When a dozen teenagers from the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon arrived here last Sunday, they immediately bonded with their peers in Baltimore.
“We talk about Israel, we learn about Israel, but until you make that personal connection, it’s just a concept,” said Erika Pardes Schon. “Now, they are forming real friendships that will last a lifetime.”
As conductor of the youth choral group HaZamir Baltimore, Pardes Schon welcomed the members of HaZamir Ashkelon to town to rehearse for a Mar. 26 performance at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. (Baltimore and Ashkelon have been sister cities since 2003.)
The two choral groups are slated to perform alongside others from across HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, a project of the Zamir Choral Foundation.
While the Israeli teens and their 32 Charm City peers had never performed together before, both groups have been rehearsing the same material. After just one quick rehearsal, they were able to deliver a rousing performance at Owings Mills’ Har Sinai Congregation for lay leaders and staff of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Also singing there were youngsters from BEIT-RJ, the Baltimore Educational Initiative for Teens of Reform Judaism.
“This is an amazing thing,” said Eyal Drachman, conductor of the Ashkelon choir. “We learn in Ashkelon all the repertoire, and we can sit down after just a few minutes of rehearsal and all the kids sing together. They know exactly what to sing, and they sound like one choir! This is amazing to me.”
Drachman studied musical composition and arrangement at Israel’s Rimon School of Music, while Pardes Schon conducts choirs and directs musical programs at the Krieger Schechter Day School in Stevenson. She has also served as the interim president of the Baltimore Hebrew Institute.
As a network of choral chapters across the United States and Israel, HaZamir strives to strengthen Jewish identity and build a pluralistic Jewish community, while also aiming to achieve high musical standards. Chapters meet weekly to rehearse a shared repertoire and join together periodically for regional, national and international events, including the annual gala performance.
In addition, a Teen Leadership Program encourages participants to take part in Israel advocacy. The project comes out of the Zamir Choral Foundation, which aims to foster Jewish commitment through choral singing, strengthen Jewish identity in teens and create dynamic new Jewish music programming.
HaZamir Baltimore’s teens come from 13 different area schools and rehearse regularly at the Park Heights Jewish Community Center. When coming together to perform with Israeli counterparts, “it becomes a vehicle for building Jewish identity and Jewish pride,” said Pardes Schon.
“As an international Jewish youth organization, HaZamir uses music as the pathway to bring together young people from various backgrounds and various cities. They are unified through this Jewish music,” she said. “They get to know each other and find they have so much in common. All the differences disappear when they are in a room together singing.”
As coordinator for the Ashkelon group, Nicole Rosenberg said the direct contact with their American peers is an invaluable experience for the Israeli teens. “Baltimore is our sister city, and HaZamir is one of our flagship partnership projects,” she said. “Our kids get a sense of the Jews who support Israel outside Israel. They see that Israel is not isolated, that we have many supporters.”
While in town, the Ashkelon teens visited Krieger Schechter, where they joined an egalitarian minyan, and also were slated to tour the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. In addition, they toured museums and points of interest in downtown Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Past visits between the two groups have resulted in enduring ties. “Our kids become connected to the American kids,” Rosenberg said. “They continue on with Skype and Facebook and email, and when the Baltimore kids come to Ashkelon they come and stay in our homes.”
Organizers of the visit said they are looking forward to the upcoming performance in New York City. “This is Lincoln Center, and it’s a new experience for all of us,” said Pardes Schon. “It’s the first time HaZamir will be singing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, and that in itself is a big, exciting privilege. Then, there’s the thrill of hearing 400 voices united in song.
“There is nothing quite like that experience.”
For information, visit zamirchoralfoundation.org/programs/hazamir/chapters/baltimore.htm .
Adam Stone is an Annapolis-based freelance writer.
Photos courtesy of Nicole Rosenberg and Erika Pardes Schon
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