In a cappella contest, Maryland’s Rak Shalom comes in second

Kol Sasson from the University of Maryland performs. Photo Nathan Cooper, Arts Laureate
Kol Sasson from the University of Maryland performs. Photo Nathan Cooper, Arts Laureate

There was neither Glee snark nor teenage sexual innuendo at the Kol HaOlam National Collegiate Jewish A Cappella Competition on Saturday night. Instead eight Jewish student song groups staged a friendly competition on stage at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.

The college-aged singers hailed from Temple, Binghamton, Washington and Johns Hopkins universities and the universities of Wisconsin, Michigan and local favorite, Maryland.

“These groups light up campuses with song, produce CDs and even perform before the president of the United States,” said the evening’s emcee, Matt Nosanchuk, White House liaison to the American Jewish community.

How to decide who’s the best, though?

“The organizers thought a lot about what makes a good a cappella group,” said Arianne Brown, cantor at Adas Israel and a competition judge, who did a stint in student a cappella groups as an undergrad at Rutgers University.

“We have a very specific list to judge each group,” added Matt Klein, cantor of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County another of the competition’s four judges. “We consider intonation, balance and blend, tone quality, energy and stage presence, and impact on the audience,” among other items.

The competition was tough this year, reported students from a number of the top eight schools.

“Each year it gets better and better,” said Nicole Thoma, a senior in pre-speech pathology from the University of Wisconsin. A member of the Hillel-sponsored Jewop for her four years on campus, Thoma was ecstatic to hear her group announced as this year’s winner as well as the audience favorite in a vote tabulated by cell phone. “I’m in disbelief,” she gushed. “We’ve been working for four years for this. I never imagined it would happen.”

Her co-director Matthew Allen, a senior in computer engineering, said, “Last year we realized groups are getting better, so we had to push ourselves even harder. And we did.”

The 14-member group sang a jazzed-up, swing arrangement of the Yiddish classic “Abi Gezunt” and the Hebrew “Hashkiveinu,” the women sporting red dresses, the men in black shirts and red ties. “We always strive for the right mix of energy, the right chords and good music,” Thoma added.

One of the two College Park groups, Rak Shalom, came away with the most honors, taking second place in the competition, along with awards for best original arrangement and best soloist, Ryan Sevel. The group’s original song, “Hear Our Cry,” was written this academic year by its 11 members, said Noah Bar-Shain, a junior bioengineering major who leads Rak Shalom. Based on the music of the song “Watch Me Rise” by Mikky Ekko, the rewrite by Rak Shalom deals pointedly with the political situation in Israel.

“We spent four months working on an appropriate message dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Bar-Shain. “Our stance is sympathetic to both sides, particularly the second chorus that is sympathetic to the struggle of the Palestinians.”

For sophomore journalism major Sevel, the award-winning soloist on “Hear Our Cry,” the lyrics are personal. “I have friends in Israel, on the front lines, and, yes, they’re struggling,” he said. “We see every crisis gets some coverage in the news and then it fades away even though it’s still going on — and there’s no solution. I’m talking about both sides …. It makes me mad and I ask myself, why can’t they figure it out?”

Most of the other songs on Saturday’s program stayed apolitical, including a medley by the other University of Maryland group, Kol Sasson, featuring covers of recent songs by neo-Chasidic rockers Zusha (“Tzion”) and Israeli world music icon Idan Raichel (“Adayin Shelach”).

The evening ended with a vocally rich medley sung by last year’s Kol HaOlam winner, Tizmoret of Queens College. Then this year’s winner Jewop returned to the stage to accept its award and pay homage to their college town with the song “Coming Home to Madison.”

Why spend the dozens of hours each semester rehearsing in a Jewish a cappella choir? Students reported that they loved the feeling of building a community through song, working on a vocal arrangement.

Bar-Shain, leader of Rak Shalom, said singing brings him closer to his religion: “The way I connect to Judaism most is through singing.”

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