“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”:
Music as a Vehicle for Teen Engagement

By Vivian Lazar

When I was growing up, I lived in a homogenous Jewish neighborhood where Jewish education and high achievement were universally valued. It wasn’t until I left Jewish day school and went to college that I discovered the benefits and the disadvantages of living in such a sheltered environment. Today, when homogeneity is thankfully less prevalent and diversity more celebrated, we have to work harder to engage young people and invite them to connect to substantive content. I strongly believe in instilling the value of excellence in young people, in expecting great things of them (they consistently live up to those expectations) and providing them with a love of learning. This belief drives everything I do as director of HaZamir: the International Jewish Teen Choir.

HaZamir is much more than a choir. It is a chapter-based teen movement in 39 cities across the U.S. and Israel, which combines music, text study, leadership training, and American-Israeli dialogue. Teens join HaZamir from across the Jewish spectrum – from all denominations, cultures and engagement levels, many political positions, and a variety of personalities and gender identities. They meet weekly for local chapter rehearsals, connect at semi-annual regional events (in the Southeast, Midwest, East Coast, and Israel), and finally, join together at our annual 4-day Festival, culminating in a gala concert at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, or the Metropolitan Opera House.

Recently, our parent organization, the Zamir Choral Foundation, commissioned Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz of Research Success Technologies to design and implement a comprehensive survey. This included an online survey of 219 American and Israeli current participants (52% response rate), and 180 alumni (25% response rate), and in-depth phone interviews with alumni to gather qualitative data.

When we designed our survey, we wanted to understand:

  • What is the lasting impact of participation in HaZamir?
  • How can music serve as a vehicle toward Jewish literacy?
  • To what extent do American and Israeli teens develop deep connections through music?
  • How much of HaZamir’s impact can be attributed to the shared experience of hard work toward a shared goal?
  • How might HaZamir further maximize the impact of participation?

What we found offers significant and useful findings to the larger field of teen engagement and education.

Among the many telling results were those focused on outcomes, including teens’ internalizing standards of excellence and high expectation; increased selfconfidence; commitment to Jewish unity and pluralism; connections to Israel, between Americans and Israelis; and increased Jewish knowledge. Specifically:

  • 92% of singers reported that “HaZamir enables me to integrate my Jewish life with my musical life”
  • 88% reported that “HaZamir is an important Jewish outlet in my life”
  • 72% reported that “HaZamir helps me feel more comfortable with my Jewish identity”
  • 75% reported that “When set to music, Jewish texts and values come alive for me”
  • 95% reported that “HaZamir enables me to connect to other Jews who share my love of music”
  • 95% said that “HaZamir connects me to other Jews my age”

The survey also pointed to new opportunities. One finding was that the longer the involvement in HaZamir, the greater the impact. As a result, the Zamir Choral Foundation recently established HaZaPrep – the first Jewish choral preparatory program in the United States. Basic choral skills are introduced to 7th and 8th graders who prepare for the high school HaZamir experience in a fun and nurturing environment. In addition, we are building out our alumni network, including opportunities to participate in the North American Jewish Choral Festival and Zamir Noded (young adult choir), two other programs of the Zamir Choral Foundation.

Another finding indicated the need to create more opportunities for interaction between Americans and Israelis. We are in the process of exploring ways to bring different U.S. HaZamir chapters to Israel next winter to participate in the HaZamir Israel Retreat (Nofshon), doubling the Israel/Diaspora engagement opportunities. This immersive week of bonding between American and Israeli teens is an investment in the next generation of American-Israel leadership and understanding.

Other evolutions in response to the survey include increased leadership opportunities for HaZamir teens (beyond the existing Teen Leaders program); and codifying HaZamir’s educational approach and curriculum using videos and print lessons.

Here are some of the factors that we at HaZamir would like to offer the larger teen engagement and education community, important elements we have found to be effective in promoting pluralistic community, excellence, and Jewish learning:

1. Embed pluralism implicitly in everything we do

The value of pluralism, though central to HaZamir’s mission, is implicit and embedded in the program. Teens experience deep connection across difference, unselfconsciously, and they are not hit over the head with a didactic message about the importance of pluralism. Staff, including HaZamir’s conductors who come from all denominations and others who are not affiliated, provide living examples of close and enduring friendships across group lines. The program models pluralism and does not merely talk about it.

2. Love of any activityespecially musiccan connect us across difference

Affinity-based programming offers opportunities for connection across differences. Rather than foregrounding discussions of politics, policy, or observance, HaZamir teens come together to learn high-level and challenging musical repertoire. Because they are focused on their craft and on musical excellence, their social bonding happens organically, avoiding potential resistance that may occur in more frontal education programs.

3. The sweat factor

The level of excellence and hard work that HaZamir demands of its teens is a key ingredient in its success as an educational program. We call it the blessing of high expectations. It brings teens together because they share the successes and failures along the way to their major concerts. Teens walk away with a strong sense of personal and collective achievement.

I want to end with a timely quote from a HaZamir teen:

I thought it was great that in a world where Jews argue about everything under the sun and often find that they can’t do things together in a unified way because they are fighting over different things, that music could bring everyone together. That was the message from HaZamir that stuck with me.”

That is a message we all need today. Jewish teen programming has an important role to play. By helping teens to create music together, HaZamir promotes the harmony that so often eludes us.

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