by Matthew Lazar
“I can’t believe that my love for singing would introduce me to Shabbat – something I’d never experienced before,” said Meirav, a lively, enthusiastic 19-year-old Israeli soldier who came, in uniform, to a HaZamir chapter reunion in Kfar Saba last week. This was just another comment that confirmed to me that the activities of HaZamir, the International Jewish High School Choir program, go far beyond “just choral singing” and are actually having a major impact on the lives and life choices of hundreds of Israeli and American teens. This Kfar Saba event brought together nearly 100 young Israelis – teens who are currently in HaZamir, together with alumni from recent years, wearing army uniforms and carrying weapons, some coming straight from their jobs in hi-tech, others married with head coverings. And the exquisite musical sound that they produced as a group, and the joy they expressed in being together again to sing Jewish choral music, made me realize, again, that HaZamir is making something extremely valuable and meaningful happen for American and Israeli teens.
HaZamir is an expanding network of more than 300 Jewish teen choral singers in 22 regional chapters who meet weekly in cities across the U.S. and Israel to prepare and perform high-level Jewish choral music. HaZamir’s mission is not only to perform at the highest level of artistic excellence, but it is also to strengthen Jewish identity, build a pluralistic community, facilitate the development of young leadership, and create strong ties of friendship between American and Israeli teens through their shared passion for music.
HaZamir is, in fact, a very successful youth movement. The participants come from across the spectrum, and for a significant number, singing with HaZamir is their sole connection to Jewish community. HaZamir’s Shabbatonim are, for some, the only place they ever experience Shabbat. Our rehearsals are, for many, the only place they engage with Jewish text. The Teen Leadership training programs are, for almost all, the only place they are exposed to the broader issues and concerns of Jewish communal leadership. And HaZamir’s music festivals and cross-chapter events and performances are often the only place that young American Jews can intensively interact with Israeli peers.
So why is it so challenging to convince the Jewish establishment that Jewish identity-building and learning through artistic expression can be just as effective as, and sometimes even more powerful than, other modes of Jewish youth programming? Recent research carried out at Brandeis University demonstrates that fewer than half of American Jewish teens feel very much a part of the Jewish people or connected to Israel. At the same time, the study indicates that when identifying their most valued extracurricular activity, teens are drawn by interest, enjoyment, and even passion for the particular activity. If you’ve ever met a musical teen, you will know that they most enjoy spending time with other musical teens. HaZamir offers the perfect opportunity for musical Jewish teens to connect, as Jews, and have Jewish experiences that can transform their lives.
Under the guidance of Vivian Lazar, the director of HaZamir, a group of our teen singers will be going to Israel later this year on a musical and educational journey, to engage with Israeli peers around their mutual love for music. This March, dozens of young Israeli HaZamirniks will be coming to the US to participate in an international Shabbaton and the annual HaZamir concerts at Lincoln Center, an extraordinary opportunity for hundreds of young Jews to learn, bond, and make beautiful music together. This event and other HaZamir events offer the only opportunity for Meirav and many of her peers to experience Shabbat as a community, with tfillah, Jewish learning, and plenty of singing. If you want to be reassured about the Jewish future, join us at the HaZamir’s 20th anniversary concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center on March 17th. And please help us to move the arts higher up on the communal agenda. We are proving each day that music is an invaluable vehicle for building Jewish identity and for inspiring our teens to lead more Jewish lives.
Matthew Lazar is the founder and director of the Zamir Choral Foundation and founder of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir.