Singers often quip that they “do it in harmony,” but the first survey ever conducted of Jewish choral activity in North America demonstrates that the harmony achieved refers not to the sounds they produce with other singers but to the integration of their Jewish and musical lives.
The survey by the Zamir Choral Foundation of more than 2000 Jewish singers, professionals and supporters was released at the North American Jewish Choral Festival, where hundreds of amateur and professional lovers of Jewish music gather each summer for five non-stop days of singing and celebration.
“We’ve always known that choral singing provides participants with a Jewish community that shares their love of music, but this is the first time we’ve had more than anecdotal evidence of how important their participation is to enabling them to make their Judaism part of their everyday American experience,” said Matthew Lazar, the founder and director of the Foundation.
“In today’s fractured Jewish world, the North American Jewish Choral Festival for adults and HaZamir: the International Jewish Choir that is a network of teen choral chapters around the country and in Israel, create the rare opportunity for Jews to join in common purpose without regard to their denominational or political beliefs,” he said.
The online survey, conducted by Dr. Diane Tickton Schuster of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz of Research Success Technologies in Jerusalem, included Jewish professionals, adult and teen singers, graduates of HaZamir, and financial supporters and friends. The goal was to learn more about the participants and the state of Jewish choral music in North America today.
While singers of all ages cited the ability to bring their musical and Jewish lives together as a key benefit of choral singing, it was particularly important for those under 45, who were less likely to belong to a synagogue and who were more likely to sing in alternative venues, such as a Jewish a cappella, barbershop or college group.
“For many younger singers, music is the anchor for their Jewish identity,” said Dr. Schuster. “As a result, they participate in Jewish choral music as a means to integrate two things that matter most to them: their music and their Judaism.”Similarly, some of the survey’s most striking results came in comparing those under 45 with those over 55. The younger group was less likely to be affiliated with a synagogue, but generally received a stronger Jewish education than the older cohort.
The findings were even more striking when it came to the youngest respondents to the survey: those who are currently with HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, and recent HaZamir alumni.
For these young singers, music is the means to a Jewish experience. Almost half say choral singing provides “a way into Judaism,” and 57 percent say HaZamir enables them to wear their Jewish identity in public.
And, while music is clearly an important part of their lives, with 25 percent anticipating pursuing a formal musical education, their sense of Jewish identity and community is far stronger: fully 77 percent anticipate becoming active in Jewish life on campus.
These young singers are clearly following in the footsteps of older Jewish choral singers, who are very involved, both as professionals and volunteers, in their synagogues and the Jewish community. Almost 75 percent volunteer with Jewish organizations, including 38 percent who have served as board members of their synagogue or other Jewish group.
This greater community involvement among Jewish choral singers is parallel to that of choral singers of all backgrounds. A 2009 survey by Chorus America showed singers are much more involved in civic activities, volunteering for community and political organizations and donating more than twice as much to philanthropic organizations.