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A Vocal Minority on the College A Cappella Scene
Aimee Goldstein has an honest answer for why she co-founded Temple University’s only Jewish a cappella group.
“Part of it was fear,” the 22-year-old theater major from Northeast Philadelphia says. “I wanted to make my mark at the university doing something good and benefitting not just Jewish singers and Hillel — I wanted to leave a musical mark” on the entire campus.
Afraid that she couldn’t do that within the confines of the already established matrix of extracurricular activities, Goldstein paired up with friend and fellow Hillel frequenter Hilary Klapholz, a 22-year-old music education major from Cheltenham, to form Jewkebox in the fall of 2012. (As anyone with a passing knowledge of collegiate a cappella knows, punny group names are de rigueur. Runner-up choices for the group included Halachapella and Shalom ba’Owlam.)
The group, which will have its debut concert on April 19 at Klein Hall on Temple’s campus, is carrying on a vocal tradition that has been around since the very first religious services began incorporating music into the liturgy.
Derived from the Italian alla capella — “in the manner of the chapel” — a cappella traces its roots back to the prohibition of musical instruments in both Christian and Jewish services. In fact, this prohibition dates back to before the destruction of the Second Temple, and came about to prevent musicians from tuning and repairing their instruments on Shabbat. The tradition also has led to the enduring popularity of zemirot, the songs sung around the dinner table and during holidays at home.
It was at home and at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park that Klapholz developed her love of Jewish music — a love she found no outlet for when she arrived at Temple University.
As part of her major, she had seven semesters of choral ensemble, “and I think I only did two Jewish songs — one in Hebrew, and one that just kind of talks about Chanukah,” she says. “I felt like there was a part of my heritage that wasn’t being represented.”
Like Goldstein, Klapholz says she was long fascinated by a cappella. Once the two realized their shared interest in creating an outlet to sing Jewish melodies, it was just a matter of time before they began laying the groundwork for Jewkebox.
A collegiate Jewish a cappella group wasn’t unheard of. Although no official national umbrella organization exists, a quick scroll through Google reveals at least a few dozen such groups scattered throughout the United States. But Temple had never had one before, despite periodic attempts by interested students.
Goldstein and Temple’s Hillel director, Phil Nordlinger, both attribute Jewkebox’s success to Carly Zimmerman, who worked at Hillel before becoming CEO of the nonprofit Challah for Hunger. Using Hillel as a base of operations, Goldstein and Klapholz were able to more effectively reach the school’s Jewish population, estimated by Nordlinger to be somewhere between 1,500 and 1,700 students, or around 6 percent of the total undergraduate body of 27,000 students.
In addition to providing staffing support and a place to rehearse and perform, Hillel made space for the group to take part in Jewish Life Fair, an event Hillel puts on at the beginning of each semester to connect students with Jewish organizations on campus.
“Our mission is to help students create a Jewish life for themselves on campus,” Nordlinger says. “We like to focus on different aspects of Jewish life, and one of those happens to be arts and culture, through groups like Jewkebox.”
The group is obviously filling a need: On a campus that has no fewer than six a cappella groups, plus a wide array of other musical outlets, Jewkebox has more than doubled in number from seven members in the 2012-2013 academic year to 19 current members. That figure includes an assistant music director, a historian, a public relations person — and a beat boxer to provide vocal percussion, an essential part of any group with chops.
Jewkebox’s expansion has come almost entirely as a result of its crossover appeal: Almost half the members are non-Jewish. Goldstein says this hasn’t changed the mission of the group — it has always featured a mix of traditional Jewish music, like “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” and “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” and pop music with a Jewish angle, like songs performed by Idina Menzel (“Brave”) and Imagine Dragons (“Radioactive”). Goldstein and Klapholz both emphasize that the non-Jewish members of the group enjoy learning to sing in Hebrew.
“They were really excited to learn their words and the meaning behind them,” Goldstein says.
Although the concert on the 19th will be the group’s first as headliners, it is far from their first live appearance. They have opened for other groups at Temple, as well as performed at the Philadelphia 76ers’ Jewish Heritage Night last year. Last month, they competed in the fourth annual Kol HaOlam, which pitted some of the best Jewish collegiate a cappella groups in the country against each other at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.
“We didn’t win, but a lot of people told us we were their favorites,” Goldstein says.
More importantly, she adds, the group bonded together even more and has become a stronger, more cohesive unit. Both she and Klapholz stress that the relationships forged from being in the group have made the experience about more than just the music.
“It takes a lot of rehearsals and a lot of practices,” an average of four hours a week, more when preparing for a performance Klapholz says. But it is all worthwhile, she says, “when people come back and they say how much they love Jewkebox, and how much we hang out after rehearsal.”
Goldstein echoes the sentiment. “There is a lot of work where we have to buckle down and turn our phones off,” she says, “but I love having Jewkebox as my second family.”
The two seniors, who say they don’t yet know their post-graduation plans, have already made sure that the next generation will continue and improve upon what they have created. A new music director has been selected from among the members, and planning has begun to do outreach throughout the community by performing in Hebrew schools, day schools, synagogues and other venues.
No doubt, there will be an aca-alumni night in the near future as well.
IF YOU GO
April 19 at 7 p.m.
Klein Hall inside Presser Hall
13th and Norris Streets, Philadelphia