When Meir Panim held its “American Idol”-style “Voices” contests last year, organizers unintentionally excluded part of the Jewish community.
“We realized that observant girls were not a part of the event, and it wasn’t really an oversight as much as a lack of understanding as to the laws,” said Leslie Goldberg, Maryland regional director for American Friends of Meir Panim. “So this year, we said we definitely want to do something for all the females in the observing community, because we know there’s so much talent, and we want to expose that talent.”
Meir Panim, a nonprofit that feeds hungry Israelis in dignified ways and is working to break the poverty cycle in Israel, holds the finals in its “Voices” competition Sunday, Dec. 22 (7 p.m.) at Goucher College. Auditions were held earlier in the month, and the top 10 singers (five from middle school and five from high school) will compete to win three voice lessons from renowned singer Elena Tal, who is also one of the judges.
This year’s auditions, as well as the finals, featured all-female staff, judges and stagehands. Orthodox girls can’t sing in public for men once they reach bat mitzvah age, which is why Orthodox girls did not take part in last year’s coed competition.
The event, spearheaded by Leslie Goldberg from American Friends of Meir Panim, aims to raise money and awareness for Meir Panim and the 1.8 million Israelis, 860,000 of whom are children, living below the poverty line.
Meir Panim, which helps Jews and non-Jews in Israel, is building a multimillion-dollar 100,000-square-foot nutrition center that will be capable of preparing 30,000 meals a day for Meir Panim’s free restaurant, Meals on Wheels and after-school programs. It will be Israel’s largest food production facility and will employ 200 people.
Meir Panim also distributes food cards to clients that function like regular debit cards for groceries.
To try to break the cycle of poverty, the organization holds vocational training and after-school programs that include tutoring, computer classes and other enrichment activities. Parents are invited to some of the kids’ activities and are also given their own classes on home budgeting, parenting skills and language skills, if necessary.
In November, the organization held its “Vocaltrition” concert, which featured area cantors singing Jewish music. And much like the cantors who sang that night, those involved in making “Voices” happen were happy to help Meir Panim.
“We all have different talents, and our job in this world is to look for what our talents are, what can we do? How can we both serve God, service the Jewish people, and serve the world with our talents?” said Lisa Friedman, a judge. “This gives the girls who can sing an opportunity to explore that.”
Friedman, who plays piano and sings in the band Ayelet HaShachar, said she and her two female bandmates — all Orthodox — had to find their own religious musical path to express their talents.
Ayelet HaShachar will also be performing a few of its songs and accompanying all the finalists in a sing-along of one of their songs.
Elena Tal, another judge in the competition and a voice teacher and an internationally traveled singer, said “Voices” is a great opportunity for the girls to maintain their religious observance but still have an outlet for their talent.
“I don’t think there are a lot of competitions of this sort that they’ve heard of before,” she said. “So this is a new opportunity for them.”
Even the finalists, young as they may be, know that their talent is part of a larger purpose in this case.
“This competition is for such a good cause, to feed the hungry in Israel,” said Rosie Braunstein, 11, who hopes to be a professional singer. She auditioned with a song by Shaindel Antelis called “The Light.”
“I picked the song because I really like the message, spreading the light,” she said.
Shira Pomerantz, 12, also hopes to be a professional singer. She sings in the Krieger Schechter’s middle school choir and also sings on the bimah during the High Holidays at her synagogue, Chizuk Amuno.
“I’ve been singing since before I can even remember,” she said. “I think I started when I was about 2 years old, but ever since then I’ve been singing every day of my life.”
She sang “Shema Yisrael Elohai” because she thought the song related to what Meir Panim is all about.
“The first line means, ‘When I’m alone and sad, my heart cries out to God,’ which really has to do with the charity,” she said. “People are there to help.”
Tickets for Sunday’s event can be purchased at voicecompetition.com.
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter — firstname.lastname@example.org