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Perfect Harmony

Shayna Friedman

They started out as a cobbled-together group of guys from Beit Shemesh who loved to sing the tefillah. But as people became drawn to the new sound, the walls of their makeshift sanctuary became too small

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

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UNITED IN SONG “Many of the original members didn’t know how to read notes, but it was kehillati — it created a camaraderie among the community,” says Shalom Kinnory. Soon everyone wanted the sound, as 500 people came to join their davening for Shabbos Shirah last year. This Shabbos, the number will likely double (Photos: Lior Mizrahi)

In the town of Ramat Beit Shemesh this coming Shabbos, a sports center is about to be transformed into a singing synagogue. As classical chazzanus pieces intermingle with contemporary compositions, young voices blend with old, and Jews across the religious spectrum stand shoulder to shoulder and sing the Shabbos davening, a home-grown local choir will once again turn Shabbos Shirah into an all-encompassing corridor of song.

They aren’t on the top of the charts with some big-bucks CD, and many members have never had formal musical training — so who exactly is the Halelu Choir who will make the city sing on this Shabbos of Song?

Choir practice serves as a bit of a revelation, as the adult members of this ensemble straggle in out of the cold rainy night. Smiles, handshakes, and pats on the back follow as the men shed their wet coats and find their way to a table laden with hot drinks and platters of refreshments.

Eleven choir members show up tonight — one in a suit, some in sweaters, a few in white shirts, and others in polo shirts. There are lace-ups and sneakers, velvet kippahs, knitted kippahs, and beards; a young, high-spirited yeshivah bochur together with an elderly, venerated rav, a psychologist side by side a sofer.

Then they start to sing. There is an occasional tapping of the feet. Someone underscores a musical progression with his highlighter. Otherwise, the men around the table are still. And it is the music alone that moves you.

Everyone’s Welcome

But the story doesn’t begin with a choir. It begins with a shul.

Ramat Beit Shemesh residents Shalom Kinnory and Yuval Melamed had a dream. They dreamed of a shul where davening would take center stage — real davening, where people feel like they’re communicating with their Creator, where there’s no competition and everyone is accepted for who they are, where niggun and song emerge from the heart and settle in the walls.

So they built Bnei Hayeshivos — a machsan (storage facility)-turned-shul filled with shirah. “The shul has a very warm, welcoming vibe,” says Rabbi Nachman Seltzer, author, choir master, and shul member since the beginning. “Everybody’s welcome here. There are no judgments.”

This same sentiment is what drew many of those in the choir to Ramat Beit Shemesh in the first place. A talmid of the Mir yeshivah, choir administrator Yuval Melamed moved to RBS right after his wedding. “This is the only place you find such diversity, so many different shades coexisting with respect for one another,” he says. Other choir members echo that sentiment as well. Shmuel Tarko left Beit Shemesh and the choir for a higher-salaried teaching position in Jerusalem, but a year later, he was back in RBS.

The shul members were a musical bunch, many of them attracted by the niggun-rich davening.

In 2008, after the shul was established, Reb Yuval approached Reb Shalom: “What do you say we start a choir?”

He knew Shalom Kinnory would be on board with the idea: The Hebrew-speaking conductor was born with music in his blood. Born into a family of chazzanim, conductors, and violinists, by age 16 Shalom Kinnory was already heading a successful choir called Mizimrat Haaretz, and at 20, he was conducting for chazzanim. Yet he felt his true calling was working with children.

The men looked at one another. Sing in the Great Synagogue? The shul where the greats perform? We’re amateurs, they thought

Always vigilant when it came to community, Kinnory looked out for underprivileged children who were struggling — whether with difficult family situations or with social issues — and sought to give them hope through song. A longtime RBS resident, Kinnory had established the Kol B’Ramah boys choir, and nothing gave him more satisfaction than watching children begin to blossom with the self-confidence and positivity that a choir can instill.

Kinnory wasn’t looking for additional projects, but Melamed prevailed. “He knew this would be a way to mekarev levavot, to enhance the unity of our community,” says Kinnory.

They held their first practice with one first tenor, one second tenor, a baritone, and a bass. Chazzan and RBS resident Nachie Rybak was at the helm.

Still, it was a choir of amateurs. “Many of the original members didn’t know how to read notes,” Kinnory explains, “but it was kehillati — it created a warm camaraderie among the community, and that was the goal.”

With the choir up and running, Melamed once again approached Kinnory. “What about the children?” he asked. He felt the choir could give struggling neighborhood children a voice.

“Children were always welcomed to Bnei Hayeshivos,” Rabbi Seltzer, director of his own Shira Chadasha choir, explains. “Both Shalom and Yuval are extremely caring, involved people. Yuval practically adopts children from difficult situations. He sits them on his bench in shul. He learns with them. And Shalom had been helping children for years.” (excerpted)

Hear the choir here!

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