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How HaZamir youth choir serves as ‘an on-ramp to Jewish life’

(New York Jewish Week) — All across the country, groups of Jewish teenagers meet each week to rehearse 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’s their only involvement with Jewish life. 

These 450 young people, who range in age from 13 to 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 convene each year for a spring concert in New York City. 

But this coming concert — to be held on Sunday, March 19, at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall — will be different than most years. This weekend’s celebration, which includes more than 300 student and alumni singers, will commemorate 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 the opportunity to have a high-level music experience and to express their Jewish selves and their music selves,” said Mati Lazar, HaZamir’s conductor and founder. “At that point, and even now, [that] is not really a given.” 

Sunday’s concert will include performances by the entire ensemble, as well as songs performed by the Israeli cohort and members of the Chamber Choir, an elite group of HaZamir singers. (Students have to audition to join HaZamir, and select singers are invited to audition for the Chamber Choir.) The highlight is always the “senior song” — “Yachad Na’Amod” (“Together We Stand”) — that closes out the concert, said Vivian Lazar, Mati’s wife and the director of HaZamir.

“This is a problem with any high school teacher — you fall in love with your 12th graders,” Vivian told the New York Jewish Week. “They’re adults already. They’re smart, and they’re 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’re crying so hard.”

HaZamir singers at the 2013 Gala Concert. (Courtesy HaZamir)

Mati Lazar, who declined to provide his age, founded HaZamir in 1993 as the high school arm of the Zamir Chorale, a professional Hebrew-language choir and Jewish choral performance group in North America that was established in 1960. A native of Brooklyn, he had been a member of Zamir Chorale as a teenager, and wanted to create an opportunity for other young people to have the same experience. 

Starting with just one small chapter in New York — which Mati personally ran — he watched it grow, and grow, over the next three decades. “I knew it would be important — I knew it would evolve into what it has evolved into,” Mati said. “The surprise for me was how successful it would be in Israel.” The first Israeli chapter was founded 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 schoolers and a choir for young adults in their 20s and 30s.

Though HaZamir is an extracurricular activity for these high schoolers, the Lazars place serious demands on their members. “We empower these teenagers,” Vivian Lazar said. “When they go and have free time together, they’re kids. When they’re sitting in rehearsal, we treat them like professionals, and so they behave that way.”

As a result, participating in the choir can often become 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 Zamir Chorale. Landau joined HaZamir in seventh grade and stayed with the group throughout high school. In college, she became a member of Zamir Chorale for a number of years until she moved out of New York in 2015.

For the past six years, Landau, 29, has been the conductor for the Houston-based chapter of HaZamir. “It’s an opportunity to connect with your peers who have come from a similar faith and to connect more to Jewish text,” Landau told the New York Jewish Week. “It’s really special to be able to give [students] an outlet to connect to their heritage and to find peers and friendships with similar interests and similar backgrounds. It’s about not feeling like you’re alone.”

HaZamir singers performed a concert at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh to commemorate the one year anniversary of the deadly shooting that took the lives of 11 synagogue members. (Courtesy HaZamir)

The Lazars see the choir as “an on-ramp to Jewish life” with an emphasis on pluralism, community and Zionism. HaZamir is not designed to be religious, Vivian explained, though she suggested that singing together in harmony is often a spiritual experience. 

However, “to be Jewish is to be literate,” Vivian said, adding part of being in the choir and learning to sing the Hebrew music includes learning the texts and their meanings.

“The more you know about your history and your tradition and your culture, the better human being you can be,” Vivian said she tells her students. 

For participants, these principles culminate during “Festival,” a Shabbat sleepover that takes place in the days leading up to the annual concert. This year, the group will congregate at the Sleepy Hollow Hotel in Tarrytown, New York.

“Festival” is the first time chapters from around the world meet after having rehearsed the same songs as individual groups throughout the year. “It is a spiritual kind of experience singing music together: You’re breathing together, you’re thinking about the same text at the same time, and you’re making harmony,” Mati Lazar said. “All differences really subside.”

According to Landau, the weekend is especially rewarding for participants who hail from smaller Jewish communities. “This is the one opportunity for the kids to all get together,” she said. “Once you get together and you sing with 300 other kids, the sound is overwhelming. It’s the thing that they look forward to most, after working hard all year they finally get to put it all together and hear what the music can do.”

Over 400 students attended HaZamir’s “Festival” in 2019. (Courtesy HaZamir)

Though it’s meant to be a rehearsal boot camp for the teenagers, Festival also aims to nurture the cross-country and international friendships that are made on Zoom throughout the year. Activities include a Thursday-night jam session, hours of rehearsals during the day and a range of Shabbat services on Friday night and Saturday morning — egalitarian, Orthodox, Reform, and all-women services are among the options. For many participants, Vivian said, it’s the first time they can explore these different types of Jewish religious expression. 

