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Mak’hela bridges religious, cultural divides through song

  • Kayla Werlin, far right, directs Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. JERREY ROBERTS

    Kayla Werlin, far right, directs Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kayla Werlin directs Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. JERREY ROBERTS

    Kayla Werlin directs Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kathy Schlichtig, center, Lynn Dashevsky, right, and other members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts rehearse Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Kathy Schlichtig, center, Lynn Dashevsky, right, and other members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts rehearse Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gordon Freed, left, and Rick Sheldon rehearse with Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Gordon Freed, left, and Rick Sheldon rehearse with Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts sing during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts sing during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marta Lev, from left, Laura Borash and Deliah Rosel sing during a rehearsal for Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Marta Lev, from left, Laura Borash and Deliah Rosel sing during a rehearsal for Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts sing during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts sing during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gordon Freed, from left, Rick Sheldon, Stan Bernstein and Bob Kumin, who are members of Members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts, sing during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Gordon Freed, from left, Rick Sheldon, Stan Bernstein and Bob Kumin, who are members of Members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts, sing during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kayla Werlin, far right, directs Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. JERREY ROBERTS
  • Kayla Werlin directs Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. JERREY ROBERTS
  • Kathy Schlichtig, center, Lynn Dashevsky, right, and other members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts rehearse Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Gordon Freed, left, and Rick Sheldon rehearse with Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts sing during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Marta Lev, from left, Laura Borash and Deliah Rosel sing during a rehearsal for Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts sing during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Gordon Freed, from left, Rick Sheldon, Stan Bernstein and Bob Kumin, who are members of Members of Mak'hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts, sing during a rehearsal Tuesday at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

It’s a question many Jews have wrestled with: How do you build links to other Jewish communities, both to people who live in different towns and to those who interpret Judaism in different ways?

To members of Mak’hela the answer is straightforward: Do it through song.

For 10 years, Mak’hela, the Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts, has celebrated the spirit and traditions of Judaism through its music, with a repertoire that includes religious songs, show tunes, folk music and other styles, and in languages that include Hebrew, English and Yiddish.

But while music is the medium, members say, the group’s core is built around something larger.

“It’s much more than a chorus,” said longtime musical director Kayla Werlin of Hadley. “It’s a community. I’ve made so many friends over the years there, it’s become a huge part of my life. I’m so proud and so honored to be a part of it.”

Now the chorus, which traces it beginnings to an informal group of singers who came together in the 1990s at the Jewish Community of Amherst, is set to celebrate its 10th anniversary as a larger, regional chorus. It will perform Sunday at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, in a show that will welcome back former members, group founders, accompanists, soloists and others who have been part of the journey.

Wide reach

Allen Davis of Amherst, one of the group’s founders, says that when open auditions were first held for Mak’hela in early 2003, “We had people from Hartford, from Vermont, from Northampton and Springfield — that was a signal to us that we really needed to expand our reach.”

Mak’hela, which means “chorus” in Hebrew, has varied in size over the years, Werlin says, with anywhere from 40 to 60 members; it’s currently at about 50. It’s a diverse group musically, and is open to anyone. Members come from across the region, including northern Connecticut and the greater Springfield area, especially Longmeadow, which Werlin notes has a vibrant Jewish community.

Although auditions are required, and some members bring professional musical experience to the table, the emphasis is on the joy of singing together and sharing Jewish culture and traditions.

“If you can carry a tune, you can be part of this,” said Werlin, who is the director of vocal music for Longmeadow schools.

Laura Borash, a former University of Massachusetts Amherst student now living in Enfield, Conn., joined Mak’hela in its first year and says she still loves being part of the group. Though she has sung in musicals and other choral groups, including at UMass and in a production of “Annie” with Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater, Borash says the community feel of Mak’hela is unique.

“The rehearsal process is just as rewarding as the actual performances,” she said. “I know every time I leave choir practice I feel I’ve learned something else, and that makes me feel good about myself and the group.”

