The Jewish world is abuzz with the findings from the recent Pew study: A Portrait of Jewish Americans. The study suggests that Jewish identity in America is changing dramatically. More than 60 percent of Jews who have gotten married in our new millennium have selected non-Jewish partners. And today, 62 percent of Jews say that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while only 15 percent consider it to be a matter of religion.
On my college campus, we are largely insulated from the foreboding indicators of the Pew study. The Columbia-Barnard Hillel houses one of the most robust Jewish collegiate communities in the nation. There are several dozen Hillel affiliated campus organizations and hundreds of students join together each Friday night for prayer services followed by dinner. The Columbia/Barnard campus, however, is not like most other campuses. Because of its location in New York City, it has become a magnet for students from Orthodox backgrounds, many of whom begin college after spending a gap-year in Israel. There simply are no questions about Jewish continuity for the majority of these students.
But even at Columbia, and certainly on campuses across the country, the Pew study paints a gloomy long-term portrait for Jewish identity, especially for the vast majority of Jews who are not part of the Orthodox world. As the Pew study found, the fact is that Jews tend to be less religious than the American public when religion is measured by conventional measures, such as belief in God or attendance at church. And although the number of Orthodox Jews is growing, they still account for only about 10 percent of American Jewry and less than one-quarter of one percent of the total population.
The Pew study merely highlighted what major American Jewish Organizations have known for years – that the future of American Jewry is perilous. But many of the old solutions to the problem of Jewish continuity are just not up to the challenge today. In the last two decades, the most exciting program in community building has been Birthright, the effort initiated by several major philanthropists to give every young Jew a free trip to Israel. But even at least one of the mission’s founders has begun to question whether, without appropriate Jewish institutions in America to engage these youth upon their return, there is a reasonable chance of encouraging young American Jews to embrace their Jewish heritage.
This fall, I initiated a small but successful experiment in Jewish community building. Building on the current enthusiasm within my generation for music, I decided to form a new singing group for young collegiate and post-collegiate Jews in New York City. But unlike traditional collegiate a capella choirs, we determined to dedicate ourselves to singing serious choral music in Hebrew.
The genesis of this idea was actually my experience in HaZamir, the International Jewish High School Choir, of which I was a member in high school. Comprised of 300 teen singers from more than twenty communities across the U.S. and Israel, HaZamir performed Jewish choral arrangements at the highest level of artistry and nuance, conducted by nationally renowned cantors and Jewish musical professionals under the auspices of Matthew ‘Mati’ Lazar. Now that I was in college, I wanted a choral group that took itself seriously and demanded similar discipline and hard work from its singers. Frankly, I wanted to sing high-level Jewish music that could be compared to the highest quality secular choirs today. The problem was that it didn’t exist.
And thus was born Zamir Noded. In Hebrew, Zamir is a word that can be translated as both “nightingale” and “song.” Noded is the Hebrew word for “wandering.” I named the new choir Zamir Noded after the famous 1954 Naomi Shemer song, “Zamar Noded.” After all, I was pitching the choir to other young Jewish adults in our twenties who were indeed wanderers, searching for our identities, searching for our place in the world.
The choir opened in September . . . and the singers came running. Apparently I was not the only college student in metropolitan New York who yearned to sing serious Jewish choral music. Within two weeks the choir had grown to thirty, and the weekly rehearsals began. We were particularly fortunate to have Mati as our conductor. The rehearsals were challenging, meticulous, and lots of fun. As I looked around at the group each week, I realized that we had brought together a truly diverse group of Jews – from across the religious and political spectrum, some with fluency in Hebrew and others who could only read the transliterations; some from the Modern Orthodox community that I come from, but others from Conservative, Reform and Secular backgrounds. As Zamir Noded took shape as a serious choir, it quickly also turned into a very special community. We had been searching for a musical outlet, but in the process, we found a Jewish home. The choir performed in its debut Chanukah concert to a sold-out Merkin Concert Hall.
The story of Zamir Noded is highly relevant in light of the Pew Study. Jewish young adults are looking for a Jewish home that fits their needs. It can come in any form, but it has to be organic, serious and real – and it has to be pluralistic and tolerant of all different types of Jewish observance and knowledge. As one singer explained, “Our community has succeeded because of the high quality that we demand from our singers. When you do something seriously, and others take it seriously, than a community forms—that’s what we did.”
What will happen as our generation of Jews grows older? Will we seek out Jewish lifestyles? Send our children to Jewish day schools? Attend services on the High Holidays? To look at the results of the Pew Study, the future looks grim. There is a need for initiatives like Zamir Noded, initiatives that foster a love for Jewish culture, text and history, and which resonate with the youth of today. While music is certainly the pathway I have chosen, the story of Zamir Noded can be replicated in the world of the arts, sports, and other disciplines. To keep young people engaged Jewishly at this most crucial stage of their lives, as they forge their adult identities and find potential Jewish spouses, there need to be programs and that are serious, challenging, and exciting. Zamir Noded proves that if you offer Jewish programming (in this case music) at the highest level of excellence, the singers – the young adult Jewish singers – will come. And when they come, they will create a community so strong, so rich and so real that young Jews will feel permanently engaged.
Talia Lefkowitz is a student at Columbia University.