Silence. Nine hundred pairs of eyes trained on a troupe of college students clad in shades of blue, white, and black. The beating hearts of those onstage pound with adrenaline and nerves.
And then: deep bass notes penetrate the silence, as Northwestern University’s Shireinu opens Kol HaOlam, the 7th Annual National Collegiate Jewish A Cappella Championship Competition.
Set in the beautiful Charles E. Smith Sanctuary of Adas Israel Congregation, hundreds of individuals from near and far gathered for a night of musical melody and inspiration.
The National Collegiate Jewish A Cappella Championship Competition brought together Jewish collegiate performance groups from around the country. The event also included a special performance from Kol Haolam VI winner Tizmoret and guest Marak Hayom.
The night “represents young people’s opportunity to find joy in Jewish identity,” said Julia Gordon, who co-chaired this year’s Kol HaOlam competition with her husband Geoffrey Berman. “It can be difficult to be Jewish on some campuses these days, and not everyone finds their community in prayer service. [These groups] provide another opportunity for Jewish kids to be Jewish and celebrate their culture.”
Following a short Havdalah service, the charismatic and entertaining MC, David Olson of DC’s Shakespeare & Company, introduced the performers/competitors for the evening: Hillelujah (University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, Point Park University), Ketzev (Johns Hopkins University), Koleinu (Princeton University), Mezumenet (University of Maryland), Rak Shalom (University of Maryland), Shabbatones (University of Pennsylvania), and ShireiNU (Northwestern University).
Armed only with their voices, microphones, and choreographed dance moves, each group set out to wow the four judges and 900 audience members for the coveted Kol HaOlam Champion title. Limited to a two-song set, and an eight-minute time limit, the groups took advantage of the brief opportunity to showcase their talent and cohesiveness before receiving scores in thirteen categories, such as vocal balance and blend, visual energy and stage presence, and overall effectiveness of musical arrangements.
The songs performed by each group ranged from Israeli and American pop to familiar zemirot and slow, thoughtful arrangements of classic Jewish tunes. The University of Maryland’s all-female group Mezumenet provided a refreshingly comedic parody of life as a Jewish girl, with references to curly hair, pastrami sandwiches, and lighting up Zeidy’s eyes, resulting in chuckles of recognition from audience members. An additional surprise came from Princeton University’s Koleinu, whose beatboxer wore a tiger costume in homage to their university’s mascot.
Each group showcased a different style that to distinguish themselves from the other groups. The Shabbatones did interesting formation changes, Ketzev presented a female vocal
percussionist and a double-male duet, and Hillelujah delighted the audience with a version of “Adon Olam,” set to Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time,” before ending their set with a song about prayer and a coordinated foot-stomp to send the audience into intermission on a spiritual high.
Special guest group Tizmoret, a previous winner of Kol HaOlam, is a highly-esteemed collegiate a cappella group representing some of New York City’s best Jewish talent. The Greater Washington Jewish community was also represented by special guest group Marak Hayom, a self-directed high school a cappella group from Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland.
The judges for the evening were Cantor Matt Klein of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda; Ben Olinsky, artistic director of a young professionals choir in Washington, DC; Cantor Hinda Eisen Labovitz of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland; and Tani Levitt, a former member of University of Maryland’s Kol Sasson and current teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland.
As the judges re-entered the sanctuary with the competition results, the collective anticipation in the room reached a crescendo; an excited, nervous hush fell among contestants and audience members alike.
The winner of the night, to the delight of many audience members, was the University of Maryland’s Rak Shalom. Rak Shalom’s Daniela Nagar was awarded best soloist and Noah Bar-Shain was awarded best beatboxer. Rak Shalom was also voted Fan Favorite, taking home four awards in total. Northwestern University’s Shireinu took home second place as well as the award for best original arrangement. Koleinu from Princeton took third place.
“Being in a Jewish a cappella group allows me to explore my Jewish identity in addition to experiencing the power of music as a social equalizer,” said Sophie Beren of the University of Pennsylvania’s Shabbatones.
Noah Bar-Shain, a University of Maryland Senior and member of Rak Shalom, has similar reflections on his place in the Jewish a cappella world. “Singing is the strongest way for me to connect to Judaism. Even in high school I knew I wanted to join an a cappella group when I came to college,” he said.
Noah emphasized the time and energy the group puts in to spread a love of Jewish music to everyone–– Kol HaOlam.