Harmonious beginning to Festival of Jewish Life

By Patricia Corrigan, Special to the Jewish Light

Maybe you saw them on CNN or on “The Today Show.” Maybe you read about them in the New York Times or the Jerusalem Post. Maybe you watched their videos on You Tube—the first one posted got two million hits in 10 days. Or maybe you caught their concerts in Madison Square Garden, in Hong Kong, in London or in Auckland.

Good news: The wildly popular Maccabeats will kick off the Festival of Jewish Life, which runs here March 18-25. Don’t wait if you want to see this a cappella singing group. Fans from across the Midwest, including students from a Christian high school in the Quad Cities, are snapping up tickets for the concert.

“Their appeal is broad,” said Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of the Jewish Community Center’s Helene Mirowitz Department of Jewish Community Life. “The concert will be in the gym, where we can seat up to a thousand people. We have already sold a lot of tickets.”

The all-male Maccabeats sing Jewish, American and Israeli songs. To date, they have performed more than 200 public and private concerts in 30 states and elsewhere in the world. The group is best known for their YouTube videos of their “Purim Song” and “Candlelight,” a Hanukkah song that is a takeoff of Taio Cruz’s song “Dynamite.” (Listen at www.maccabeats.com.) They have one CD, “Voice from the Heights,” with a second, “Out of the Box,” due out soon.

Noah Jacobson, 21, is associate director of the Maccabeats. Originally from Houston, Jacobson is a senior at Yeshiva University, studying English literature. A member of the Maccabeats for three years, Jacobson made time recently to talk about the group.

For the uninformed, who are the Maccabeats?

We are young, clean-cut, good-natured guys proud of our religion, proud of our heritage, and we also reconcile religion with engaging in the modern world, being fun, being cool.

How did the group begin?

Five years ago, some students at Yeshiva University realized there was no tradition of a cappella singing there, and they founded the group. Though it started as a student group, now it’s a proper business, an LLC, with lawyers and accountants and part-time income for all of us.

So it’s not a student group any longer?

Only two of us still are students at Yeshiva, and we both will graduate this spring. Twelve members are in law school, medical school, rabbinical school or pursuing other careers. We range in age from 21 to 26, and seven of the guys are married.

Will the Maccabeats continue the affiliation with the school after this spring?

We will always have a close relationship with Yeshiva. We still perform for graduation, convocation and the Hanukkah dinner.

Is this a common arrangement?

In the traditional collegiate a cappella world, once you leave university, you pass the torch on to guys coming in, but after we saw some success, our members have not been so quick to leave. We have had many exciting opportunities, and we all want to be part of that.

How do you manage to juggle the time commitment with finishing an undergraduate degree or attending graduate school?

The Maccabeats is not a full-time job on paper, but it does require full-time energy. Here I am, a senior in college with a full course schedule, and I just left for two weeks for concerts in China and New Zealand. That’s crazy—but we all are committed, incredibly invested.

Besides the fun factor—and your videos do make it look fun—what is the value to sticking with the group?

Though none of us is considering music as a career, we are all passionate about music and singing –that’s what brought us together. Also, the learning opportunities are incredibly valuable. My friends with business internships are glorified coffee runners, but I am negotiating rights, calling big record labels and doing tax returns. I also am learning from my mistakes.

Give an example.

Our contract has been a case of trial and error. For instance, we once showed up for a concert and had to walk up 20 flights because we don’t use elevators on Shabbat. Now the contract specifies those constraints.

Have you insisted on only green M&Ms or made other demands in the rock-star model?

No—we’re down to earth. We started as part of the observant Orthodox community, and we have always wanted our material to be educational and meaningful. That seems to have brought us a lot of success.

Who are your fans?

Jews and non-Jews tell us our content is inspiring, and that it helps people be proud of who they are. That seems to be the universal vibe we put out, and that brings people together. Music has that power.