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Limmud Weekend Beats All
Twenty-three-year-old Meir Shapiro wears a yarmulke. He studies music, Torah and architecture at New York's Yeshiva University.
And he beatboxes -- all over the world.
In the year and a half since a viral Chanukah parody catapulted the Maccabeats into Internet fame, Shapiro and 13 fellow members of the Orthodox a cappella group have performed in New Zealand, Hong Kong and even South Africa. In London, 700 screaming teenagers packed into a lunchroom to hear them sing, several wearing homemade Maccabeats T-shirts.
"I felt like a boy band," Shapiro said, laughing. "That was one of the moments where I actually felt like a celebrity. People say, 'Oh, are you a celebrity?' I think Justin Timberlake is a celebrity. I think I'm a Joe Schmoe."
This Friday, the all-male group makes its first public appearance in Philadelphia at the fourth annual Limmud conference. About 300 people have already registered for the weekend-long Jewish learning event, which this year takes place at the Friends Select School in Center City.
To be fair, the Maccabeats have performed in Philadelphia before, but that was for private events and before they became minor celebrities in the Jewish world.
Yeshiva didn't even have an a cappella group until the Maccabeats formed in 2007, later adopting that name as a play on the school's Maccabees sports teams. From their debut 2009 album, "Voices From the Heights," they filmed their first music video, a cover of Matisyahu's "One Day."
Director Uri Westrich, also a former Y.U. student, amped up the production quality for "Candlelight," a joyous retelling of the Chanukah story sung to the pop melody of Taio Cruz' "Dynamite."
They posted the video, featuring the singers battling the mighty Greeks and riffing off each other against a backdrop of colored squares, on Nov. 26, 2010. Within a week, it had several hundred thousand views. Time, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Today Show, The Jerusalem Post and other major news outlets referenced the song. Today, the clip has exceeded 7.4 million views.
"We expected it to be big in the Orthodox realm, but it really did spill over into Jews of all walks," said tenor Yonatan Shefa, 26, who now works as a studio technician for the group in addition to singing.
From that Chanukah miracle, the Maccabeats booked more than 150 gigs last year -- Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, even a performance for kids with cancer at a summer camp. They sang in Israel, Canada, Los Angeles, St. Louis and numerous New York venues, including Madison Square Garden.
All the traveling, though, was and still is a serious juggling act, Shapiro said, remembering how he had to drop a calculus course after "Candlelight" came out. He studied for a midterm on a red-eye flight back from San Diego and agreed to sing for hundreds of Jewish leaders at a White House reception last May even though he had three finals the next day. Still, Shapiro continued, "having the opportunity to reach out to Jews literally all over the world" was well worth the harried schedule.
Not wanting to give up what they'd started, founding members stayed in the group after graduating, fitting in gigs between work, graduate school, family obligations "or all of the above," said Shapiro, one of only two remaining undergraduates.
They filmed two more videos -- one for Purim and another for Chanukah. A second album, "Outside the Box," was just released a few weeks ago and another video could be in the works soon, too, Shapiro said.
Despite all of this activity, Shapiro said, they're all continuing to pursue other careers since it doesn't seem likely that the Maccabeats would ever be lucrative enough to support a family. He's planning to attend grad school for architecture in the fall.
At the same time, Shefa said, "we all want it to last as long as it will last."
"Candlelight" proved that they could be relevant to a wide audience, Shefa said, which made them all the more aware of their "responsibility to sing music that has a message that we believe in."
If they do sing a non-Jewish song, he said, it has to have a positive message.
"We try to bridge both being fun and sort of 'with it,' while meanwhile trying to draw on something that has meaning."
Surprisingly, the singers said, most of their audiences aren't Orthodox. One young fan wrote to say he was the only Jewish kid in his school and that the group's video had inspired him to be proud of his Judaism, Shefa recalled. They have even heard from non-Jews who were touched by the music and fans who don't consider themselves religiously affiliated at all.
"They're just there because they want something Jewish," Shapiro said. "That's something so special. Our music isn't sectarian, it's Jewish and anyone can enjoy it. We're just trying to show people that Judaism can be fun."
Shapiro said he's excited to spend Shabbat at Limmud because the people who come will presumably be eager to listen for the lessons in their lyrics.
He and five other members of the group will start off by leading services. They don't have set arrangements for the prayers, Shapiro said, "we just get up there and harmonize" and hope others join in. After Havdalah, they'll give a concert featuring some of their new repertoire and, of course, "Candlelight."
"We all love spreading the wonderful message of being a Jew and being proud of that," Shapiro said. "To see everybody singing along to the words no matter where we are, it's really an incredible thing."
In addition to the Maccabeats, Limmud includes more than 100 sessions on Jewish history, culture, text, spirituality, social justice and Israel. From film screenings to dance sessions, organizers say, there's something for Jews of all religious affiliations and interests.
For more information about LimmudPhilly, visit: www.limmudphilly.org.