In first-ever trip, choir spreads Jewish a capella to Bay Area
December 29, 2015
On the morning of Thursday, Dec. 3, the Choirhawks performed at Town Hall wearing loose sweatpants, hats, and casual T-shirts, in clear violation of the school dress code.
In spite of this, a few minutes after they finished, music teacher and choir director Mrs. Joelle Keene received a text message from Principal Reb Noam Weissman.
“Holy Lord that was amazing!!!!!!”
The group was dressed this way due to the fact that they were on the brink of their first-ever choir performance tour, for which they would board a bus to Northern California as they walked out the door that morning. Their tour took them to San Francisco, Oakland, Marin County and Palo Alto over four days.
Loose sweats are allowed during long-distance transportation, but the performance hadn’t been planned. The group was supposed to leave an hour earlier, but because of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino the day before, security guard Walter Morales was called that morning as a last-minute extra chaperone. That delayed the Choirhawks’ departure until a few minutes after Town Hall began.
Senior Jake Benyowitz, who has been a Choirhawk for four years, had the idea for a trip last year after being inspired by a visit to the JCC from a Jewish high school choir on a West Coast tour.
“Last year, Ramaz High School from New York came out here on a trip like this,” Jake said. “We sat down with Reb Noam, and San Francisco came out of the idea, and we just made it happen.”
With 30 students this year – the most ever for Shalhevet’s choir — the choir was also accompanied on the trip by Admissions Director Mrs. Natalie Weiss and Judaic Studies teacher Ms. Ilana Wilner.
Reb Weissman’s reaction was a taste of things to come. Audiences seemed enthusiastic at every stop.
At Oakland Hebrew Day School and at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in downtown San Francisco, the singers were approached by students and teachers wondering where to find the choir’s iTunes album. The Choirhawks haven’t made one yet, but Mrs. Keene said that they were hoping to record one as soon as next month.
“A lot of people were recording us, they all stood up and clapped, and then after we were done they all came to talk to us,” said sophomore Emily Schoen, who sings alto.
At the K-8 school in Oakland, they were met by the familiar face of former Shalhevet Judaic Studies principal Rabbi Ari Leubitz, now OHDS head of school. Rabbi Leubitz asked for questions from the audience, and several were directed toward Jake, whose lively beatboxing seemed to have fascinated the younger ones. At the high school in San Francisco, music teacher Mr. Natan Kuchar asked Mrs. Keene whether they could use Shalhevet’s Chanukah arrangements. She said yes.
The group sang a mix of Chanukah, Israeli, Jewish and pop a capella, mostly songs they’d performed before, which this year’s 13 new members learned in just a few weeks before departure. They sang “Maoz Tzur,” “Mi Yemalel” and “Al Hanissim” for Chanukah, along with “Y’hei Lecha,” “Shir Haemek,” “Adom Olam” (“Cups” version),” “I See Fire,” “I Won’t Give Up,” and “All of Me,” the order depending on the event.
On their way to Palo Alto for Shabbat, the group made a sightseeing detour to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, disembarking at a public viewing area in Marin County with a view south to the bridge and the city. There they performed a spontaneous flash mob, at the request of Ms. Natalie Weiss who was going to miss one planned for after Shabbat.
The group started with John Legend’s “All of Me,” and then added “Al Hanissim.”
“We all bunched together and it was so cool, and we had a huge crowd, and they were all clapping, asking us to do another one,” said freshman soprano Abby Blumofe. “It was probably the best thing that happened on the trip.”
On Saturday night, the choir surprised pedestrians with flash mobs at Ghiradelli Square and Pier 39, though crowds were smaller.
The group davened and ate Shabbat meals at the Orthodox congregation Emek Beracha near their hotel, and then walked more than a mile to the conservative synagogue Kol Emeth where they gave their biggest performance of the trip on Saturday afternoon.
At Kol Emeth the Choirhawks gave a 45-minute lesson in Jewish a capella, performing all their songs and introducing each one with a student-read dvar Torah or explanation of where it came from.
When they were finished, the group received a standing ovation from more than 100 people in the shul’s sanctuary, along with calls of “Encore!” In response, members of last year’s group sang “I See Fire.” Then came more requests for an album or EP.
“This was so much better than going to New York,” Mrs. Keene said later. “The audiences were so appreciative, because they never hear this kind of thing up there. Jewish a capella is really common on the East Coast, but you could tell it was really new to the communities in the Bay Area.”
She said the trip led also to a greater sense of unity among members of the choir.
“We had never had that much concentrated time together, and people who didn’t know each other very well before know each other better,” Mrs. Keene said “Choral music is partly chemistry, and I think we got our chemistry to a level beyond where it even would have been by the end of the year.”
There was, however, one bump in the road. On Sunday, the choir got back on the bus planning to arrive back at Shalhevet at around 4 pm., in time to observe the beginning of Chanukah that night. But on the I-5 North of Los Banos, with about three hours left in the bus ride, the outer back left tire of their bus blew out.
“Suddenly, the bus slowed down and went to the side of the highway,” said sophomore Daniel Lorrell, a bass. “Some people said they had seen the tire fly into the air behind them.”
According to the National Safety Council, tire blowouts are generally the result of low air pressure in a tire, an overloaded vehicle, or damaged tires.
“It was a full blowout," said junior Yaakov Sobel. "The rubber completely disconnected from the mesh wiring, and we started seeing pieces of rubber flying through the air.”
For several hours, the choir waited on the side of the road on the I-5 North of Los Banos before a truck arrived and professionals began the repair. A hydraulic press was used to lift the back of the bus off of the ground, and then the tire was replaced with a durable one in a process that lasted approximately 20 minutes.
The mishap delayed the group by four hours, but statistics show that the situation could have been much worse.
According to Standavislaw.com , tire blowouts cause over 400 deaths per year. Students said there was no sign that the tire from the Shalhevet bus damaged any other vehicles, but the annual number of accidents caused by tire blowouts sums up to 78,000.
Mrs. Keene said that while the unexpectedly extended ride back was difficult at the time, the experience will not prevent the choir from embarking on long driving trips in the future.
It also provided the opportunity for another flashmob. Mr. Morales befriended an officer of the California Highway Patrol, who drove to his station and came back with gallon-sized containers of water for the students to drink. The Choirhawks crammed to the front of the bus and sang “All Of Me.”
The students expressed appreciation for the security that Mr. Morales provided.
“Having someone else be there to just make sure everything was okay and going well felt good,” said junior Eli Greenberg, who sings bass. “Just knowing that nothing was going to happen and if something did, we were safe with Walter.”
The San Bernardino shooting left 14 people dead and 21 injured, and several parents jittery about the groups plans. Mrs. Keene said three parents mentioned this in emails the night before they left.
Mr. Morales, a former LA County Sheriff’s deputy, was glad to have made the trip.
“Having any measures that I know from my training experience, and trying to assess the situation, helped out in letting the kids know that I was there for their safety and for any other issues that they had,” said Mr. Morales.
At 8 p.m., the choir arrived safely back at Shalhevet, and students departed quickly to light their first Chanukah candles. The choir’s first annual was described by many as a tradition worth continuing.
“The choir trip was pretty incredible,” said junior Micha Thau, who sings tenor. “I felt like I was in a legitimate choir that was performing, and I think that we represented Shalhevet very well.”
Staff writer Aidel Townsley contributed to this report.