Good to Great

Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, New Jersey, raises the bar for children’s choirs.

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Listen to the choir sing “Siman Tov” (Music: Traditional)

Listen to the choir sing “Mi Barechev” (Music and lyrics by E. Amiran-Pugatchov; Musical accompaniment and engineering by Brian Gelfand; Tzipporei Shalom, the Children’s Chorus of Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck, NJ, Adina Avery-Grossman and Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan, Conductors)

What’s the highest-rated program at your shul? Adult ed? Social action? Kiddush? At one New Jersey congregation, it’s some 30 children, ages 7 to 12, who rush to synagogue each week to sing multi-part harmonies in several languages. Together they make up Tzipporei Shalom (Birds of Peace), the children’s chorus of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

It all started 15 years ago, when a member of Beth Sholom approached two women in the shul known for their musical talents and asked them to start a choir to keep kids occupied for half an hour on Shabbat mornings. Adina Avery Grossman and Ronit Wolff Hanan, both cantors’ daughters with extensive musical backgrounds, immediately said “yes.”

They began with 10 children, four of them their own. Avery Grossman and Wolff Hanan met with the group weekly on Shabbat, taught a few zippy melodies that the kids could quickly master, and periodically took them upstairs to the main sanctuary to perform at the end of services.

Fast-forward to 2013. Tzipporei Shalom now boasts between 30 and 40 children every season. Still led by Avery Grossman and Wolff Hanan the group continues to meet for only half an hour each week, but in that half hour the first- to sixth-graders – some of whom can’t even read yet – master repertoire in seven languages, learn music theory, and sing pieces with multiple voice parts. They have been the featured vocal group at New York City’s annual Israel Folk Dance Festival, have performed with singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman (z”l) in a special tribute concert, and joined Zalmen Mlotek, Neil Sedaka and a choir of 200 on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Tzipporei Shalom is the recipient of multiple awards and has been the top-ranked shul program in every recent survey.

Parents tell Avery Grossman and Wolff Hanan that their kids rush them out the door on Shabbat mornings, and new members join the shul specifically because their children want to sing in the choir.

The choir leaders say that above all, they focus on the pleasure of singing and enabling the children to have a positive early synagogue experience. “We bring joy to the kids before they even begin to participate in services,” says Avery Grossman. “That in turn brings joy to their families as they share in the pride of the children’s accomplishments, and joy to the entire congregation through song.”

They look for every opportunity to expose their choristers to other choirs. It encourages them to keep up their singing. Tzipporei Shalom alumni have gone on to sing in middle school and high school choirs, many feeding directly into the local chapter of HaZamir: the International Jewish High School Choir. Some have continued singing in college and beyond. Avery Grossman and Wolff Hanan like to think that they helped to plant that first seed.

Thanks to their success, Avery Grossman and Wolff Hanan, who is now an ordained hazzan and the synagogue’s music director, have been invited to present professional workshops at the North American Jewish Choral Festival and the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“You can’t quantify the impact on a community of having 30 children, Shabbat after Shabbat, excited about singing Jewish songs and thrilled to be in shul,” says Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky. “These children, and their incredible leaders, help keep all of us engaged in Jewish music and text, and remind us of the joy that singing together as a community can bring.”

Get tips on creating a successful synagogue children’s choir from Tzipporei Shalom leaders Adina Avery Grossman and Ronit Wolff Hanan.