On May 14, 2017, the Maccabeats performed before about 300 enthusiastic fans in a full-to-capacity Beth Shalom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Columbia, Maryland. The Maccabeats, a Jewish a capella group formed at Yeshiva University in 2007, became a sensation in 2010 with their hit song, “Candlelight,” which has changed the trajectory of Jewish a capella music.
They began their performance with “Salaam,” which includes the lyrics: “Od yavo shalom aleinu — Peace will come upon us.” In between songs, Music Director Julian (Chaim) Horowitz provided comical entertainment, telling jokes like, “I always wanted to be a doctor, but my mother said, ‘You have to be an a capella singer.’” He also noted that there are two famous musical groups that came out of New York; the Maccabeats and Simon & Garfunkel, and “between us we have sold over 90 million albums.”
The audience enjoyed a variety of great music, including: a medley of Chassidic and Hebrew songs, including the popular Gad Elbaz hit “Hashem Melech”; “Latke Recipe,” which Chaim noted they performed in 2015 for former President Obama at the White House Chanukah party; the Pesach medley based on the Broadway hit Les Miserables; “One Day”; and two more Chanukah songs, “All About that Nes,” and “Al Hanisim,” before finally singing a rousing rendition of their beloved, “Candlelight,” asking the audience to stand for the finale.
Tammy Lawrence, Second Vice President of Beth Shalom Congregation and co-coordinator of the event, shared that this Maccabeats concert is the fourth concert in a series and, “by popular demand,” the Maccabeats were back for a second time.
“This was an incredible evening, everyone had a great time. I was so happy they came,” she said.
After the concert, I caught up with Horowitz to talk about a slightly more serious topic. The Maccabeats have recently taken up an important cause agunot, “chained women” who are denied a get (halachic divorce) by their husbands. They have partnered with Jewish Women International (JWI) as part of the Get Smart Project, which works to end this widespread problem by educating Orthodox young adults about the halachic prenuptial agreement. This prenup was created to protect women from becoming trapped by recalcitrant estranged husbands. The Maccabeats song, “Sign That Form,” set to the tune of Train’s “Play that Song/Heart and Soul” (with lyrics written by Chaim himself), intends to spread that message.
“Because of our following, we are assuming a position of Jewish leadership,” said Horowitz. “When you’re given the mantle like that you accept it. If you have the opportunity to help people, you take it.” He shared that one of the Maccabeats’ early members was a volunteer at the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), and he saw the devastation of the plight of the agunot.
“Our teachers, like Rabbi Willig [Rabbi Mordechai Willig, Sgan Av Beit Din of Beit Din of America], were the ones who actually wrote the prenup,” said Horowitz. “I like to say that [the agunah crisis] is a curable disease…right now there’s no social norm to sign the prenup, but we are working to change it.”
The Maccabeats have already changed Jewish music. Perhaps they can have as powerful an impact on this issue as well.
By Kami Troy