For Milo Shaklan, a senior in HaZamir’s Brooklyn chapter, whose ninth and tenth grade concerts were canceled due to COVID-19,  going to Festival and the Gala concert for the first time last year was “a moment of understanding,” he said. 

“I got to connect with all these other Jews,” Shaklan said. “I had no idea how big the community was. When I’m interacting with people in my synagogue community, I am interacting with people who more or less observe like me. At HaZamir, I’m interacting with Americans who are less observant than me and Americans who are more observant than me, and then Israelis who are both more and less observant than me.”

Landau concurs. “To be able to establish such a network is really incredible, and that’s why this weekend is so important,” she said. 

For the Lazars, it’s alumni like Landau — who has maintained a long-term relationship with the choir — who are the biggest reward for the efforts. This year, 14 HaZamir alumni are now conductors 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’ll be a very, very beautiful moment,” said Vivian.

The HaZamir 30th Anniversary Concert will take place on March 19 at 3:00 pm. Buy tickets here. 


The post How HaZamir youth choir serves as ‘an on-ramp to Jewish life’ appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Obituaries

Dr. NATHAN WISEMAN

Wiseman, Nathan Elliot
1944 – 2023
Nathan, our beloved husband, Dad, and Zaida, died unexpectedly on December 13, 2023. Nathan was born on December 16, 1944, in Winnipeg, MB, the eldest of Sam and Cissie Wiseman’s three children.
He is survived by his loving wife Eva; children Sam (Natalie) and Marni (Shane); grandchildren Jacob, Jonah, Molly, Isabel, Nicole, and Poppy; brother David (Sherrill); sister Barbara (Ron); sister-in-law Agi (Sam) and many cousins, nieces, and nephews.
Nathan grew up in the north end of Winnipeg surrounded by his loving family. He received his MD from the University of Manitoba in 1968, subsequently completed his General Surgery residency at the University of Manitoba and went on to complete a fellowship in Paediatric Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital of Harvard University. His surgeon teachers and mentors were world renowned experts in the specialty, and even included a Nobel prize winner.
His practice of Paediatric Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg spanned almost half a century. He loved his profession and helping patients, even decades later often recounting details about the many kiddies on whom he had operated. Patients and their family members would commonly approach him on the street and say, “Remember me Dr. Wiseman?”. And he did! His true joy was caring for his patients with compassion, patience, unwavering commitment, and excellence. He was a gifted surgeon and leaves a profound legacy. He had no intention of ever fully retiring and operated until his very last day. He felt privileged to have the opportunity to mentor, support and work with colleagues, trainees, nurses, and others health care workers that enriched his day-to-day life and brought him much happiness and fulfillment. He was recognized with many awards and honors throughout his career including serving as Chief of Surgery of Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, President of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, and as a Governor of the American College of Surgeons. Most importantly of all he helped and saved the lives of thousands and thousands of Manitoba children. His impact on the generations of children he cared for, and their families, is truly immeasurable.
Nathan’s passion for golf was ignited during his childhood summers spent at the Winnipeg Beach Golf Course. Southwood Golf and Country Club has been his second home since 1980. His game was excellent and even in his last year he shot under his age twice! He played an honest “play as it lies” game. His golf buddies were true friends and provided him much happiness both on and off the course for over forty years. However, his passion for golf extended well beyond the eighteenth hole. He immersed himself in all aspects of the golf including collecting golf books, antiques, and memorabilia. He was a true scholar of the game, reading golf literature, writing golf poetry, and even rebuilding and repairing antique golf clubs. Unquestionably, his knowledge and passion for the game was limitless.
Nathan approached his many woodworking and workshop projects with zeal and creativity, and he always had many on the go. During the winter he was an avid curler, and in recent years he also enjoyed the study of Yiddish. Nathan never wasted any time and lived his life to the fullest.
Above all, Nathan was a loving husband, father, grandfather, son, father-in-law, son-in-law, uncle, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, and granduncle. He loved his family and lived for them, and this love was reciprocated. He met his wife Eva when he was a 20-year-old medical student, and she was 18 years old. They were happily married for 56 years. They loved each other deeply and limitlessly and were proud of each other’s accomplishments. He loved the life and the family they created together. Nathan was truly the family patriarch, an inspiration and a mentor to his children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and many others. He shared his passion for surgery and collecting with his son and was very proud to join his daughter’s medical practice (he loved Thursdays). His six grandchildren were his pride and joy and the centre of his world.
Throughout his life Nathan lived up to the credo “May his memory be a blessing.” His life was a blessing for the countless newborns, infants, toddlers, children, and teenagers who he cared for, for his colleagues, for his friends and especially for his family. We love him so much and there are no words to describe how much he will be missed.
A graveside funeral was held at the Shaarey Zedek cemetery on December 15, 2023. Pallbearers were his loving grandchildren. The family would like to extend their gratitude to Rabbi Yosef Benarroch of Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Congregation.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba, in the name of Dr. Nathan Wiseman.

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