How HaZamir youth choir serves as ‘an on-ramp to Jewish life’
New York Jewish Week — Across the country, groups of Jewish teenagers come together each week to practice as a choir. In groups as small as two and as large as 18, they gather in synagogue basements, Jewish community centers, senior centers and even churches to sing together. For many, it is their only connection to Jewish life.
These 450 young people, aged between 13 and 18, are members of HaZamir, an international choir for Jewish high school students. With 26 chapters in the United States and 10 in Israel, they meet each year for a spring concert in New York City.
But this upcoming concert – taking place on Sunday, March 19, at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall – will be different than most years. This weekend’s commemoration, which includes over 300 student and alumni singers, will mark HaZamir’s 30th birthday as well as the 75th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel.
“The idea behind the creation of HaZamir was to give Jewish teenagers an opportunity to have a high-level musical experience and to express their Jewishness and their own music,” said Mati Lazar, director and founder of HaZamir . “At that point, and even now, [that] it is not really given.”
Sunday’s concert will include performances from the entire ensemble, as well as songs performed by the Israeli cohort and members of the HaZamir Chamber Choir, an elite group of singers. (Students must audition to join HaZamir, and selected singers are invited to audition for the Chamber Choir.) The highlight is always the “senior song” — “Yachad Na’Amod” ( “Together We Stand”), said Vivian Lazar, Mati’s wife and director of HaZamir.
“This is a problem for any high school teacher — you fall in love with your 12th grade,” Vivian told New York Jewish Week. “They are adults already. They are smart, and they are intuitive and then they leave you. For the last verse, they put their arms around each other. Some of them don’t sing because they are crying so hard.”
Mati Lazar, who declined to provide his age, founded HaZamir in 1993 as the high school arm of the Zamir Chorale, a professional Hebrew choir and Jewish choral performance group in North America founded in 1960. He is a native of Brooklyn. He was a member of Zamir Chorale as a teenager, and he wanted to create an opportunity for other young people to have the same experience.
Starting with one small chapter in New York – which Mati personally ran – he watched it grow, and grow, over the next thirty years. “I knew it would be important – I knew it would change as it developed,” Mati said. “The surprise for me is how successful it would be in Israel.” The first Israeli chapter was established in 2006.
He is also the founder and director of Zamir Choral Foundation, the umbrella organization that operates HaZamir and Zamir Chorale, as well as a choir for middle school students and a choir for young adults in their 20s and 30s.
Although HaZamir is an extracurricular activity for these high school students, the Lazars make serious demands on their members. “We empower these teenagers,” said Vivian Lazar. “When they go and have free time together, they are kids. When they’re sitting in practice, we treat them like professionals, and that’s how they behave.”
As a result, choir participation often becomes a lifelong commitment — and sometimes even a family affair. Sophie Lee Landau grew up in New York listening to her mother perform as a member of the Zamir Chorale. Landau joined HaZamir in the seventh grade and stayed with the group throughout high school. In college, she was a member of the Zamir Chorale for several years until moving out of New York in 2015.
For the past six years, Landau, 29, has been the director of the Houston-based HaZamir chapter. “It’s an opportunity to connect with your peers who came from a similar faith and connect more with a Jewish text,” Landau told New York Jewish Week. “It’s really special to be able to give [students] an outlet to connect with their heritage and find peers and friendships with similar interests and similar backgrounds. It’s about not feeling alone.”
The Lazars see the choir as a “ramp to Jewish life” with an emphasis on pluralism, community and Zionism. HaZamir is not designed to be religious, Vivian explained, although she suggested that singing together is often a spiritual experience.
“Being Jewish is being literate, though,” Vivian said, attributing part of being in the choir and learning how to sing Hebrew music to learning the texts and their meanings.
“The more you know about your history and your tradition and your culture, the better you can be,” Vivian told her students.
For participants, these principles come to fruition during “Fêle,” a shabbat night that occurs in the days leading up to the annual concert. This year, the group met at a hotel in upstate New York.
“Féile” is the first time that chapters around the world meet together after practicing the same songs with individual groups throughout the year. “Singing music together is a kind of spiritual experience: You are breathing together, you are thinking about the same text at the same time, and you are making a compromise,” said Mati Lazar. “All differences are really disappearing.”
According to Landau, the weekend is especially worthwhile for participants who come from smaller Jewish communities. “This is the only opportunity for the children to come together,” she said. “When you get together and sing with 300 other kids, the sound is amazing. What they’re looking forward to the most is, after working so hard all year, they finally get to put it together and hear what the music can do.”
Although it is meant to be a practice camp for the teenagers, the Festival also aims to foster the cross-country and international friendships made on Zoom throughout the year. Activities include a Thursday night jam session, rehearsal hours during the day and a range of Friday night and Saturday morning Shabbat services – options include Equity, Orthodox, Reform, and all women’s services. For many participants, Vivian said, this is the first time they can explore these different types of Jewish religious expression.
For Milo Shaklan, a senior in Brooklyn’s HaZamir chapter, whose ninth- and tenth-grade concerts were canceled due to COVID-19, going to the Gala Festival and concert for the first time last year was “a moment of understanding,” he said.
“I connected with all these other Jews,” Shaklan said. “I had no idea how big the community was. When I interact with people in my synagogue community, I interact with people who look more or less like me. At HaZamir, I’m interacting with Americans who are less observant than me and with Americans who are more observant than me, and then with Israelis who are more and less observant than me.”
Landau agrees. “To be able to establish a network like this is really incredible, and that’s why this weekend is so important,” she said.
For the Lazars, alumni like Landau — who has a long-standing relationship with the choir — are the greatest reward for the efforts. This year, 14 HaZamir alumni are now directors of their own chapters, and all HaZamir alumni will be invited on stage to sing during the second half of the two-hour concert.
“It will be a very beautiful moment,” said Vivian.
HaZamir’s 30th Anniversary Concert will take place on March 19 at 3 p.m Eastern Time. Buy tickets here.