By Laura Porter
WORCESTER -As Central Massachusetts’ non-denominational Jewish community choir heads into its third year, there is little doubt that its name is well chosen: the members of Shir Joy do indeed embrace song – all kinds of song – with sheer joy.
“People love the idea of it, and we sing pretty well, too,” says founder and board president Karen Rothman, underlining the camaraderie, musicality and enthusiasm of the group.
The 30-plus members, under the direction of Jonathan Rappaport, meet weekly to rehearse at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough and perform throughout the year. The choir is non-auditioned and open to all regardless of musical experience, ethnicity, or religious background; one does not need to be Jewish or affiliated with any Jewish organization to join. Currently, the group’s members come from a dozen communities.
The only requirement, notes the Shir Joy website, is that one be “interested in learning and performing music from the rich and varied Judaic cultures from Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.”
Dr. Rothman, a physician and a member of Congregation B’nai Shalom, conceived of the concept of such a choir in the aftermath of her own experience singing with the High Holiday Chorale at her synagogue, where rehearsals typically begin a couple of months before the holidays.
When someone asked why the fun couldn’t continue year-round, she began to think. As the head of the CBS music committee, however, she knew that a regular choir would need both funding and a director. Moreover, weekly rehearsals might make it difficult to find enough singers within the temple itself with time to devote to it.
Convinced that the answer might be to involve the larger community, she wanted first to make sure that her idea would not interfere with any ongoing singing groups or similar projects. She picked up the telephone and “called every temple and asked to speak to whoever dealt with music – the cantor, the cantorial soloist, the rabbi – and asked what they thought of a community choir,” she says. “They were all very enthusiastic.”
At the same time, she checked with the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts to see if the Federation would be in favor of such an endeavor. The answer was yes, as long as there was no conflict with any existing musical programs in the synagogues.
With support assured, Dr. Rothman put together an informal group of 10-12 – “people I knew who were involved in Jewish things” – that served as a sounding board for the development of the group. A grant proposal was submitted to Federation for start-up funds and to hire a director. When it was approved, they were off and singing.
Dr. Rothman conceived of the name, Shir Joy, while swimming laps in the pool, where she says she does some of her best thinking. Jonathan Rappaport, a member of Congregation Beth Tikvah who had been part of the planning group, stepped forward as they were starting to interview candidates for the position of director.
An award-winning choral conductor, composer and music teacher, Rappaport has worked in music in a multitude of capacities for over 40 years. Now retired from public education, where he was head of the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton and the Performing Arts Liaison of the Worcester Public Schools, he is currently executive director of Arts/Learning in Natick as well as co-director of the Kodaly Music Institute at Anna Maria College in Worcester.
“We are very lucky to have him,” says Rothman. “It’s great to have talent within your midst.”
Shir Joy began in late October of 2011, and they haven’t looked back. There are at least two concerts a year, performed at their home base, Congregation B’nai Shalom, as well as other appearances. This year, they will sing first at Torathon on Nov. 16th at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester as well as at Tower Hill Botanical Gardens in December. On April 27, they will also be part of the community’s Yom Hashoah commemoration at Beth Tikvah. Winter and spring concerts are planned for February and June.
Rappaport said he finds the group “a ‘sheer joy’ to work with — we have people from many walks of life, backgrounds, and experiences, as well as people who have never sung in a choir before to people who are professional musicians.” Though it can be “a challenge to keep everyone interested and learning at their own level, the end result is usually a choral concert of high caliber, spirit, and camaraderie.”
Rothman is not a professional musician, though she has sung since she was a child and plays the clarinet. But Karen Israel, who joined the group last year, “had let that part of my life go” after playing piano into high school. When she lost her mother two years ago, she “needed something to keep me focused and happy,” she says. She sang with the High Holiday Chorale at B’nai Shalom and loved it; that gave her the confidence to try singing with Shir Joy.
The experience has been nothing but positive. She notes that everyone is “very accepting of all levels of ability,” and that “we really try to make it a lot of fun – and fun for the people who come to hear us.”
The vitality of the choir is, of course, built on the music, chosen by Rappaport. “I try to find a wide variety of songs that have different moods, keys and scale types, and tempos,” he says. Drawing from a range of languages, including Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish, and English, he also likes “to have a variety of styles and periods represented, from old music going back several centuries all the way up to contemporary Jewish and Israeli composers.”
That emphasis on diversity gives members – and their audiences – a taste of “the vast cultures and experiences of centuries of Jews living and working in the Diaspora as well as in Israel,” he notes.
“He handpicks unusual and special songs with loving care,” says Israel, who describes the director as “our guiding light.” Moreover, she says, he has a great sense of humor. “We laugh a lot.”
The choir has been grateful for support from Federation as well as the Westborough Cultural Council and is in the final stages of achieving non-profit status. They also plan an ad book campaign this year.
“We’re always looking for new members,” says Dr. Rothman. “It’s not a closed group. We like people to enjoy themselves. It is work, too, though. If you want to sing, you need to practice!”
For more information, please visit the Shir Joy website at www.shirjoychorus.com.
Email inquiries can be made through a link on the website.