Making music live again

The year the music almost died

In Short

Synagogue, school and amateur community choirs can once again be an important, inspiring force in our lives

As a lifelong Jewish Choral singer, weekly rehearsals and periodic concerts have been a life-giving and stabilizing part of my life. During years of hectic schedules, family stress, personal stress and professional overcommitment, I always knew that my ‘safe place’ was that choir rehearsal, a weekly appointment that was often more healing than therapy, because choir came with a community. 

At the weekly rehearsals,  I was not in charge or responsible for anyone but myself, but folks still relied on me to learn my part, blend in with others, give myself over to the conductor and watch my pitch and tempos. In return, I would get a check in phone call from a fellow singer if I ever missed a rehearsal, and a visit from choir members during shiva, and deep friendships. And each week, I was privileged to help create that delicious choral sound that was more emotionally powerful than any solo performance could be.  

My Jewish and musical horizons were also stretched by dedicated conductors who helped me find deeper levels of meaning in texts I had long known. I would hear the conductor’s and composer’s interpretations of Jewish text and I didn’t even need to read a dozen commentaries or write my own drash.

But in March 2020, COVID-19 descended and eliminated this normalizing and inspiring force in my life. I tried Zoom rehearsals but singing alone in front of my computer was just not motivating. (The chat, on the other hand, helped me remember how much I missed – and appreciated – my fellow choir members.) Seeing their faces was lovely, but I wanted to hear them, sing with them, blend with them.

So now we finally have the opportunity to recapture the special Jewish choral experience. But first, we have to overcome our anxieties about singing face to face with others – without masks. We need to overcome our fears and assemble in close proximity in outdoor and eventually indoor places.  

Synagogue, school and amateur community choirs can once again be an important, inspiring force in our lives.  We will quickly remember how much greater the whole chorus is than our individual voices. Our Jewish identities are tied up in these choral communities. And Jewish choral singing is a powerful doorway into stronger Jewish commitment. 

As an organizer of the annual North American Jewish Choral Festival created by my friend Matthew Lazar over 30 years ago, and supported by the Zamir Choral Foundation (ZCF) that Mati also founded, I am convinced that singing together post-COVID will be both safe and spiritually transformative. We have the opportunity to once again create the sublime beauty and Jewish energy that comes from the blending of human voices. 

I can’t wait to gather with 250 voices for ZCF’s one-day North American Jewish Choral Festival on Sunday, July 25 at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. I will take my seat in the tenor section and muddle my way through music I have never seen before and hopefully recall choral arrangements that are deeply embedded in my brain from rehearsals decades ago. (Join us—but act soon; space is limited. Learn more at ZamirChoralFoundation.org.) 

The music didn’t die in 2020, but oh, how we missed it. Now we can make it live again. May dozens of choirs come back to life in these next few months and give us back our special Jewish communities and spiritual voices. 

Rabbi Daniel Freelander is the retired president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and former senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, a Board member of the Zamir Choral Foundation, and a lover of all kinds of Jewish music.