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Campus Life 204: Connecting A Cappella
by Hannah Needleman

Every day at college brings new questions about identity: Who am I? How do I spend my somewhat limited time here? How do I express my Jewish identity? Do I even have one?

I was raised in a Connecticut town which offered limited opportunity for me to grow as a Jew, perhaps because I was not regularly interacting with Jews my age. Connecting with the Jewish a cappella community at college has changed all that. Now I have many new Jewish friends in the group with whom I share these identity questions and find comfort in their answers.

I belong to Pizmon (Hebrew for chorus or refrain of a song), the very first collegiate Jewish a cappella group. Started in 1987 by four Columbia University students, and now also encompassing Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Pizmon takes Jewish a cappella music to Jewish communities throughout the globe. We’ll spend a Shabbat at a synagogue in the Northeastern U.S., presenting a large community concert, performing liturgical pieces during Friday evening and Saturday morning services, and conducting music workshops with religious school students. During spring break we’ll travel to farther U.S. destinations or to such countries as Ukraine, Argentina, Israel, and the United Kingdom, performing more than 20 times in old age homes, hospice centers, and schools over the course of 10 days.

Pizmon has opened me up to the wealth of Jewish resources available within a large, vibrant Jewish campus community: Jews from different backgrounds and levels of observance, books in the Beit Midrash and at the student center, and many peers with whom I have discussed every facet of Judaism imaginable. As such, Pizmon is now absolutely inextricable from my understanding of myself.

Today, nearly 70 collegiate Jewish a cappella groups perform in North America (see habayit.comfor a current list and contacts), including Techiya (MIT), Hooshir (Indiana University), Shir Appeal (Tufts), Rak Shalom and Kol Sasson (University of Maryland), and Varsity Jews (University of Toronto). Groups vary in size, style, vision, and vocal ability. Some are known for shtick (think Brandeis’ Jewish Fella A Cappella); others demonstrate mastery of complex arrangements (University of Pennsylvania’s Shabbatones) or palpable energy (New York University’s Ani V’ata). Many gather once a year in New York to perform at the Jewish Collegiate Festival for the Performing Arts, listening to and learning from their Jewish a cappella peers. Other community-builders like KolCast, downloadable via iTunes, allow the groups to share music and news, such as upcoming concerts and CD releases.

Interested in potentially joining a group? Investigate the scene at your campus Hillel. If a group doesn’t already exist, start one! While the audition process differs from school to school, most groups ask interested students to prepare a song to sing in order to demonstrate pitch accuracy and the ability to follow and maintain rhythm. Some members walked into their audition with little more than a love of Jewish music and an enthusiastic spirit. As the groups tend to be tight-knit families, open-mindedness, a willingness to experiment musically, and commitment to community are as important as singing skills.

Auditioning for a Jewish a cappella group was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It might turn out to be one of yours, too.

—Hannah Needleman, a junior at Barnard College and a member of Pizmon since freshman year


Union for Reform Judaism.