wanting to start an a cappella group,” she said. Jacoby organized Jewish freshman at Pitt, and helped them find ways to contribute to their Jewish lives.
“We held auditions, and we grew from four to 12 within two weeks,” said Carly Adelmann, a former Vokols president. “Then we kind of just went with a lot of help from her (Jacoby).”
Although there are Vokols members that are not Jewish, most of the members are familiar with Hebrew. However, the words for songs in Hebrew are transliterated.
“It’s all written in English letters because it wouldn’t be practical [to write the words in Hebrew],” said Russell, the group’s current musical director. “Hebrew reads right to left and English music reads left to right.”
In the Jewish world, word of mouth about the Vokols has reached way overseas.
“I had actually heard about the Vokols before I came to Pitt,” said Reva Gorelick, the group’s business manager. “I was studying the year in Israel, and I had a close friend who knew one of the founding members.”
Founding members of the Vokols said they never knew how popular the group would become.
“When we started it, we had no idea what to expect,” Lustig said. “In the beginning we had to beg people to come in the first few nights.”
“Today, though, it’s different. A lot of the community has been asking for us and lots of students know about us,” Lustig added.
The Vokols frenzy can be felt across the Pittsburgh Jewish community as well, Russell said. “Synagogues have been calling us like crazy.”
The Vokols respect the Sabbath and do not perform until after sunset on Saturday night.
Adelmann’s most memorable Vokols experience was the group’s very first show.
“I have so many, but I think the first time it really hit me, we performed at 2007 during Campus Superstar. The first official performance ever was at Carnegie Music Hall [in Pittsburgh] in front of an audience of more than 1,000 people,” she said. “It was so exciting you just wanted to throw up.”
As an original member of the group, Adelmann summed up her a cappella experience.
“I don’t think in a million years we expected Vokols to become what it has become and it’s so exciting,” she said.
(Alon Melamed can be reached at email@example.com.)