Youth choir embodies the spirit of Israel

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Some 200 Jewish students from around the Bay Area will come together for the first time as one choir to give voice to a musical salute to Israel at “Israel in the Gardens.”

“It’s exciting and fun to sing with other kids from different congregations, and I get to see my friends,” says Laura Prosterman, 9, from Congregation B’nai Emunah, describing her role in the community choir, comprised of children ages 8 to 12.

Nine-year-old twins Andrew and Alex Whitlatch agree. “It’s fun,” Andrew says, “but it takes a lot of time out of my life.” Alex adds, “We didn’t practice a lot, but we still sound good.”

Fran Avni — singer-songwriter, recording artist and producer — will direct the choir. She says, indeed, the children do sound good.

The choir is sponsored by the Israel Education Initiative, a joint endeavor between several Jewish agencies: the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the North American Coalition for Israel Engagement.

Project director Vavi Toran credits Yair Shragai, an Israeli musician and educator, with developing a curriculum called “Shirat Ha’aretz,” based on 12 Israeli songs that serve as a tool for understanding historical, geographical and cultural elements of Israeli society.

Avni, the project’s educator-in-residence, has drawn from the curriculum songs and added other selections such as the choir’s special tribute to the late Naomi Shemer, “The First Lady of Israeli Song.”

Much of the choir’s success, Avni says, comes from the enthusiastic and dedicated teachers who love to sing Hebrew songs and convey that dedication to the children. The children have been rehearsing over the past several months and will dress in blue and white for the occasion. The performance is the culmination of a yearlong project and the beginning of a new tradition.

Avni, who lived in Israel for nine years and who was mentored by Shemer, described Shemer as a “folk poet with her pulse on the nation.” The children will sing a medley of five songs by Shemer, beginning with her first hit about a wandering minstrel, and including her version of the Beatles “Let it Be” as well as verses from her well-known “Jerusalem of Gold.”

In addition to the special tribute to Shemer, the children will sing the song “Chai” by the late modern folk poet Ehud Manor. They also will perform one of Avni’s songs “Gesher Tsar,” taken from an ancient text that describes the whole world as a narrow bridge; the song tells us not to be afraid.

Of the program, Avni says it is “a necklace of songs that celebrate the bitterness and the sweetness of life but in the end is all about hope and spirit. Singing is a wonderful way to create community and promote harmony and peace. It is a wonderful and creative curriculum for teaching our children — our future.”

“We are watering our garden,” says Avni.

Two singers from Or Shalom Jewish Community — Molly Seligman, 11, and Michele Chesley, 12 — say it was interesting to learn the Hebrew songs even though they didn’t really understand more than a few words. “We got the overall theme,” they say.

Ten-year-old singers Adi Alouf, Rya Fishman, Renee MacDonald and Estefany Martinez say they practiced a lot. The San Francisco Brandeis Hillel Day School students are a bit nervous to perform in front of a crowd but they agree that with so many more schools participating they will blend in all right. Alouf admits, “I’ve never been in a choir before and singing is not my thing, but it’s been really fun.”

No choir experience is required for the audience, who will receive song sheets and an invitation to join in.

Choir participants include students from Brandeis Hillel Day School, Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, Congregation B’nai Israel, Peninsula Sinai Congregation, Oakland Hebrew Day School, Or Shalom Jewish Community, Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School, South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, Congregation B’nai Emunah and Tehiyah Day School. The performance takes place at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, June 5, in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Garden.

Information: www.isrealcentersf.org or e-mail Vavi Toran at [email protected].

ISRAEL IN THE GARDENS