Hashirims double mitzvah: Singers hit all the right notes while spreading the joy of Jewish mu

“There’s really nothing like singing,” says Billie Bandermann, music director of Hashirim, Palo Alto’s Jewish community choir. The group’s 30-odd members agree — and show it by regularly showing up to weekly rehearsals, some since the group’s inception five years ago.

Hashirim, whose members share the cost of paying Bandermann and accompanist Masako Okada, rehearses at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, but the group is independent of the synagogue or any other institution.

“Our agenda is very simple,” says choir president Allen Podell. “We want the people who are singing in Hashirim to learn how to sing and to enjoy it. It has to be really fulfilling for them.

“After that, our job is to go out and pass our joy in singing to the people in the community.”

That community includes residents of area nursing homes and senior facilities, as well as Jewish community festivals such as To Life!

“It’s kind of a double mitzvah,” Podell says. “We bring joy to our own singers and we pass that on to others.”

Of course, Bandermann and her enthusiastic singers still strive for musical excellence. “You always want to get better, right?” she says.

Her goal, she adds, is “to keep improving and to build our repertoire, and to have more choir members. But we don’t want to exclude anybody.”

And when a rehearsal isn’t perfect, Bandermann takes the bigger perspective, remembering that, individual mistakes aside, “God hears a different sound. That’s what it’s all about.”

Unlike a professional choir, in which the end result is the ultimate measure of success, what keeps Hashirim going is the bliss of coming together for the sake of music-making.

“Anyone who puts his evening aside every week to attend choir rehearsal,” says Bandermann, “that person wants to be there for a very special reason that I may not even know about. It’s my job to make everyone welcome and to feel that everyone is important to the group and can contribute in a positive way.”

For choir member Tola Minkoff, a trained opera singer, that “special reason” is the opportunity to learn new music while participating in a tradition that can’t be taken for granted.

“I came from a little town in Iowa and we were the only Jewish family. I wasn’t exposed to almost anything Jewish,” she says.

Bandermann brings a modern sensibility to traditional Jewish lyrics, often incorporating contemporary arrangements of Jewish texts by Danny Maseng, Leon Sher and John Leavitt into the choir’s repertoire.

“We’re not so old in our group that we don’t enjoy having something new to do,” says Podell.

When the regular Beth Am choir disintegrated five years ago, Podell explains, “some of us said, ‘Gee, we’d like to sing Jewish songs throughout the year.'”

From the beginning, the focus was on inclusion. “Our job is to do a community service, and it’s not a mitzvah for the community if you’re an elite social group,” says Podell, even if that means mixing experienced singers with beginners.

But like the old joke says, two Jews have three opinions — now multiply that by 15.

“I’ve learned not to ask opinions about anything,” Bandermann jokes, “because I like to run very tight rehearsals. If I ask for advice on anything, I never know how long it could take.”

Fortunately, the enthusiasm of Hashirim’s members has an outlet onstage, whether at the Great America theme park or at the Jewish Home in San Francisco.

This year’s performance at To Life!, the choir’s fourth, takes place at 2:15 p.m. on the community stage. The chorale promises to please a crowd with an ear for all kinds of Jewish music, from Irving Berlin to Chassidic nigguns — and maybe even snare a few new members in the process.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Bandermann says, “but there’s a warmth in the group. People care about each other.”