At the start of his freshman year, Itai Segev already knew that he wanted to join an a cappella group. He auditioned for one and got in, but when he learned that there were no Jewish a cappella groups on campus, he decided to start his own.
“I wanted to combine my passions for Judaism and singing. I found a group of people that shared the same passion.” said Segev, who is currently a senior at American University.
Segev co-founded TenLi Tunes with strong support from American University Hillel. “All of our advertising goes through Hillel,” he said. “And we try to perform at different Hillel events, like at Rosh Hashanah services, Hanukkah events, and Shabbat once a month.”
While TenLi Tunes was founded recently, Jewish a cappella has been thriving on North American college campuses for decades. These groups provide students an opportunity to connect with their Jewish identities through music and song.
Many of these Jewish a cappella groups create catchy names for themselves with multiple meanings. Segev talks about the meaning behind TenLi Tunes, with Ten Li meaning “give me” in Hebrew. Tenleytown is also the neighborhood in DC. in which the group resides.
At Northwestern University, the premier Jewish a cappella group is named Shireinu, meaning “our song” in Hebrew, with the final two letters capitalized to stand for the initials of the university.
Natalie Daninhirsch, one of the co-presidents of ShireiNU, emphasizes how a love of music brings together members of various religious and cultural backgrounds. “My Jewish experience on campus is this beautiful melange of music, culture, education, and people,” she said.
Fellow member Rachel Meiselman expresses a strong connection between ShireiNU and Northwestern Hillel, as the group both rehearses and performs in the Hillel building.
“We just performed in Hillel’s Hanukkah event, Latkepalooza, and we are lucky to have a very supportive audience,” Meiselman said.
As a freshman, Meiselman is delighted to start her college career as part of this group. “Music is something that truly bonds people together,” she explained. “It’s the most unique community experience I’ve had.”
In addition to fostering a strong sense of community, Jewish a cappella allows for students to explore a wide variety of music, ranging from traditional Hebrew songs to both Israeli and American pop.
At Syracuse University, Anna Fleischer describes how her Jewish a cappella group, Oy Cappella, performs a variety of genres, mixing Hebrew music with popular American music.
“We have our two staple Hebrew songs: “Al HaNissim” and “Licha Dodi”,” Fleischer said. “And we’ve also performed popular songs like “Happier” by Olivia Rodrigo, “Set Fire to the Rain” by Adele, and “American Boy” by Estelle and Kanye West.”
Keren Binyamin, a current member of the Jewish a cappella group, Kol Sasson (“sounds of joy”), at the University of Maryland, mentions how her group balances Hebrew and English songs and mixes in fun pop songs and ballads. “We are planning to record a CD of our music during winter break,” she said. “We’ve also made two recordings for the KOLedge A Cappella Competition.”
The KOLedge A Capella Competition, which Binyamin mentioned, is a Jewish collegiate a cappella competition that features multiple Jewish groups each year. This year, Ketzev (“rhythm”), from Johns Hopkins University, won first prize singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Diana Bershadsky, president of Ketzev, describes the singular feeling of performing Jewish songs. “There is something so special about singing songs steeped with tradition and meaning,” she said. “When you get it right, time stops and you can feel the goosebumps.”
Ketzev performs “Hallelujah” at each of their concerts and invites visiting alumni to come sing with them, a touching tradition that has gone on for years. “These moments of meaning are why I joined Jewish a cappella in the first place,” said Bershadsky.
When asked about the essence of Jewish a cappella, students are filled with pride in being able to combine their Jewish identities with musical passions.
Segev describes his joy in expressing his Jewish identity through music. “I love singing and I love Judaism,” he said. “It’s amazing to give other people the opportunity to practice Judaism on campus in a way that fits their style.”
Anna Fleischer echoes this feeling of joy. “Judaism has always been a huge part of who I am, along with singing,” she said. “The combination of both is incredible beyond words.”