Singers find sure appeal of Jewish a cappella groups

A battle of the Jewish a cappellas?

Not exactly, but the Peninsula JCC is hosting a “sing-off” starring Tufts University’s Shir Appeal and the University of Pennsylvania’s Shabbatones at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6.

In their joint appearance in Foster City and in separate Bay Area concerts over the weekend, the two coed a cappella groups will sing selections that range from the traditional Jewish hymn “Yom Zeh L’Yisrael” to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”

Shir Appeal and the Shabbatones are part of a growing cohort of Jewish a cappella ensembles on college campuses across the U.S., including at U.C. Berkeley. However, the groups are far from uniform: Their decisions about what type of music to sing (religious or secular?), members’ religious affiliation (Jewish or not?) and where to perform all help shape each ensemble’s identity.

Shir Appeal

Berkeley’s Kol Hadov, founded four years ago, sings both Jewish and secular music, and is open to Jews and non-Jews. The group performs throughout the school year, including at an event last year for visiting Israeli President Shimon Peres. 

Shir Appeal performs only music that has a Jewish connection, and a quarter of its members are not Jewish. The Shabbatones performs both Jewish and secular music, and all members are Jewish.

“It’s really all an exploration,” said Ami Wulf of Berkeley, a 20-year-old Tufts sophomore who serves as Shir Appeal’s tour manager. “I love seeing these really diverse ways of looking at these questions whenever we meet up with groups like the Shabbatones.”

Wulf, who grew up in Berkeley and attended Jewish Community High School of the Bay, did not sing seriously before college.

Shir Appeal favors modern Israeli rock and pop, English-language music with traditional Jewish themes and liturgical songs. On its Bay Area tour, its repertoire will include “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” by Israeli musician and songwriter Naomi Shemer, to which the group will add vocal percussion and what Wulf described as a “more modern groove.” Shir Appeal will also present its own arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Wulf believes Shir Appeal has helped bridge the divide between Jewish and secular a cappella.

Both Shir Appeal, founded in 1995, and the Shabbtones, founded in 2001, have earned recognition from the secular a cappella community, and have been featured on “best of Jewish a cappella” compilations.

Shabbatones’ tour manager Lior Melnick said that in the past five years the number of Jewish a cappella groups on college campuses has “skyrocketed” due in part to the popularity of the Maccabeats, an all-male a cappella group that originated at Yeshiva University and has had YouTube hits including its 2010 Chanukah song “Candlelight.”  

The Shabbatones performs Israeli pop, liturgical Hebrew music and English-language pop and oldies. According to Melnick, the unofficial trademark song of the 15-member group is “Umacha,” which borrows words from Isaiah 25 and the prayer for piece “Oseh Shalom.” He said the group’s membership ranges from secular Jews who rarely attend synagogue to Orthodox Jews.

Melnick, a 22-year-old senior at Penn, said that for him, one of the “great” parts of being in the Shabbatones is that it enables Jews from so many backgrounds to express their Jewish identity together.

“Being in the Shabbatones has been just one way for me to keep in touch with my Jewish identity, but for many members of the group this has been the only way they stay in touch with their Jewish identity and culture.”

Melnick and Wulf both emphasized that members of their groups create close bonds with one another. Melnick attributes some of that closeness to his group’s shared Jewish identity. 

“There’s definitely a special element in the closeness that doesn’t exist in secular a cappella groups,” he said. “There is an additional something holding us together.”


“The Sing-Off: Jewish a Cappella,” 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6, Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. $10, free for 12 and under. www.pjcc.org


See calendar for details on Shir Appeal and Shabbatones concerts Jan. 5-6.

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.