Pivoting in the Pandemic: How A Jewish Choral Festival Turned a COVID Cancellation Into Community By Going Virtual

HaZamir HaSharon, an Israeli chapter of HaZamir: the International Jewish Teen Choir, a project of the Zamir Choral Foundation. performing Leon Sher’s stirring composition of Heal Us Now, for the attendees.

By Jim Ball

The North American Jewish Choral Festival (NAJCF) had been running for 30 years, bringing together hundreds of singers from across the globe each year for five days of singing, learning and camaraderie. Then COVID struck and the Zamir Choral Foundation, which holds the event each year, had a painful decision to make: there was no way they could bring nearly 500 people together in July to sing in choirs choruses; crowds were banned, airline travel risky, and group singing was one of the clearly identified perils during this epidemic. They would have to cancel the festival for the first time in three decades.

But Matthew Lazar, the founder and director of the Foundation and the NAJCF, and his staff realized, the community they’ve created over those 30 years needed to be together. “We’ve built a unique community at the Festival,” Lazar says. “It attracts young and old, life-long singers and beginners, professional musicians, choral directors, cantors and composers, and just plain lovers of Jewish music and it’s fostered a movement of Jewish choirs across the country and abroad. As any choral singer will tell you, not singing with others during this epidemic is a great loss. And for Jewish choral singers, this Festival is a highlight of their year. Cancelling was a difficult, but necessary decision, and people told us how sad it made them. We had to respond somehow. People needed to be together more than ever.”

The Foundation at first pivoted quickly to doing online events on Zoom, called Taking Note, Conversations about Music in Challenging Times, featuring Lazar in discussion with musicians, composers and leading lights in the Jewish choral movement. Working with staff and people who were part of the movement’s choirs (including young singers in the Foundation’s network of teen and young adult choirs, who are facile with technology), plans were made to hold the Festival online. It would last for five days, just as the normal festival, with a reduced schedule, yet one that echoed what usually occurs. Workshops would be held each day for people to attend; nightly performances by choirs and special guests would feature video recordings from past years. And through technology that has become familiar online, a virtual choir recording would be made for release in September before the Jewish High Holidays. 

Anticipation ran high, and on Sunday, August 9th, more the 400 people gathered for the first stay-at-home NAJCF – a week of learning, virtual singing and even a cocktail party and group chats. “The response was overwhelming,” said Rabbi Dan Freelander, Zamir Choral Foundation board member and the NAJCF’s Lead Administrator. “Our Zoom chat boxes during events overflowed with thanks, joy and gratitude for being together. Not only did we have people from across the country and beyond, but it was clearly an important lift for folks after months of quarantine and social distancing – reconnecting with old friends, learning some new music, and exploring Jewish music with outstanding teachers and musicians.”

One evening highlight featured video clips of past honorees at the Festival, recipients of the Hallel V’Zimrah award given each year to someone who has made a significant contribution to Jewish choral music and Jewish music. Awardees have included: the late Theodore Bikel; legendary Israeli composers and singers, Yehezkel Braun, Gil Aldema, Yehoram Gaon and Nurit Hirsch; American composers Jack Gottlieb, Samuel Adler, Charles Davidson, and David Burger; and two figures long connected with the Foundation – the late Elie Wiesel (who served as Honorary Chair of the Foundation) and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a long-time supporter of the ZCF and it’s mission.

Workshop sessions during the day ranged from lively and engaging sessions on musical traditions from the Middle Eastern (led by singer and cultural anthropologist Galeet Dardashti) and the Far East (by musician, recording artist and cantor Basya Schechter),  to an in-depth look at musical creativity with noted choral director and composer Nick Page; from the fun of singing in barbershop quartets with Kelly Shepard (an international medalist in barbershop singing, who Zoomed from his home in Australia) to a rare, behind the scenes look at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s landmark highly- touted NY production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish from Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek.

Group singing, of course, is the reason for choirs, and while most of it was done by participants on their own with microphones muted, participants also recorded individual parts on their computers of an arrangement of a piece which will be digitally assembled and combined to launch on-line shortly before the fall’s Jewish High Holidays.

 “When we first considered it, the thought of creating an on-line festival seemed a daunting challenge,” Maestro Lazar said. “Would anyone come? Could we pull something so complicated off? But with hard work and creativity by our staff and volunteers, combined with the strong desire  of the international Jewish choral community to participate, people who are connected by a love of Jewish music and the power of singing together, it was truly a historic feat and  festival we will remember for a long time. As nonprofits, educational organizations, and arts collectives struggle to translate their content and programming from in person to digital – we are developing robust musical community. And it will surely build even more anticipation to come together in person next year.” 

Jim Ball is a Board member of the Zamir Choral Foundation; the Foundation, created by Matthew Lazar, promotes choral music as a vehicle to Jewish life, culture, and continuity.