Israeli contest combs diaspora for singing star

jerusalem   |   When Israeli music producer-to-the-stars Eitan Gafni put on a global song contest for Jews nearly 20 years ago, finding contestants was difficult. His Hallelujah global Jewish singing contest ran for three years, beginning in 1992, but a lack of funds led to its demise.

Seven months ago, Gafni decided to put his song contest out there again, after a friend of his son’s — a teenager at the time of the original contest — returned home to Israel from an extended stay in Australia and encouraged him to help young Jews in the diaspora reconnect to Israel .

Though there was a comparatively short lead-time in the run-up to the contest — the finals were scheduled for Aug. 25 in Israel  — it was considerably easier to find contestants this time around. Gafni and his partners got the word out through Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites, as well as through the myriad organizations that work with young Jewish adults. Contestants sent in their audition videos by email or posted them on YouTube.

The result: 260 Jewish singing-sensation wannabes vying to participate.

“These are the people we want to reach,” said Gafni, who has been a producer for numerous Israeli music stars.

The contest’s slogan was “Who’s going to be the next Jewish star?” A panel of judges, including veteran singer and actor Yehoram Gaon and other Israeli musicians, viewed the auditions and chose 30 semifinalists to come to Israel to continue competing. Contestants came from around the globe.

Nearly all of the 16- to 26-year-olds already had a music background and had performed before audiences, making the finals more professional, Gafni said.

Tzachi Gavriel, a co-founder of the MASA Israel Journey program (which brings young diaspora Jews to study, volunteer and work in Israel), collaborated with Gafni to shepherd the song contest along this year. He said the contest was an “unconventional” way to reach Jewish young people “through the back door.”

The winner of  the finals, in which contestants were to perform popular Hebrew songs, was to receive an $8,000 cash prize and will give a concert tour in Jewish communities around the world. A DVD of the contest is being put together for distribution in Jewish venues around the world.