Youth Zimriyah Choral Festival Makes Return After Pandemic Hiatus

On a blue-lit stage, a group of children perform with a man playing guitar.
Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s youth choir performing with David Broza in 2018 | Courtesy of Shirley Cohen

Philadelphia’s Youth Zimriyah choral festival will return for the first time in four years.

On April 23 at 1:30 p.m., youth choirs from Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, Ohev Shalom of Bucks County and Darchei Noam will perform songs for the concert’s Israel 75 theme. The event will be held at Beth Hillel-Beth El.

“Judaism is almost synonymous with music. … Kids love music. From a young age, they sing to themselves as they’re playing,” said Shirley Cohen, the Zimriyah’s coordinator and music specialist at Beth Hillel-Beth El.

The choirs will perform songs such as Israeli counting song “En Den Dino,” sung by Beth Hillel-Beth El’s choir, the largest and oldest of the three, and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” sung by Ohev Shalom’s choir in Ladino, an homage to their Cantor Annelise Ocanto-Romo’s Sephardic roots.

Beyond an opportunity for community members to enjoy the concert, it is a way for Jewish youth to connect with Jewish culture creatively.

“It’s just the chance to perform and just to be in front of others and do something that they love doing,” Ocanto-Romo said.

For Ethan, 10, son of Darchei Noam President Brandi Lerner, performing as part of Darchei Noam’s children’s choir helped him build confidence, community and a connection to the synagogue.

“He’s very musical. He plays three instruments and loves to sing. So for him, it’s a way to express that in synagogue,” Lerner said. “For him, it’s kind of the marriage of the two, that it’s giving him a way to make many prayers fun and for him to participate in services, which is very appropriate at his age, and doing something he really enjoys, which is music.”

Ethan is not alone. Cantors and musical educators at the three participating synagogues have noticed that youth choir programs can help Jewish children participate in services, as well as meet kids from other synagogues through the Zimriyah.

“My kids want to see that there are other Jewish kids who love performing, who love Jewish music,” Ocanto-Romo said. “And it brings our community together.”

Though the concert will last about an hour, the impact of being part of a choir can have a profound impact on a young person’s Jewish pride.

When Zimriyah organizer and Darchei Noam’s Hazzan Arlyne Unger was a child, she joined her synagogue’s youth choir as a way to enhance her Jewish identity. Her family wasn’t very observant, but many of her friends attended Hebrew school. Unger’s family joined a synagogue, and the young girl joined its youth choir.

“It just became such an important part of my life; it really anchored my identity,” Unger said. “And my parents actually became more observant because of my Jewish journey.”

Her participation is ultimately what drove her to become a cantor, getting a master’s degree in Jewish education and administration and a Jewish music degree with a concentration in cantor studies from Gratz College. She was a cantor for 30 years at various synagogues before joining Darchei Noam for its 2021 founding.

“The journey has continued from there, and I cannot emphasize enough how important it was that I got this start in children’s choirs,” she said.

The Zimriyah is also a way to build back the culture of music programming for youth that has diminished during the pandemic. Darchei Noam’s children’s choir is in its second year, and Ohev Shalom restarted its program after a three-year COVID-induced hiatus.

At its largest, the Zimriyah hosted six or seven different choirs, according
to Unger. 

In its current iteration, first coordinated by the Cantors Assembly, Delaware Valley Region in 2014, the event was described as a “vehicle for our children’s choirs and choruses to perform for each other in the afternoon of collegiality,” Unger said.

The Zimriyah youth choral festivals were funded by the Board of Jewish Education before 2013. But when the BJE closed, Unger, then chairperson of the Cantors Assembly, Delaware Valley Region, a regional chapter of a national consortium of Conservative movement cantors, wanted to revive the event. The assembly did so a year later and opened the event to synagogue and day school youth choirs in non-Conservative denominations. The last Zimriyah was held
in 2019.

This year’s events will have a modest showing compared to previous years, but organizers stuck by the theater adage that the show must go on. Unger hopes to build momentum from a successful event this year.

“Our ultimate goal is to get as many youth choirs as possible involved,” she said.

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