NOVEMBER 22, 2018 – When Gaston Bernstein and his family watched Pentatonix win “The Sing-Off” on TV in 2011, little did he know that he himself would soon be immersed in the world of a cappella. Yet together with his wife, Cantor Sandy Bernstein, Gaston recently staged a wildly successful New England Jewish Collegiate A Cappella Competition and Showcase, with Tufts University’s Shir Appeal walking away with top honors.
“The Sing-Off” first inspired the couple’s daughter, Gabi, to seek an a cappella group at her high school. As the Bernsteins continued to soak up more through her performances, Gaston had a flash of inspiration. What about producing a competition for local-area Jewish a cappella college groups at the Philadelphia temple where the family worshipped?
The event ended up being such a success that when Cantor Sandy recently accepted a new job at Temple Sholom in Greenwich, Conn., the temple’s leadership quickly agreed to a follow-up competition.
Teams from across the Northeast gathered earlier this month, including third-place finisher Alef Beats from Brown University; Ani V’Ata from New York University; Kaskeset from Binghamton University; Kol Halayla from Rutgers University; runner-up Manginah from Brandeis University; the Mazel Tones from Wesleyan University; winner Shir Appeal from Tufts University; and Tizmoret from Queens College.
Bernstein asked each group to prepare three songs to perform: one in English with an Israeli, biblical, or liturgical theme; one in Hebrew, and a final song of choice. He recruited a panel of judges from within the music industry, set up an elaborate sound system with microphones for each performer, and brought in professional stage lighting.
Noah Smith, a senior at Tufts who serves as president of Shir Appeal, could not have been prouder of his team’s first-place finish.
“Although it may sound like a cliché, I think the bigger win for us was in experiencing our music together with other Jewish groups,” he said. “We are unique in that while some groups are Jewish primarily by membership and sing all types of music, not all of our members are Jewish, but we sing only Jewish music. It was great to feel like our approach was validated by the judges.”
Smith himself is not Jewish, yet he thoroughly enjoys his position leading the Tufts group and representing the Tufts Jewish community. When asked why a non-Jew would join a Jewish a cappella group, he said, “I love music and the fun and open environment of a cappella, so I always knew I would join a group. When I received the audition callback from Shir Appeal as a sophomore, I was initially pretty skeptical that I would join. However, the warm environment of the group and the interactions I had with individual group members convinced me that Shir Appeal was the right fit for me.”
Smith also was the winner of the “Best Beatboxer” award at the competition, a prize he earned after years of hard work and practice. Beatboxing, which mimics drum machines using the mouth, lips, tongue, and voice, is not an easy skill to acquire. Smith picked up the basics from another group member, and advanced so quickly, he was able to beatbox on his very first Shir Appeal song.
Both Bernstein and Shir Appeal already are looking toward the future. Shir Appeal is preparing for a winter break trip to Los Angeles, where the group will stay with host families and perform at various synagogues in the area. Bernstein already is looking ahead to next year’s singing competition.
“We hope to repeat with another great event,” he said.