Local teens experience Jewish choral music
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Local teens experience Jewish choral music

But HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir is about more than just singing

HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir performs at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. (Photo by Lev Avery Peck)
HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir performs at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. (Photo by Lev Avery Peck)

To paraphrase LL Cool J: Don’t call it a comeback. HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir has been here for years.

Founded in 1993 by Matthew Lazar as the teen arm of the Zamir Choral Foundation, the international teen choir features Jewishly identified and musically talented teens from a broad range of cultural backgrounds and levels of religious observances across 35 chapters — 26 in the United States and nine in Israel.

The teens gather to study Jewish text and history, grow as leaders, cultivate connections to Israel and create friendships in weekly rehearsals, regional gatherings and the HaZamir Festival.

“My husband founded HaZamir with one purpose in mind: For Jewish teenagers to sing Jewish music in the best way possible,” National Director Vivian Lazar explained.

Before the founding of HaZamir, Lazar said, most Jewish teens interested in choral music spent time in high school choirs singing Christian music — things like masses and requiems, something that, she acknowledged, has value.

“But they weren’t singing Jewish music,” she said. “So, [Matthew Lazar] created HaZamir for the purpose of singing great Jewish music — and there is great Jewish music — at the highest musical standard,” she said.

Lazar took over from her husband as director in 2005. Before her time with HaZamir, she served as the chairman of the English department at a New York City magnet school for the gifted and talented, experience she applied to the choir.

“We still perform at the highest musical standards, but we also have created a Jewish community of young people who relate to each other in a very respectful way,” Lazar said. “We are very inclusive; there is no bullying and HaZamir is a very supportive community.”

As an example of the amalgamation of music, community and learning, Lazar pointed to 2019, when the national choir, which has a branch in Pittsburgh, came here for the first commemoration of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

More than 100 teens came to Pittsburgh, she said, in support of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, and, as a result, learned about antisemitism.

And while some may measure HaZamir’s success by the music it’s produced in venues like New York’s Carnegie Hall or Metropolitan Opera House, others might be more inspired by the deep relationships the program can create.

Seventeen conductors or coordinators in HaZamir chapters around the world are graduates of the program and an alumni choir, which will perform on April 7 at New York’s Carnegie Hall, features between 75-100 alumni, including some in their 40s, as well as former Pittsburgh teens.

“Some are married to each other,” Lazar said. “They met in high school and married. We even have second-generation HaZamir. It’s a youth community that is very passionate.”

Cantor Stefanie Greene Kaufman has led the Pittsburgh chapter of the HaZamir choir since last year.

She said that each chapter rehearses the same repertoire every year so that when they meet in New York in April, they can all sing together.

“It’s very high-level Jewish choral music,” Greene Kaufman said.

Israeli and Zionistic themes are core principles to the music selected, she said, which is even more important after Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Oct. 7. The choir is even performing the prayer for the state of Israel.

Greene Kaufman said the choir is an important social outlet for the teens, but it is musical as well.

“It’s really a marriage of those things,” she said.

The Pittsburgh chapter, like those around the country, has rebuilt its membership since COVID forced the program online.
Lazar said the pandemic initially caused the choirs’ numbers to shrink because finding new singers in an online world was tough. Now those numbers are rebounding.

The excitement, she said, builds each year for the choir during its January winter retreat when 120-150 teens come together and feel the larger HaZamir experience. And then, in the spring, Lazar said, “Chapters from across America and Israel come to a three-day festival where we room together, rehearse together, have social activities together, spend a Sabbath together. It’s akin to summer camp in three days and, at the end of the festival, nobody wants to leave.”

That experience is vital, she said, and something COVID didn’t allow.

Greene Kaufman said that the Pittsburgh chapter has been hard at work preparing for the spring concert. They’ve done a few select performances in the city, like the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Chanukah candle lighting ceremony in recognition of Oct. 7.

Three Pittsburgh teens, Hannah Adelson, Miranda Larson and Sonia Schachter, will attend the mid-winter conference, Intervis, which draws primarily from the East Coast chapters.

Lazar said that like team sports, there are important lessons to be learned in HaZamir that apply to all of life.

“Just like every community needs plumbers and firemen and electricians and bakers, every choir needs every voice,” she said. “No one voice is responsible for an ensemble. It teaches responsibility. If you don’t show up, you let everyone down. You may be the only tenor in a chapter and if you don’t show up for rehearsal, the ensemble doesn’t have a tenor. It teaches discipline. We take that very seriously. We teach that and we hold our kids to that. Parents, and the teens, appreciate that.”

While it’s too late to join HaZamir this year, Greene Kaufman said the choir will accept new members in August. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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