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JCCC FEATURED IN THE JEWISH JOURNAL:

8/7/2015

Jewish children’s choir combines the power of youth with the magic of music

by Jonathan Maseng

Posted on Aug. 5, 2015 at 4:23 pm

It’s Sunday afternoon at the Workmen’s Circle in Pico-Robertson. A group of Orthodox women sit chatting in a back room, while, a few feet away, a father in blue jeans talks with a mother who is clearly not as traditional. In the large social hall, several dozen children — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and everything in between — sit rail- straight in their seats as Michelle Green Willner shows them some music. This is a rehearsal of the Jewish Community Children’s Choir, a pan-denominational group of children who come together each week to sing and learn about Jewish music.

For Green Willner, it’s a longtime dream that’s finally come to fruition. Growing up in Toronto, at what she describes as a “very singing shul,” Green Willner was fascinated by music from an early age. “I would come home and try and figure out the music that I was hearing at shul,” she said recently at her home in Los Angeles.

That love of music led her to pursue conducting as a student at the University of Toronto, and when she moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, she dove into the Jewish music scene. Gigs conducting the Workmen’s Circle’s Yiddish choir, creating a children’s chimes choir at Yeshivat Yavneh, and writing and arranging numerous musical works brought her to the attention of Noreen Green, founder and director of the L.A. Jewish Symphony.

“We’re not related at all! Everybody asks that question,” Green Willner said, laughing.

Green wanted Green Willner to meet with Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Rabbi Harold Schulweis (z’l), who was interested in starting a Jewish children’s choir. Schulweis told Green Willner that “a community that sings together, stays together,” a quote she uses to this day to motivate her choir. The Schulweis Institute, a center for Jewish learning in the San Fernando Valley, provided an initial three-year grant, and in 2011, the Jewish Community Children’s Choir was born.

“We only had eight children our first rehearsal,” Green Willner said. “It’s taken off at the Workmen’s Circle.” Rehearsals regularly draw dozens of children, ages 8-13, from places as diverse as Harkham Hillel, VBS, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Sinai Temple and a host of yeshivot.

“I think everybody’s getting something out of this,” Green Willner said. “We’re all coming for the same reason, we’re all rooting for our children. We all want the best for our children. We want the best education. … No matter where they come from, they all want to learn Torah values, and they want their children to see it in action.”

Green Willner is proud of how the kids interact — children from vastly different backgrounds working together, having fun and singing with joy. She described sitting in the audience at one of the choir’s concerts and watching that synergy in action. “I was sitting behind the children … and they had done some prayers for the soldiers, and one Orthodox boy was sitting next to another boy and answered, ‘Amen,’ and I noticed the other boy look at him, smile and go, ‘Amen.’ ”

The children have performed at venues around the city, from synagogues to the Museum of Tolerance to Israel festivals. According to Green Willner, they’ve enjoyed a very warm reception.

“One of the parents brought an older man to the rehearsal,” Green Willner recalled. “He was sitting on the side while we were practicing … and after we finished one of the pieces, he came over to me. … He was so overwhelmed, he took out his credit card and said, ‘Here, take whatever you need for the choir.’ I said to him, ‘No I can’t take your credit card, but would you do me the honor of, during the break, telling us a little about [yourself].’ ” It turns out the man, Leslie Klein, was a Holocaust survivor.

“He told the children, and started in tears, of how listening to the kids singing reminded him of his sister, who sang in the choir before his sister and parents perished in the Holocaust,” Green Willner said.

The experience also has been moving for the children. “There’s one little girl in the choir who, after every concert, makes me little cards,” Green Willner said. “I get amazing emails from parents.”

She’s particularly proud when she sees children gain confidence through singing. Green Willner described another young girl, who “was so shy, she would not leave her mom’s side. Now she’s my strongest, loudest singer.”

Green Willner hopes that with more exposure, the choir will gain even more participants. “I’d love it to grow and grow and grow,” she said. “I’d love the level of music making to increase and be heightened.

“Their potential is phenomenal, and their ears are phenomenal. … I think it can become even more than it is. It’s brought me a lot of joy,” she continued. “I go in sometimes on Sunday, like we all do when we’re tired from the whole week … and I come out thinking, ‘What else can we do?’ ”

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