Choral Music as a Driver of Teen Engagement

The 2015 HaZamir Tutti Ensemble singing Tzaddik Katamar (from Psalm 92; Mizmor Shir L'yom HaShabbat), composed by Louis Lewandowski, at the HaZamir Gala Concert in 2015, conducted by Guest Conductor Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer and Matthew Lazar, Founder & Director of the Zamir Choral: courtesy.
The 2015 HaZamir Tutti Ensemble singing Tzaddik Katamar (from Psalm 92; Mizmor Shir L’yom HaShabbat), composed by Louis Lewandowski, at the HaZamir Gala Concert in 2015, conducted by Guest Conductor Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer and Matthew Lazar, Founder & Director of the Zamir Choral Foundation.

By Vivian Lazar

Michelle Shapiro Abraham and Miriam Chilton’s article of October 18 titled “9 Principles to Help You Engage Jewish Youth” captures many of the key elements of effective youth engagement. Meanwhile, an October 20, 2016 a New York Times Magazine article by Sarah Maguso titled “Letter of Recommendation: Choir,” eloquently portrays the power of choral singing. As an organization focusing on choral music as an avenue to stronger Jewish identity and connections between American and Israeli teens, we at HaZamir, the International Jewish High School Choir, want to share our unique perspective.

Imagine a youth movement that focuses on what Maguso calls “Flow,” borrowing the term coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Maguso writes,

“… In a choir, I can make sound, focus the mind, enjoy myself and forget myself, all at once … It is a kind of listening without hearing. Perhaps this combination of experiences is as common as what psychologists call flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity…”

Our teens are practicing the skills needed to cultivate flow on a weekly basis, and we believe there is no better way to achieve Jewish engagement than this.

HaZamir offers a safe environment in which teens push themselves to achieve excellence – all in a pluralistic setting. Teens from across the denominational and socio-economic spectrums come together, learn choral repertoire, work incredibly hard over 10 months, and perform at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center for a sold-out house. Along the way, HaZamir conductors, who are both musically and educationally excellent, teach our teen singers the texts and contexts of our people through each musical piece. Our singers learn to recognize and appreciate a unique Jewish sensibility through composers’ musical choices – and learn to experience music as midrash.

Because HaZamir performances are real and high-stakes, for actual audiences, teens buy into a culture of excellence. As Dr. Ron Berger, author of “An Ethic of Excellence,” writes, “Anytime you make the work public, set the bar high, and are transparent about the steps to make a high-quality product, kids will deliver.” HaZamir teens are fiercely committed, dedicating time and a lot of sweat to make their musical performances top-notch. This feeds their connection to Judaism and Jewish community, as they have fought through challenges and obstacles together to achieve something remarkable.

By offering substantive Jewish content – classical, historical, liturgical, rabbinic, and other texts – through the prism of a piece of music, we circumvent the resistance to Jewish learning that unfortunately affects many teens today. HaZamir has seen solitary teens emerge as leaders, finding their voices literally and figuratively; teens bullied in school for being Jewish, find a sense of community; from rehearsals so inspired by the music and Jewish text they learned, that some composed their own award-winning music; other teens begin taking on specific Jewish practices in spite of staunchly secular Israeli backgrounds.

These are only a few examples of how music can serve as an engagement prompt, raising deep curiosity and connection to Jewish texts, values, and history.

The fact that our teens come from many backgrounds, to build and experience a united musical community, offers them a rare opportunity to encounter what Rabbi Dan Smokler calls “Jewish otherness.” This is invaluable to Jewish teens today, who often don’t spend enough time with Jews of other stripes.

With HaZamir chapters across North America and in Israel, our annual festival weekend and gala performance structures experiences that form close international connections. Our American teens learn what it is like to finish high school and prepare to enter the IDF. And our Israeli teens encounter living examples of American-style pluralism, and rich Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox Jewish life and practices.

As a result, American Jewish teens enter college with strong personal relationships to Israeli peers in the army, helping to create organic ambassadors on college campuses, at a moment when we desperately need them.

HaZamir provides leadership opportunities to teens as well. Through our Teen Leader Committee, our participants offer input to professional staff and help shape the local and regional retreats and other experiences. HaZamir participants have gone on to become HaZamir conductors and professional cantors.

Shapiro Abraham and Chilton’s third principle, “Make it Age Appropriate,” translates in a nuanced way into our HaZamir work. While differentiation is critical in terms of social interaction, we find that musically, teens from grades 9 through 12 can carry a vocal section and performance, and that age distinctions melt away once the singing starts.

As a specialty incubator, HaZamir offers a model to the Jewish community of an immersive, multi-year, international experience focused on an artistic modality. We at HaZamir believe that the consistent experience of flow, the shared pursuit of quality and excellence, and setting high expectations of our teens, all lead to outstanding results – musically, Jewishly, and in the empowerment of new leaders.

We know the power of Jewish words, ideas, and values from our rich tradition. When set to music, Jewish ideas and values come alive.

Vivian Lazar is the Director of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir.