by Rachel E. Gross
It was 2006 when Rabbi Sue Silberberg of the Indiana University Hillel got the call. Our nation had an urgent request: one Jewish a cappella group to perform at the White House’s annual Hanukkah party. Silberberg didn’t have an a cappella group, per se—but she had faith. She set about assembling the singing team that would come to be known as Hooshir—a play on the Indiana Hoosiers and Hebrew for “He who sings”—and the White House party went off without a hitch. “Nobody would have guessed they were brand-new,” says Silberberg. Today, the group born of necessity is still going strong, producing CDs and winning singing competitions the nation over.
Hooshir isn’t alone. The past few years have seen America swoon over the catchy croons and melodious mix-ups that make up modern a cappella. From the film Pitch Perfect to the show The Sing-Off to the rise of the five-member group The Pentatonix (which won season three of The Sing Off), media are abuzz over the increasingly popular singing form. “A cappella has really come into its own, not just as a form of music that is kind of fun in college, but as its own art form,” says Julian Horowitz, a member of the Maccabeats, a Jewish a cappella group that began in Yeshiva University but has since gone professional. This year alone, the singing sensation has performed in New Zealand, Israel and South Africa; their YouTube video for the song Candlelight (based on the Taio Cruz song Dynamite) has more than nine million views.
Maddeningly adorable and sing-along-ingly addictive, it’s not hard to see why a cappella has made inroads into popular culture. But Jewish a cappella has its own special charm. Maybe it’s the “nice Jewish boy” vibe. Maybe it’s the inventive lyrics (E.g. Six13’s I’ve Got Tefillin, a parody of I’ve Got a Feeling, or the impressively accurate Passover story Chozen, in the style of the theme of Disney’s Frozen). Maybe it’s the natural bond between Jews and music (Horowitz and his crew got their start singing around the Shabbat table and leading synagogue services, some of the world’s oldest a cappella venues). Whatever it is, this faith-inspired singing style has captured the hearts of Jews and non-Jews alike: Today there are about 50 collegiate Jewish groups around the country, an annual Jewish a cappella competition featuring a musical Havdalah service and a growing number of professional groups that produce top hits.
Still, many members of Jewish a cappella groups say the most rewarding part of their work is connecting with their spiritual roots and exerting a positive influence within the Jewish tradition. “Creating community is not just rewarding for us, it’s an underlying need in the Jewish community,” says Mike Boxer, a member of Six13. Both he and Horowitz say they strive to send the message that being Jewish is cool. And so far, it’s being received: After listening to their songs, kids will write to them to say they finally had the courage to wear their kippahs to school. “I’m not saying we’re cool, but in the scheme of white Jewish guys singing, I think we’re pretty cool,” Boxer says.