On campus, a perfect pitch for pluralism

On campus, a perfect pitch for pluralism

Jewish a cappella brings college kids together in harmony

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Louis Ades of Oakhurst, far right, sings with Shir Appeal at Tufts University
Louis Ades of Oakhurst, far right, sings with Shir Appeal at Tufts University

A cappella brought Jake Rothenberg to Hillel. A junior at the University of Michigan, the bass from Maplewood has always loved singing, often snagging lead roles in musicals at his high school. 

When he got to Ann Arbor, he auditioned for several of the campus’s 16 a cappella groups, but, he said, “I was drawn to the idea of Jewish a cappella.”

Now the music director for Michigan’s Kol HaKavod, he leads the group in singing everything from traditional Jewish songs to contemporary Israeli pop numbers and American hits.

A cappella groups have exploded onto college campuses in the last two decades. Although singing in close harmony has long been a campus tradition (Yale’s Whiffenpoofs were founded in 1909), recent TV shows and movies have brought a cappella in from the margins to the mainstream (see box).

For Jewish groups on campuses — well over 1,000 according to a site devoted to Jewish a cappella — the choirs often act as surrogate Jewish communities. Students perform songs from the synagogue repertory, Israeli pop, Yiddish and Ladino classics, and contemporary hits with a parodic twist. For some, it’s a point of entry to the Jewish community. For others, it’s a window into forms of Judaism to which they have never been exposed. For all, it’s a way to connect to Jewish music.

Jewish students from New Jersey on campuses around the country say there’s something about Jewish a cappella that seems to bring people together. 

Louis Ades from Oakhurst auditioned for five different a cappella groups when he arrived at Tufts University. Now a junior, he’s been part of Shir Appeal, the Jewish a cappella group, since he was a freshman. He’s a baritone who sometimes also sings tenor, and said he became a music minor because of his experience with Shir Appeal. 

Ades favors liturgical styles and handles all the group’s arrangements. The repertoire is all Jewish. “It weirds me out a bit that other Jewish a cappella groups also sing popular music,” he said. “At Shir Appeal, the music we sing has to be Jewish in some way.” 

One of Ades’s favorite experiences is traveling to perform, saying it gives him a chance to see “how Judaism appears in more pluralistic ways” than the Syrian-Jewish community he comes from. “A lot of times, you can’t find the same synagogue twice,” he said.

Sarah Beckoff of West Orange, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, joined the Shabbatones as a sophomore and is now the group’s president. 

“It’s the best choice I made at Penn,” the soprano said. Having grown up Orthodox, attending Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David (an Orthodox synagogue in her hometown) and Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston and the Frisch School in Paramus, she knew she’d be involved in Hillel. But being part of the Shabbatones “makes me more aware of other types of Jewish experiences,” she said. “Coming to college, I was not aware of other opinions or what people thought of Orthodox Judaism, or the different ways people grapple with Judaism. It had made me think about what I do and it has made me more open-minded and more religious at the same time.” 

She added that having people question her about her own choices has only strengthened her Orthodoxy. “I wear skirts and I’m more tznius [modest] and more conscious. I can relate to others but hold on to my own values.” Like Ades at Tufts, Beckoff loves visiting synagogues across the United States. “There are so many ways of being Jewish. Music is a way” we can all access it together, she said. 

A critical portal

But belonging to a group has offered other kinds of unexpected rewards. Penn’s Shabbatones undertakes community service gigs at places like senior homes and soup kitchens. “I didn’t expect to love performing and making people happy. I love the service aspect,” Beckoff said. And she got to perform at the White House Hanukka party in December, where she met President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. “That was surreal!” she said.

Joining Koleinu, the Jewish a cappella group at Princeton University, was a no-brainer for Mallika Viswanath of Teaneck. “I’ve been singing my whole life and I’m observant so I didn’t want to have to travel on Shabbos,” she told NJJN. But what happened after she joined was less predictable. “I didn’t expect most of my close friends to be from Koleinu. I thought my friends would be from the Orthodox community. But we love just hanging out together. It’s so comfortable,” she said. 

The fact that most of the members are not Orthodox turned out to be a bonus. “There’s a whole range of observance, and that’s something I really like,” Viswanath said. 

For those from more liberal or secular households, Jewish a cappella can provide a critical portal into the Jewish community.

Anna Krymchanskaya from Manalapan joined Kol Halayla at Rutgers University during her freshman year. She calls the group “a nice little family.” For her, it’s the only outlet she has for her Jewish identity and she likes it that way.

That matches the outlook of her family. Emigres from Ukraine, they take a secular approach to Jewish identity. “I was attracted to the fact that it’s not religious but we sing Jewish songs,” she said. “The driving force for me was that it focuses on Jewish identity and happened to be singing. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable” the way more religious Jewish opportunities often do. “It’s been a great opportunity to expand my horizons.”

For Rothenberg, at University of Michigan, a cappella was that “critical portal” to a wider Jewish life. “Kol HaKavod brought me to Hillel and made me feel comfortable in that space,” he said. “In terms of doing Jewish things on campus, Kol HaKavod is awesome. If I want to go to Shabbat dinner at Hillel, there’s always someone from Kol HaKavod willing to go. Last year I had a Passover seder and had everyone from Kol HaKavod come over.” 

At Penn, Beckoff added, “It’s cool to see people who say they didn’t think about Judaism before but now are learning so much. We even have a member whose dad is Jewish and is going through the conversion process. And he says the Shabbatones really molded his Jewish experience. It’s a very powerful experience especially for those with less Jewish background. A lot of people feel it’s their connection to Jewish life on campus.”

Most students say their a cappella friends are their closest friends on campus. Rothenberg thinks he knows why. “When you sing with anyone, you become great friends. There’s something about singing that brings people together. When you sing twice a week for two-and-a-half hours at a time, you are definitely going to get closer and get to know each other a lot. If everyone is Jewish, that’s even better. It adds that certain dimension. Not only do you know them well, but you can bring them to Shabbat dinner or meet for Yom Kippur services.”

Coverage of youth and higher education made possible by a gift to the Friends of NJJN Fund from the Florin Family Foundation.

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