Jewish Folk Chorus plans 70th birthday trip to Israel

The Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco, begun 69 years ago in the chicken farming community of Petaluma, has hired a new director and may be embarking on a maiden voyage to Israel.

Jonathan Bley, 37, takes over the helm of the nearly 40-member chorus after serving as its piano accompanist for the past two years.

He hopes to lead the chorus in Jerusalem next August to help mark Jerusalem 3000, a 15-month party celebrating King David's declaration that the city is the Jewish people's eternal capital.

"It would be a wonderful celebration of [the chorus's own] 70th birthday" next year, Bley said.

An alumnus of the Aaron Copland School of Music at the City University of New York, Bley moved to San Francisco from New York three years ago and began teaching piano and working with chamber music groups. He and his wife, Beth, have also started one of the chamber music series at the Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco.

One of Bley's goals is to take the folk chorus back to its roots, reviving Jewish labor movement songs of the early 20th century. The chorus began in 1926, when left-wing Jewish singers from Petaluma joined up with the N.Y.-based Jewish Music Alliance and became one of 25 chapters of the Yiddish Worker Choral and Mandolin Society. The folk chorus is one of the few remaining groups from that society — although it has drifted from its roots.

Now the chorus is trying to determine if and how they will go to Israel to join the Jerusalem 3000 festivities, which began Aug. 28.

Renee Enteen, president of the chorus, estimates the trip would cost $50,000. Chorus officials discussed several fund-raising plans for the Israel trip at a recent board meeting, Bley said, but have not determined how to pay for the six-day visit.

However, Enteen said she would have to gauge the energy and support for this project, both within the chorus itself and in the wider community. Performers from 30 countries are already set to participate in Jerusalem 3000, including Daniel Barenboim, who will conduct the Deutsche Staatsoper of Berlin, and the Gospel Music Association of Nashville.

Meanwhile, controversy has already struck the festivities. Palestinians are calling Jerusalem 3000 an attempt to promote Israel's claim to all of the disputed city. The European Union is staying clear of the celebration and cutting off subsidies to it. And many archeologists and Orthodox rabbis challenge Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert's contention that King David's capture of Jerusalem and establishment of Jewish rule really occurred exactly 3,000 years ago.

In response to such debate, Enteen said she would ask chorus members whether they want to participate.

"Anything having to do with Israel is controversial," Enteen said. Chorus members range from observant Jews to atheists.

Meanwhile, back at home, Bley said the chorus will focus on traditional fare this year — Yiddish folk songs, occasional Hebrew songs, and pieces in English and Ladino.

Rehearsals began earlier this month at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St. New members are welcome. Most rehearsals are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays. For information, phone (510) 533-3903.