Teens, Community, and Artistic Passion: a Successful Formula for Ongoing Engagement

by Matthew Lazar

At HaZamir, the International Jewish High School Choir, we have learned that when teens first walk in our door, they have one critical thing in common: a passion for musical expression. But we believe that what creates the lasting impact of the HaZamir experience is the fact that HaZamir programs build a vibrant Jewish community to which the teens are asked to make a deep personal commitment. This issue of community-building and its role in creating impact for teen programming is not a key focus of the Jim Joseph study, but one we believe to be critical to the long-term engagement of young Jews in Jewish life.

In the section entitled “People, People, People,” the JJF study discusses relationships as central to positive educational experiences. Our experience demonstrates that, similar to successful youth movements and summer camps, Jewish teen programs must actively build community, or they miss a critical opportunity to engage young Jews for life. And building community usually means building strong relationships by both investing in the teens’ personal development and by making demands of them, in terms of their time and investment of effort. Their active, engaged buy-in and their subsequent willingness to contribute, support each other, and even make personal sacrifices on behalf of the group, is what makes HaZamir so extraordinarily vibrant and what turns HaZamir alumni into long-term participants in Jewish community.

At first glance, HaZamir is not your typical Jewish teen activity. Our 300-plus members in 22 (and growing) chapters literally come from across the Jewish religious spectrum. About one-fifth are Shabbat observant; less than half participate in other Jewish youth groups or go to Jewish camp; and only slightly more than half go to a Jewish school, day or synagogue. For 6% of our members, HaZamir is the only Jewish activity in their lives. The amazing Shabbaton programs preceding the HaZamir regional and national festivals are an exceptional example of how effective pluralism can be in a teen community that has developed, through common aspirations of excellence, a group rapport that is built on a foundation of mutual support and respect.

As a recent HaZamir study reveals, for well over half of our members, HaZamir’s gifted conductors, educators, and mentors taught them about new Jewish practices and themes, through learning about Jewish music texts, Jewish holidays, Shabbat, and aspects of the Jewish experience they would not otherwise encounter. Fully half tell us that HaZamir strengthened their connections to Jewish community and to Israel. And a 2013 study of HaZamir alumni shows that for a huge majority, HaZamir inspired them to want to learn more about Jewish heritage while being a key factor in their seeking more connections to Jewish life, post-high school.

Sylvee Legge’s poignant article about her experience as a Jewish teen with a passion for theater (featured on April 23 as part of this online conversation) noted that her love of acting led her to a friendship that, by chance, enabled her to relate to her Jewish roots. We believe that for the many young Jews with a passion for the arts, the portal of artistic expression is a particularly effective one. HaZamir offers musical teens a unique opportunity not only to grow artistically but also to take their relationship with their Jewishness an important step beyond chance relationships, into creating lasting bonds of friendship and building a community in which they have a personal stake.

In addition to the added value HaZamir offers many of our teen participants, it is important to note that for one in three members, HaZamir is one of the few places they have an opportunity to encounter and engage with other Jewish teens; and for a surprising 10%, HaZamir is the only place they spend significant time with Jewish peers. For these young Jews in particular – those who have chosen to connect Jewishly through their art – we have a critical and sacred obligation: while teaching them about their heritage, we teach them that being part of a community requires a serious commitment of time and effort, and an investment in the well-being and success of peers. At the end of weeks of hard work – which they will all say was also “fun” – as hundreds of Jewish teens from diverse backgrounds stand on the stage together in Carnegie Hall and wow the crowd, singing complex, four-part compositions that bring alive Jewish texts, the pay-off is outstanding.

In keeping with the presentation of the JJF study’s nine issues, perhaps we may propose a tenth: as we all know, getting to Carnegie Hall takes “Practice, Practice, Practice.” We should be teaching our teens what it means to make a commitment – to their own personal growth and aspirations for excellence, as well as to the vibrant growth of Jewish community. We are convinced that while the love of art brings teens to our door, the “practice” part of our activities – rehearsing the music, and the reading, re-reading, internalizing, and interpreting the meaning of the texts which describe our people’s history, culture, and religion– is ultimately what makes them Jewishly engaged, and inspires them to be active members of the Jewish community for years to come.

Matthew Lazar is the founder and director of the Zamir Choral Foundation and founder of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir.