Reporter's notebook'I wanted to come feel the unity'

Mass singing initiative works to change fractured Israeli society’s tune

Young founders of immensely popular Koolulam are getting diverse Israelis to finally sing from the same page — and share infectious videos on YouTube

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Piling five young kids into the car after a busy day of work and school for a long drive in rush hour traffic is not something most parents relish. But it’s what Rachel and Doron Papkin happily did on March 13, taking their family to a Koolulam mass singing event in Jerusalem from their home in Givat Shmuel.

The Papkins are hardcore Koolulam enthusiasts, ready and willing to show up, rain or shine. This particular evening — the family’s fifth such event — was brisk, but that didn’t stop a couple thousand people from gathering in Safra Square in front of Jerusalem’s city hall.

“The kids love it and we meet new people at each event. The people who organize this are tzadikim [righteous people]. They are doing a good deed helping people connect like this. I really hope this sense of togetherness will spill over into the rest of life,” mom Rachel said.

Papkin family from Givat Shmuel at Koolulam event in Jerusalem, March 13, 2018 (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Her nine-year-old daughter Noga added she loves the social initiative so much that she presented about it to her class at school.

Koolulam’s popularity has soared since it kicked off in Tel Aviv in April 2017, with Israelis jumping at the opportunity to come together with thousands of strangers — to sing.

The NIS 40 ($11.50) tickets for recent Koolulam events have sold out in mere minutes. In under an hour, participants learn a three-part arrangement of a Hebrew or English song, and then perform it for a video to be shared on social media. Views of the videos reach into the hundreds of thousands, and millions in some cases.

This event, however, was the first time Koolulam’s organizers pulled off simultaneous gatherings in five different cities in Israel: Jerusalem, Dimona, Ashkelon, Rishon Lezion, and Kiryat Motzkin. A total of 7,500 people sang veteran Israeli rocker Shalom Hanoch’s “Bagilgul Hazeh” (This Time Around) to cap off Good Deeds Day, an initiative of the Ruach Tova (Good Spirit) NGO promoting voluntarism in Israel and other countries.

Incredibly, this feat will soon be outdone as Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin announced he will host a Koolulam event on April 9 celebrating Israel’s upcoming 70th birthday. It’s set for the Menora Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv, an indoor stadium that seats 10,300. Tickets for the event go on sale the morning of March 29 and will surely be snatched up quickly.

Singing is believing

On that chilly Jerusalem evening a few weeks ago, as participants entered the cordoned-off space, Koolulam volunteers took a quick listen to their voices and assigned them to one of three musical parts: baritone, alto or soprano. Then they handed them a song sheet tailored to their part.

“It looks like so much fun from the videos, and I wanted to come feel the unity,” said Hadas, a young teenager who had arrived with friends from Efrat.

Koolulam founders and leaders (from right): Ben Yefet, Michal Shahaf Shneiderman, Or Taicher. (Courtesy)

When they conceived of the initiative, Koolulam’s three founders, Ben Yefet, Michal Shahaf Shneiderman, and Or Taicher, were aiming for that feeling of connection between strangers.

Taicher, a 33-year-old director, screenwriter and social activist, said he was looking for a way to counter the acrimony among Israelis he observed online. Taicher then saw a video of worshippers packed into the plaza in front of the Western Wall, singing in unison and fervor on Yom Kippur. It sparked for him the idea behind Koolulam: That music and creativity could be used to unite Israelis on a mass scale.

“The impetus was to bring Israelis of all backgrounds together, regardless of their political views or affiliations,” said Shneiderman, who joined Taicher in founding and running Koolulam.

Shneiderman, 33, takes credit for the initiative’s catchy name. It’s a multiple play on the English word “cool,” the Hebrew word “kulam” (everyone), the Hebrew word “kol” (voice), and “kululu,” the ululation sound of joy some Israelis of North African and Middle Eastern descent make at happy occasions like bar mitzvahs and weddings.

“Basically, the gist of it is that we should all be happy together,” Shneiderman said.

Yefet, a gifted music educator and conductor, is the musical engine behind Koolulam. He creates arrangements for the songs, teaches them in about 45 minutes, and then conducts the humongous ad-hoc choirs for the recordings. As the events have grown in size, Yefet has been joined by co-conductors and musicians.

“Koolulam has grown so quickly that all three of us have given up our  professional work to focus solely on this social initiative,” said Shneiderman, an entrepreneur who had her own digital advertising agency.

The team has big plans for Koolulam, which they believe can make a significant impact on Israeli society and beyond. They already partner with municipalities and NGOs, and they hope to soon launch a KoolSchool product to teach schools how to produce their own Koolulam-style events (including video production). There’s also talk of expanding into therapeutic and rehabilitation settings such as hospitals and prisons, and even of taking Koolulam to other countries.

Yitzhak Raveh at Koolulam event in Jerusalem, March 13, 2018 (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

Shneiderman chalks up Koolulam’s breakout success to a public desire to counter society’s increasing emphasis on individualism and competition. Increasingly, people want to put away their smartphone, forget the state of the world, and feel part of an inclusive group or community — even if only for a couple of hours.

A quick look around Safra Square confirmed the diversity of the crowd. Nevertheless, with his long beard and black and white clothing, Yitzhak Raveh stood out. He had traveled 120 km from Pardes Hanna with his daughter and her family after watching one of the Koolulam videos online a few times.

Raveh, 57, had some initial reservations about singing in public with women. An observant Jew, he usually adheres to kol isha, the religious prohibition against men hearing a woman’s singing voice.

“But I came because I felt that what this was about was important,” Raveh said. (He mentioned that he led a secular life before becoming religious, and that he had sung with women before.)

“The video really moved me. Music lifts us up and is what connects us. We’ve talked in this country about the need for all of us to connect 200 million times. It’s time to actually do it,” Raveh said.

After 45 minutes of engaging and expert instruction from Yefet, the crowd was ready to record five successive takes of the song. The best bits would be edited together with the best ones from the simultaneous performances around the country for the video.

Everyone sounded a bit hesitant during the first run-through, especially since it was the first time the full band joined in (the rehearsals were done sans accompaniment). But the takes got progressively better thanks to reminders from Yefet during the short breaks.

By the end, the good vibes and good will were palpable: Everyone jumped up and down, smiling at the people around them.

Ultimately, it wasn’t really about the music or quality of the singing. With that many people, you can’t clearly hear your own voice.

“The real fun for me is that you can sing off key and no one will hear,” said Eliana, one of the girls from Efrat.

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