Four New Jerseyans are in Los Angeles competing in an Israeli singing contest.
They are among the 12 American semifinalists in the Hallelujah Global Jewish Singing Contest.
Dori Gelb, 27, formerly of Randolph and Alle-Faye Monka, 26, a former resident of Morristown grew up together at Mount Freedom Jewish Center and were “thrilled” to spot each other on the list of semi-finalists.
The other competitors with NJ roots are Lauren Rosenthal and Debbie Schames. Rosenthal, 25, lives in Edison, where she was born and raised. A publicist in the book publishing industry, she is a member of Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park. Schames, 24, originally from West Orange and a newlywed, now lives in LA’s Beverlywood with her husband. She is working on getting her real estate license. Her parents are still members of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, where she grew up.
Sponsored by the Israeli American Council, the competition will include a week, which began June 11, of rehearsing, bonding, and sightseeing. It marks the first time a Hallelujah semifinal competition is being held in North America.
The winner of the June 17 sing-off will travel to Israel in December to compete against 29 other participants, each representing a different country. The winner of that final competition will record the winning song in Israel.
The competition was founded in Israel by Eitan Gafni in 1991 with the support of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Ministry of Education. It ran for three years, then took a 20-year break, resuming in 2011.
In an e-mail conversation with NJJN, Gafni credited the Internet for the competition’s revival. “It allowed the process of selection to take place via YouTube and made it feasible to choose contestants not just through the Jewish Agency, as in the past,” he wrote.
Gafni, 71, spent his life in the music industry in Israel. He has been a talent agent/manager for musicians and producer of musical events and continues to serve as a producer for the Hallelujah competition.
“The goal is to connect the worldwide Jewish community to its roots and to its heritage through Hebrew songs,” said Gafni. He added that he is already looking forward to next year, when three semi-finals will be held in the United States — in New York and Miami as well as LA.
Gelb, Monka, Rosenthal, and Schames were selected from about 100 applicants between the ages of 18 and 30 from around the United States. Finalists from 26 countries have already been selected, and semifinals will be held through the fall in Paris, Mexico, and Brazil.
Gelb and Monka, who now live in New York City, met with NJJN over coffee at Birch, a cafe on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Sunday before departing for LA to talk about the competition. They both called it the opportunity of a lifetime.
Gelb, who lives in Astoria, Queens, and works in development and communications for American Friends of Migdal Ohr, said she has been “singing since I could speak.” She performed every summer at the Brundage Park Playhouse in Randolph for years, and went on to perform in plays during her time at Randolph High School. She joined Kaskeset, a Jewish a cappella group, at SUNY Binghamton, where she earned a BA in Spanish and comparative literature.
A soprano, Gelb is particularly looking forward to having an “intense” singing and rehearsal schedule for the first time since graduating from college. Although she said she knew early on that a singing career “was not a path I could take,” she added, “Nothing like this has ever come up before. Who knows what could happen?”
Monka is pursuing a career in musical theater. She realized that she loved to sing when, as an eight-year-old, she listened to her mother, a native Israeli who sang with an army chorus. Monka attended the Professional Performing Arts School in New York after graduating from the Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph, and then pursued a bachelor in fine arts degree in musical theater from the University of Michigan.
She lives on the Upper West Side. “I’ve definitely thought about where this could take me,” she said of the competition. “I love performing and I will do it on Broadway, in Oklahoma, or in Israel. I try not to think about winning but I would love to win. You never know where life leads. You need to take every opportunity,” said Monka.
Monka has plenty of family in Israel, including a brother who made aliya two years ago. Whenever she worries things might not work out in New York, “everyone always says come to Israel,” she said, and she’s eager to meet Israelis in the music business.
So far, she and Gelb have already had a few rehearsals, via Skype, with producer and writer Tomer Adadi, who will be managing all the contest rehearsals.
“It’s been awesome having conversations with one of the top people in Israel. I’d kill to have connections like that here,” Monka said. Adadi has helped them each settle on their selection for the competition, from a list of about 300 songs. Gelb will sing “Al Kol Eyleh” by Naomi Shemer, and Monka will sing “Geshem Beito” by Kobi Oshrat.
Disappointed that they won’t be flying together, the two have reconnected through the competition. They said they look forward to providing support for each other.
The 12 judges in LA include some local dignitaries as well as celebrities of the Jewish music world like Craig Taubman. According to Dikla Kadosh, director of Israeli American Council’s community events and volunteering, “A big part of the competition is not about who wins but the connections young Jewish musicians make with each other and with Hebrew songs.”
Both Gelb and Monka said they are excited for the whole experience. “It combines a passion for arts and a love for Israel,” said Monka.