Most members of the chorus are Jewish, others are not; the idea of bridging religious and cultural divides is part of the group’s mission. Davis says Mak’hela has taken part in interfaith shows over the years, such as singing in a black church in Springfield, and the group also regularly sings for varied audiences, such as people in nursing homes, and as part of fundraisers for service organizations like the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

Bonnie Gibson, a Mak’hela member from Longmeadow, says taking part in the chorus feels like being in a “kehillah kedosha,” a Hebrew expression that means holy community. “We bring each other and our audiences our sense of love and joy of singing this very special music,” she said.

Bonnie Mikesh, the head of Mak’hela’s board of directors and a longtime chorus member, says being part of the group helps “break down the barriers” that can crop up between Jewish communities, such as secular Jews and more observant ones.

“For some people, coming to rehearsal and singing in half a dozen concerts is their Jewish experience, and that’s great,” Mikesh said. “Music is really a common bond for all of us.”

Mikesh, who also lives in Longmeadow, says it sometimes feels like a haul to make it up to Mak’hela’s rehearsals, held Tuesday nights from September through mid-June at the Lander-Grinspoon Academy by Congregation B’Nai Israel in Northampton. After a long day of work, she says she’s often tired — but singing, she adds, “just brings me right around. You come out feeling completely rejuvenated.”

Varied repertoire

Members say a big appeal of Mak’hela is the variety of music they perform. Their repertoire comes from many countries, and in addition to Hebrew, English and Yiddish, they sing in Spanish, Italian, German and other languages. Many of the songs speak to the attachment some Jews feel for both their cultural and national identities, such as “America the Beautiful” sung in both English and Yiddish (“Amerike de Prekhtike”).

Werlin, the music director, researches much of the group’s repertoire. Songs may come from prayer services and other religious traditions — she’s come across one song, for instance, that dates from medieval Italy, and others from Sephardic Jews, who lived on the Iberian Peninsula before the Spanish Inquisition. The chorus also has performed Israeli folk songs, show tunes, like from “Fiddler on the Roof,” and lighter fare, such as satirist Tom Lehrer’s “Chanukah in Santa Monica.”

Werlin says she welcomes suggestions of music from chorus members, and the group has worked with outside musicians such as Joshua Jacobson, a professor at Northeastern University who’s considered a leading expert in Jewish choral music, to arrange the songs for multiple voices. The chorus gets support, as well, from its longtime accompanist, pianist Jamie Goodnow.

“For me, one of the best parts of this chorus has been discovering this amazingly broad reach of (Jewish) music,” Werlin said.

That breadth of music wasn’t really on anyone’s radar screen when Davis, a financial planner who’s also a bass player, organized a music history class at JCA in the mid-1990s. Following that, JCA staged a community-led musical festival, and some members formed a klezmer band, while about a dozen others started a small chorus that sang during services at the synagogue and on high holy days.

After several years of doing that, Davis says, chorus members decided they wanted to broaden their approach. With seed money from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, Mak’hela set up as a nonprofit organization, formed a board of directors, hired Werlin to be the musical director, and put out word that they were looking to form a bigger chorus drawn from people across the region.

“It made sense to regionalize this,” said Davis, a past president of Mak’hela’s board and also a former chorus member. “There are Jewish communities in towns and cities up and down the Valley, but there’s not a lot of collaboration or connection. ... This was a way to build bridges to isolated communities and other faiths, because music is a gateway to Jewish life and values.”

Mikesh says she’s enjoyed watching Mak’hela expand its reach over the years: It performed at an Israeli music festival in 2010 and has sung in places around the Northeast, including Albany, New York and Boston. Though she’s long attended synagogue in Springfield, and has sung in other choruses over the years, Mak’hela has a special appeal from both a cultural and musical perspective.

“When you sing these songs, it takes you back to the way you were raised, the things you learned growing up, what it means to be Jewish,” she said. “It’s just a great sense of connection.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Mak’hela will perform Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Yiddish Book Center, 1021 West St., Amherst. Admission is $10; $8 for book center members; $5 for students. Tickets can be purchased in advance at www.yiddishbookcenter.org. Follow the links for the calendar of events.

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