Lily LeSchack, of New Hyde Park, Yonathan Eilon, of Great...

Lily LeSchack, of New Hyde Park, Yonathan Eilon, of Great Neck, Eli Penn, of Dix Hills, David Kagan, of Great Neck, and Conductor Marsha Bryan Edelman, who are part of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir, practice on March 1, in Greenvale. Credit: Dawn McCormick

Arranged in an arc around a piano, four teenagers spend Sunday afternoons singing at the direction of a seasoned conductor. For two hours at a time, the group makes music within the walls of the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center in Greenvale.

But the intimacy of rehearsals stands in marked contrast to the performance for which the group is preparing. On March 19, the students and their conductor will join choir members and conductors who rehearse independently across the United States and Israel at Jazz at Lincoln Center as HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir. The upcoming performance will facilitate the premiere of two classical pieces written for HaZamir, as well as feature various Israeli and Jewish American songs in English and Hebrew.

The Long Island chapter of HaZamir — a Hebrew phrase that translates directly to “the nightingale” — consists of soprano Lily LeShack, 16, of New Hyde Park; soprano Yonathan Eilon, 17, of Great Neck; bass Eli Penn, 16, of Dix Hills; and bass David Kagan, 14, of Great Neck. Marsha Bryan Edelman is the group’s conductor. 

“HaZamir is much more than a choir. It’s an excellent choir — you know if you would listen and close your eyes you would never believe that you’re listening to high school kids," says Edelman. "But we’re also a youth movement. We bring together not only kids from both sides of the ocean, but we bring together kids from different political perspectives, from different Jewish denominations.” 

On the HaZamir Experience

“Sometimes it’s overwhelming, because the performance is so soon and we have to practice really hard to memorize everything, but it’s been super fun coming to rehearsal every week.” 

— Lily LeShack, 16, New Hyde Park

“It’s music that’s difficult, so it pushes you to be better at it.”

— Eli Penn, 16, Dix Hills

“It’s not just about the signing, it’s also about community.”

— David Kagan, 14, Great Neck

“We definitely are able to form a little community among ourselves.”

— Yonathan Eilon, 17, Great Neck 

Singers find their way to HaZamir on their own, as word-of-mouth fuels the group's popularity. Last year, there were about a dozen teenage members in the Long Island chapter; this year, some previous members having graduated, there are four. Open-house auditions are held each fall. This year, local membership cost $400 plus additional fees.

At Lincoln Center, the incidental quartet will perform with a group of approximately 200 current HaZamir participants and 75 alumni. This will be the choir's 30th anniversary performance. 

“When everybody gets together to sing, it’s so nice to hear the entire group," says LeShack, who is also a member of the more selective chamber choir.

Though the choir sings largely Jewish music, it is not a part of any religious organization. Some chapters rehearse at synagogues or Jewish community centers, but none are affiliated with the venues. 

“I like singing, and this is an opportunity to do that while also engaging an aspect of my Jewish identity,” says Eilon. “I connect to my Judaism in a purely cultural aspect, like, let’s say, an Italian would or something like that. So, HaZamir is one way for me to culturally connect with my Judaism.”

Eilon, a sopranist, describes HaZamir as an organization with a penchant for acceptance and adaptation. Meal options at events incorporate the spectrum of dietary needs; identification tags include each student’s preferred pronouns. 

“It may be something objectively small, it does make an impact — a very large impact — for a good amount of people,” Eilon says. “HaZamir’s just very open and accepting and willing to change.”

From its founding in 1993 in Manhattan, the Zamir Chorale Foundation has expanded to include HaZamir chapters across the United States and throughout Israel. As its reach grows, the organization’s purpose and objectives remain intact. 

“It began with an idea I had of wanting to provide a high-level musical experience for Jewish teens, using great Jewish music — and to show that there is great Jewish music — and to teach Jewish texts and values and history, in order to strengthen Jewish pride and connection and to build a peer community that deepened ties to Israel,” says founder Matthew Lazar. 

Matthew’s wife, Vivian,  serves as the director of HaZamir International. She helped to establish an audition process for the HaZamir choir, in an effort to maintain high musical standards, but echoes Eilon’s feeling that the organization is welcoming and accommodating to those of all backgrounds. 

“We are an inclusive, pluralistic organization, and we don’t emphasize differences,” Vivian says. “We have gender-fluid singers, we have Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, nonaffiliated singers. We have singers who’ve never spoken a word of Hebrew in their lives and the first word of Hebrew that comes out of their mouth is through song.”

She adds: “None of it matters, as long as they can sing. As long as they’re sopranos, altos, tenors, or bases, they belong in our community.”

ZAMIR CHORAL FOUNDATION HAZAMIR CONCERT

WHEN | WHERE 3 p.m., March 19; Jazz At Lincoln Center; https://2023.jazz.org/visiting-presenters

COST Tickets from $50 to $150 

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