More Than Music

Erika Schon conducts the Baltimore Chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir. (David Stuck)

Erika Schon conducts the Baltimore Chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir.
(David Stuck)

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Just ask Erika Schon, conductor of the Baltimore chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir.

The choir recently returned from HaZamir’s annual festival in New York, which culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall on March 30. Schon’s group includes 36 youngsters in grades 8 to 12 who hail from all over Maryland.

The teens rehearse once a week and their commitment is evidenced, said Schon, by the fact that some of them travel more than an hour each way to attend the Sunday night rehearsals. The talented teens also performed at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Sunday, May 18.

Baltimore’s HaZamir chapter is part of a network of 24 Jewish choirs across the United States and Israel. HaZamir Director Vivian Lazar, wife of Zamir Choral Foundation (Ha-Zamir’s umbrella organization) founder and director Matthew Lazar, explained that one part of the organization’s mission is to perform great Jewish music at the highest level.

“Jewish music has a bad rap,” she said. “Many people don’t know there is great Jewish music and have never heard Jewish music performed at this level, especially by teens.”

But Lazar and Schon point out that there is much more to the HaZamir experience than great music. In addition to teaching “the highest level of music performance,” HaZamir’s goals are strengthening Jewish identity, forging strong ties to Israel, building pluralistic and trans-denominational communities and facilitating the development of leadership skills.

“We have a really diverse population that attracts Jews of all backgrounds from the most secular to the most observant. When we get them into the choir, it breaks down any barriers that tend to divide the Jewish people,” she said. “Music has the power to touch people and bring them together. Our teens make friends with teens with like values from all over that last a lifetime.”

“This is a musical youth movement,” Lazar stressed. And technologies such as Skype and social media have made it possible for HaZamir singers from
all over the U.S., Canada and Israel to keep in regular contact. One of HaZamir’s missions is to build connections between American and Israeli teens.

“What’s exciting is that we’re continuing to grow,” said Schon. “Baltimore has just gotten funding to form a HaZamir chapter in Ashkelon, Israel, our sister city.” Each year, Israeli teens who are members of HaZamir travel to the U.S. where they meet and perform with their American counterparts, Schon said.

Each piece of music is accompanied by a lesson plan, said Lazar.

“Teens are studying Jewish texts and Jewish history and they don’t even realize it. They are singing words about our Jewish tradition,” said Lazar, who noted that the learning that takes place during HaZamir rehearsals is especially valuable for the most secular teens, who tend to be Israeli.

“Many of our kids are so secular they don’t even know the most basic things about Judaism. To some of them, Yom Kippur is a day at the beach,” she said.

While Israeli teens learn about Jewish history and traditions, American singers learn from their Israeli peers what it is like to live with the constant threat of violence and knowing that they will eventually have to serve in the military.

“One man, an American alumnus of the program became great friends with an alumnus from Israel,” said Lazar. “The young man (whose name was Chris) called his Israeli friend (Chaim) who answered and said, ‘Hey Bro, I’m in the middle of a skirmish in Hebron. I’ll call you back later.’ The American kids get an understanding of Israel that is more than just a newspaper story,” she said.

For those who missed the concert last week, or those who can’t get enough of HaZamir, Schon suggested attending the choir’s final concert of the season on May 28 at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase. HaZamir will be singing with adult choir Zemer Chai: The Jewish Community Choir of Washington, D.C.

“They are superb musicians, and for us to sing with them is a great opportunity,” Schon said.

For information about HaZamir, visit the group’s Facebook page at face book.com/pages/HaZamir-Baltimore/ 213029532048760.

For information about Zamir visit zamirchoralfoundation.org.

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