If not for a friend in a secular choir who referred him to a Jewish choral gig, Robert Ross might still be singing Christian requiems instead of Jewish psalms.
He'd always identified as Jewish, but hardly had any experience with the religion while growing up, much less the music.
"There were vestiges of Jewish life in our household, but it really didn't go much beyond that," said Ross, 55. "My parents were Reform to the point of secular."
Singing Jewish music, however, piqued his interest "in how Judaism works and what it was about," he said.
"I would study the music, the text, look in the prayerbooks and see what was in there," he said. "Through the music itself, I learned about the context. The more exposure I had to this stuff, the more I realized I really need to do something about this."
So, in his 40s, he began studying Judaism in earnest. In 2007, on his 47th birthday, he became a Bar Mitzvah. Today, he directs several Jewish choirs, sings professionally with Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park and chairs the music department at the Community College of Philadelphia.
Ross' varied singing experiences leading to increased engagement with his Jewish background isn't so unusual, according to a survey of Jewish choral singers that was released last month.
The survey, which was e-mailed to about 15,000 Jewish choral singers, cantors and music lovers in the spring, shows that Jewish choral singers are more involved in Jewish life than the average American Jew. Specifically, choir participants are more likely to volunteer under Jewish auspices, give to Jewish causes and belong to synagogues.
Though researchers stopped short of drawing a causal relationship between singing and Jewish involvement, they said the results give strong anecdotal evidence that many people who are not otherwise involved in Jewish life find their way in through their love of Jewish singing.
"There is a somewhat faulty assumption that people who sing in Jewish choirs are already engaged in Jewish life," said Diane Tickton Schuster, a researcher at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, who analyzed the study with Ezra Kopelowitz, CEO of the Jerusalem-based Research Success Technologies.
The survey also showed that Jewish choral singers tend to engage in Jewish learning opportunities more frequently than other American Jews, a point Schuster correlated to their higher levels of Jewish involvement.
The Zamir Choral Foundation, an umbrella organization for an extensive network of Jewish musical groups — including the prestigious, 50-year-old, New York-based Zamir Chorale — com- missioned the survey.
Results from 2,000 respondents were compared to figures from the United Jewish Communities' National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.
Professional musician Robert Ross looks over a score.
Foundation director Matthew Lazar said that increasing Jews' sense of connection to each other and their heritage was one of his goals when he created the organization 20 years ago.
"The music is the hook, but it's the identity piece we're interested in — connecting the text of our people with the music of our people, and doing it in community," said Lazar. "Choir is the embodiment of klal Yisrael. It's transdenominational and, even more important today, transpolitical — the only place where pro-Bush and pro-Obama Jews come together."
Local singers said the survey findings didn't surprise them.
Enid Krasner ticked off a list of colleagues who made their only connection to the Jewish community through the unaffiliated Arbel Chorale and then went on to become "otherwise attached" to Jewish life, whether by joining a synagogue or volunteering for Jewish organizations.
"It's a post-college kind of age or people are kind of new to the area and they come in, they join and then things happen," said Krasner, 54, a health care administrator from Bella Vista. "I would never have guessed this before joining a choir, but it really does some amazing things."
Arbel originally formed as a University of Pennsylvania Hillel student choir in 1973, but eventually morphed into a community group when graduates simply didn't want to leave, said Krasner. She joined 16 years ago after moving here from New York.
"The fact that it was Jewish gave me another way to do something Jewish," she said.
Since that time, she counts three marriages, including her own, that developed through the choir.
"I had pretty much given up — and there he was over in the bass section," said Krasner.
In addition to singing together, the couple organizes a lay-led congregation that meets at the Gershman Y in Center City.
"Aside from a husband, it's given me such a community of friends," said Krasner. Group members take trips together and support each other during important moments in life, she added.
"It's just a great way … to build a community, to be involved in things. It's not just synagogues that hook you back in and bring you back to the community."
A Viable Art Form
Singers looking for Jewish outlets have plenty of options around Philadelphia. Ross estimates that about 25 synagogues have volunteer choirs; another two or three employ professionals. In addition to Arbel, there's at least one other unaffiliated adult choir called Nashirah, plus the Yavneh Ensemble, which is currently on hiatus.
Then, there's Kol Minor, an a cappella group that Wynnewood resident Rachel Turk Tolub and her husband formed in 2003. Turk Tolub, 42, started singing in a fledgling Hebrew a cappella group in college and never stopped.
"It was just sort of natural for us," she said. Though all nine members already had connections to a synagogue, "the fact that it's Hebrew pulled them in more."
Her sister, Elizabeth Turk-Karan, 45, drives from Cheltenham for rehearsals. "I just love singing," she said. "But it's really gotten me more interested in prayer and Jewish music just because we work so hard on getting it right."
This month, she noted, they're learning all Sephardi songs, some in Ladino, for an event tied to the community-wide book project.
"It's really fun to expose other people, particularly children, that Jewish music isn't one thing, it can be a wide variety," said Turk-Karan.
Cynthia Silber, 51, said she and a group of friends formed Nashirah in 2002 to prove to the general public that Jewish music is a viable art form that can be performed "with the same level of artistic excellence as any other music."
"Besides my children, this choir is the best thing I've ever done in my life," said Silber.
Nashirah now includes 28 singers from all sorts of professional backgrounds who gather to practice at the Curtis Institute of Music, on Rittenhouse Square, some members commuting from more than an hour away.
"When you're singing with a Jewish choir, that is a Jewish community," explained Silber. "They feel a connection with their heritage, with the people around them as part of the community, and with the composer who was clearly thinking about a Jewish text or a Jewish setting of some kind. It's the same kind of satisfaction that people get from all kinds of Jewish involvement, but for people who really love music, there's just nothing like it."
Like Ross, Lara Torgovnik, 21, had few Jewish experiences growing up. As a child, she chose music school over Hebrew school. But while attending New York University as a vocal performance major, she joined the Zamir Chorale, and came to a "mind-boggling realization that music can be a means of expressing spirituality, and spirituality can lend a deeper level to my music."
Inspired, Torgovnik added Jewish studies to her course load. After graduating, she took a job at the Zamir office in New York and also conducts the organization's youth choir in Westchester, one of two dozen chapters of HaZamir in North American cities.
The Zamir Foundation also holds an annual North American Jewish Choral Festival that brings hundreds of Jewish singers together for five days each summer. While most of the attendees sing in Jewish choirs at home, some, like Donald Gerber, come from places where no such groups exist.
Gerber, an active member of his Orthodox congregation, said he's sung "all the great requiems," but finds a deeper pleasure in singing Jewish liturgical pieces, which are "few and far between" in the repertoire of his secular community choir in Omaha, Neb. He said the summer festival, which he has attended for the past 12 years, has had a deep impact on his sense of Jewish community.
"There's nothing like it when 500 voices are raised in song and harmony — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox people all together — and it's all about making music as klal Yisrael, as 'one people.' "