Voices Raised With Pride

Madison Silverman is an energetic 12-year-old with an effervescent smile, and, like most girls her age, she likes fashion, makeup and music. 

What sets her apart isn’t her dyslexia, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; it’s what Madison is doing at the Kolot Tikvah (Voices of Hope) choir to help other kids who have their own challenges. 

“Sometimes I can see that kids have a hard time, they need to have someone to sing words in their ear or help turn the page of the music. I have a sense, probably because of growing up with my twin brother, Reece, who is autistic, I know when someone needs help or when they need to be left alone,” she said of her peers in the choir for children, teens and adults with special needs. “I used to be very self-conscious and get bullied or called dumb because of my special needs, but being with the kids here I feel that everyone is so open and there’s so much love.”

Kolot Tikvah dates back to 2007, when Adrienne and Jerry Ross, members of Temple Aliyah of Woodland Hills, approached the Conservative congregation’s Chazzan Mike Stein. 

“Their daughter, Brianna, loved to sing, but the congregational choir just wasn’t the right environment for her,” Stein said. 

That’s when a light bulb went off and Stein designed a curriculum that could touch any child, no matter how he was able to participate. With an initial start-up grant from The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, the singing group formed as a collaboration between Temple Aliyah and Valley Beth Shalom (VBS). The choir — under the umbrella of  OurSpace, which provides programs for individuals with special needs and their families — is open to members of any synagogue as well as unaffiliated Jews. 

“For lots of these kids diagnosed with special needs, it’s sometimes hard for them to be part of what we normally think of as the Jewish experience, like USY [United Synagogue Youth] and Hebrew school, because they can’t function or manage in a typical situation. This has allowed them to have the Jewish music and Hebrew school — the Jewish experience — without being judged or made fun of and a place where they are accepted.” said Madison’s mother, Nancy Silverman. 

At Kolot Tikvah’s helm is Stein, 62, who has been performing for many years, but not always in front of a Jewish congregation. A Grammy Award-winning artist in children’s music, he appeared on Broadway in the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” And, for 17 years, the New York native played the violin in the United States Navy Band. While in the service, he traveled the world and played in the White House for Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. On the weekends, he would work part time at various synagogues. 

Stein — whose newest CD, released last year, is “There’s a Place That I Pray” — started his second career at the age of 40, wanting to be the kind of involved clergy that he never had growing up. 

“My cantor and rabbi came through a door onto the bimah, and after services they went back out the door and we never saw them again.”  

Talk to the members of Kolot Tikvah and there’s little doubt he’s succeeding. 

“He’s the best; he pulls out my inner child. I can’t describe it; he pulls out a feeling of happiness and being able to belong,” said Shaina Barnett, 23, the oldest member of the choir. “Chazzan embraces all my qualities! I look forward to it and never want to miss choir. For that one hour, I feel free from the problems outside this room.” 

Kolot Tikvah consists of 10 members, ages 12 to 23 — including Brianna Crane-Ross — with a wide range of abilities. At each of their hour-long practices, which take place once a month at Temple Aliyah, Stein starts with warm-up exercises, brings in different instruments and talks about the songs so as to give them meaning in a Jewish and social context. 

He said he is always learning from his students as to what works and what touches them. When he brought in the song “Circle Chant by Linda Hirschhorn and talked about the words — Circle around for freedom, circle around for peace, for all of us imprisoned, circle for release — he wasn’t sure if they would be affected by it. 

One 15-year-old choir member said that this was the dumbest song that she had ever heard because “I’m not in prison.” But Barnett responded differently: “I know what that song means because I feel imprisoned by my disabilities, sometimes, I get so depressed that I feel I am in prison and need to break out.” 

The choir can be found performing occasionally at Temple Aliyah, VBS and other synagogues. It has also appeared at the Tu B’Shevat Nature Fest at the Shalom Institute and the Chanukah candle lighting ceremony at Los Angeles City Hall. 

On April 12, Madison and brother Reece will become b’nai mitzvah at Temple Aliyah. Madison decided that because Kolot Tikvah is such an important part of her life, she wanted the choir to perform at the ceremony. 

“It’s incredible to hear how the choir sings. We sing with our hearts,” she said. “I want to show the congregation how special it is to me, and to the other kids in the choir, that we get a chance to shine.”

KOLOT TIKVAH’S ANTHEM

Kolot tikvah, voices of hope
We can do most anything
When we raise our voice to sing.

Kolot tikvah
In Hebrew that means
Voices of hope
The voice of our dreams!

We have joy and sorrow,
Laughter and tears.
We have faith that tomorrow
Our voices you’ll hear.

And that voice will reach deep,
Deep inside your heart,
As we open your eyes
To who we really are!

— Chazzan Mike Stein

Photo: Temple Aliyah’s Chazzan Mike Stein, third from left on sofa, is at the helm of Kolot Tikvah. Photos by Cyndi Bemel