Kol Shira crosses ‘unspoken religious boundaries’ with song, respect

Kol Shira crosses ‘unspoken religious boundaries’ with song, respect

Kol Shira performed at the Jewish Community Center Monday, March 24. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Olbrich Photography)
Kol Shira performed at the Jewish Community Center Monday, March 24. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Olbrich Photography)

One is a physical therapist. One is a website editor. Many are mothers. All of them are Jewish singers.

Chantal Belman, Lynn Berman, Leah Herman, Beth Jacobs, Jeanne McHale, Gilah Moritz, Jessica Weinberg Neiss, Tamara Reese, Amy Schwartz and Miriam Shaw comprise the 10 Pittsburgh women who make up Kol Shira, which roughly translates to “the voice of all song.”

On Monday evening the a cappella group took to the Jewish Community Center’s Katz Auditorium stage for its first stand-alone concert since 2011. The show, “A Spring Sing,” was one of many performances the decade-old group engages in throughout the year, and the house was packed.

“We perform several times a year at various venues around Pittsburgh,” said McHale, 36, of Squirrel Hill. “In just the last year, we’ve performed at synagogue events, at a concert of Jewish music on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, at Riverview Towers and at the Anathan Club for our community’s seniors. We are a very active group.”

A sea of women and girls filled the chairs of the venue, snapping and clapping along to what McHale describes as “the full range of what Jewish music means: Hebrew, English, Yiddish; popular, folk, classical; Israeli, American, European; last year, the ’40s the 1640s.”

The audience demographic is intentional.

“Kol Shira performs only for female audiences with the exception of elderly in elder-care situations,” said Moritz. “This has been our policy since the group was established 10 years ago, and it is an accommodation to the Orthodox members of the group who keep to the Torah prohibition against men hearing nonfamily women’s singing.”

The women-only policy allows the group to fill a niche in the community where observant supporters embrace the singers because of the loyalty to their faith, leaving the venues filled from the floor to the ceiling with “a special energy and intimacy,” explained Moritz. And for men and boys, Kol Shira has digitized their voices and created a CD, of which a follow-up is expected in the near future.

“Our live performances are for women only; but our CD is open to listening by anyone,” said Berman.

Faith, and various forms of it, makes the group even more unique.

The group is evenly split between the denominations, said Moritz. There are Reform Jews, Lubavitchers, Conservative Jews, modern Orthodox Jews and those representing the spaces where the streams intersect.

“Kol Shira is unique in the sense that we have crossed all of the unspoken religious boundaries that exist between the very observant and less observant Jews of the world,” said Neiss, 37. “We respect each other for our either strict or lax observance of the holidays and Shabbat, and [we] never judge each others’ choices. We represent, in essence, what the Jews around the world should be: inclusive, loving and respectful of each others’ choices and level of observance.”

To exemplify this meshing of practice, the group set up a faux fire pit on stage – the idea was to replicate a kumzitz, Yiddish for “come and sit.” The Kol Shira members sat on logs and playfully roasted marshmallows over a fire made of fabric and a wind machine. The idea was to share songs and stories under the stars – no electronics, just camaraderie, Neiss told the audience of some 200 diverse fans.

The differences among the women allow for their artistic connection and opportunity to grow by learning and sharing, said Shaw, 56, who joined the group in August 2013 and has performed with Kol Shira six times.

One of the ensemble’s founders sees the growth as a way to be better performers.

“I love having a group of women with a wide range of practice,” said Berman, an early intervention teacher and an Israeli dance instructor. “We share this knowledge and experience and it enriches us, our music, and hopefully our audiences. I’d like to think of it as a model for the larger Jewish community.”

Belman, 45, agreed.

“I have rarely seen a city where so many Jews of different religious observances can get together for events, educational programs, simchas,” said Belman. “My family is Orthodox but we feel very comfortable interacting with other Jewish factions of other denominations. I think that the love of Judaism and the beauty of music blurs the differences and allows us to create unified and inspired music.”

The inspiration often comes from the audience’s reactions.

Jacobs, 35, of Squirrel Hill, and mother to a four year old, said the reaction to her personal growth as a parent is still one her greatest moments.

“We have a joke in the group about how many kids we have as a whole, and our audience members enjoy hearing about our running total,” said Jacobs. “At the first concert I was pregnant with my daughter; at the second concert I was able to tell the audience, ‘I am a mother now’ to great applause.”

One of McHales’ favorite moments took place a few years ago, while the group was performing a Chanukah concert at Riverview Towers for an audience of seniors with various levels of cognitive and physical challenges. She said they began singing a verse when she noticed a woman who seemed disconnected. When the English version of the chorus brought no reaction, the group switched to Yiddish, and the woman was revived.

“This woman lit up and started to sing along,” said McHale, who likens the all-women atmosphere of the performances to her days of shaking a tail feather at the Indigo Girls concerts when she was in high school. “All these years later, she still knew all the Yiddish words [and] it reminded me of the power of music and of the culture we grew up in, and therefore the power of what we do.”

Berman shared another experience.

“We had been invited to sing at a Chabad women’s event in a private home [and] one woman seemed to be half asleep, and I wasn’t sure she had enjoyed herself at all,” Berman said. “Within a few days we received a blog post from this very woman reflecting on how she had enjoyed the concert and how it had strengthened her as she recovered from a serious illness.”

This, said Berman, “is the real power of music.”

(Bee Schindler can be reached at beeschindler@gmail.com.)