The Miami Boys Choir in concert in Brooklyn in 2018. (Screenshot)
Caption: The Miami Boys Choir in concert in Brooklyn in 2018. (Screenshot)
Inside story'For a young Jewish kid it was the pinnacle of stardom'

The Miami Boys Choir churned out generations of child stars. Where are they now?

As the longtime Jewish singing group enjoys an unlikely viral moment on TikTok, The Times of Israel speaks to alumni about their experience in the choir and its lasting impact

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Caption: The Miami Boys Choir in concert in Brooklyn in 2018. (Screenshot)

The Miami Boys Choir’s first album was released as a vinyl record. The Jewish singing group later moved on to cassettes, then CDs, mp3s, streaming and now – TikTok.

After 45 years, 32 albums and hundreds of original songs, the Miami Boys Choir is having an unexpectedly viral moment on the social media platform, with millions of new fans delighting in old – and new – videos of the group’s performances. The smooth, pure voices of young boys, the earnest enthusiasm, cheesy costumes, kitschy dance moves and catchy tunes have provided perfect fodder for the video app’s algorithm.

For the uninitiated, the Miami Boys Choir is a longtime singing group made up of an ever-revolving cast of 20-30 Orthodox Jewish preteen and teenage boys. The entire operation is the brainchild of Yerachmiel Begun, who launched the group in 1977 in Miami, after dabbling in a similar venture in Toronto. After a few years, Begun moved the group to Brooklyn, where it is still based today, but the original name stuck (after a very brief stint as the Miami Choir Boys).

For the 66-year-old Begun, the choir’s explosion onto the national stage has been unexpected but rewarding.

“The thing that’s most gratifying for him is the effect it’s having on all types of Jews around the world,” said Chananya Begun, Yerachmiel’s 34-year-old son, who was behind the decision to begin posting clips on TikTok. “It’s wonderful to see the impact that Miami is now having on this whole other new audience around the world,” added Chananya — who has been handling all press inquiries for his father — as well as the “positivity and enthusiasm and love for this whole thing… hopefully it’s a good thing for the Jewish people.”

While the choir is reaching new audiences among both Jews and non-Jews, those who once belted out tunes as members over the years are watching with amusement and a heavy dose of nostalgia. The longevity of the group and the turnover among choir members – most of whom leave when their voices start to change as they hit puberty – means that there are an estimated 500 alumni.

Once child performers touring around the United States and the world, today they are doctors, accountants, lawyers, rabbis, businessmen, nonprofit executives – and even popular singers.

The Times of Israel spoke to eight former members of the Miami Boys Choir – spanning four decades of the singing group – about their experiences, the impact it had on their lives and their reactions to seeing the choir go viral.

Gaining confidence on stage

Former members recalled the senior Begun as a tough but dedicated leader, who pushed to bring out the best performance from each young singer.

“I learned a lot, and I think Yerachmiel was an incredible leader and teacher and he knew how to bring out the best in people and in me,” said Shawn Levine, 36, who was a member of the choir from 1998 to 2000. “It really set the foundation for my singing confidence in public and performing and all those things.”

Levine, who grew up in New York and now lives near Miami, has continued to find musical outlets alongside his business day job. During his time at the University of Maryland, Levine was a founding member of Kol Ish, an all-male a cappella group, and more recently started a new similar group in South Florida.

“The choir experience helped shape everything” about his love and understanding of music, said Levine. “The Miami Boys Choir really pioneered beautiful harmonies in a performance setting.”

Shawn Levine singing with the Miami Boys Choir as a child and with Kol Ish (center) as an adult. (Courtesy)

Mordechai Levovitz, 43, said his time in the choir was a particularly formative experience.

“I really loved every second of it, and I was willing to work hard and [Begun] respected that,” said Levovitz, who sang with the group in 1991-1993. “He appreciated when the kids took it seriously – there were times he was hard on us, but I think [he was] hard because he was a perfectionist. And he had a vision and he wanted us to take it seriously, and wanted us to love performing… For a young Jewish kid it was kind of the pinnacle of entertainment stardom.”

Nurturing Jewish talent

Across its 45 years, the Miami Boys Choir counts among its alumni some of the most popular figures in contemporary Jewish music: Yaakov Shwekey, Shloime Dachs, Mordechai Shapiro, Ari Goldwag and Maccabeats co-founder Chanina Abramowitz – names that don’t mean much to mainstream record executives, but are household names in certain Orthodox sectors.

The choir’s biggest TikTok sensation has been a short clip of a 2008 concert performance of “Yerushalayim,” which has been viewed more than 8.5 million times in a little over a month. It has also garnered close to 9,000 “duets” – videos on the platform that allow users to post a split screen reaction alongside the original clip – some of which have millions of views themselves.

The account, which only began posting videos in late June, now has close to 140,000 followers. But the ripple effects have been even greater.

“Our Spotify listenership has more than tripled in the past few weeks,” said Chananya. He noted as well a huge influx of traffic to the Miami Boys Choir site, home to its wide range of CDs and DVDs: “That’s also skyrocketed in the past few weeks.” And with an upcoming concert in New Jersey during Sukkot this month, and an album due out by the end of the year, “it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with these shows now — it’s going to be quite interesting to see.”

Yerachmiel Begun composed the music to all of the choir’s songs, which are largely set to lyrics from traditional Jewish prayers, Tehillim (Psalms) or well-known phrases from the Torah – alongside some original English compositions.

Particularly in Orthodox households that spurn secular music, the cassettes and later CDs provided an outlet for families seeking new exciting albums and live concert experiences. Over the past five decades, many of Begun’s tunes have also become well-known as popular prayer melodies in synagogues, with most worshippers likely unaware of their origins.

“The songs that he has created are just incredible,” said Levovitz. “He is a brilliant songwriter… good music is just good music.”

Life as a child star

The youngest members of the group tend to be 8 or 9, while most age out by 14 or 15. Many joined at the urging of their parents, while others sought out the experience themselves, convincing their parents to shoulder the carpooling to practices in Brooklyn and the costs of costumes and touring (no, they didn’t get paid to take part).

David Herskowitz singing with the Miami Boys Choir in 2008 (left) and at his wedding earlier this year (right). (Courtesy/Anthony Vazquez Photography)

David Herskowitz – arguably the biggest breakout star of the choir’s TikTok fame – said his father had always dreamed of having a child perform in the singing group.

The joke in the family, said Herskowitz, now 27, “was that when my sister was born he was upset that it was a girl because he wanted a kid in the Miami Boys Choir… it was my dad’s longtime dream to have a child in the Miami Boys Choir, and he got three of them.” David and his younger brothers Jeremy and Max all did a stint.

Other future members who saw the group perform in concert or heard their songs took the initiative themselves to get an audition.

“It was really all my idea,” recalled Zalman Pollack, 31, who sang in the choir from 2000 to 2005, noting that he called up Begun himself and asked for an audition. “I had gone to a concert and I loved the idea of performing on stage. I thought it was very cool and I really loved singing.”

Zalman Pollack singing with the Miami Boys Choir in the early 2000s (left) and more recently at a wedding. (Courtesy)

David Charendoff, 23, said when he heard a Miami Boys Choir song in music class at school, he was instantly hooked. “I came home and I said, ‘I want to be in the Miami Boys Choir,’” recalled Charendoff, who went on to be a member from 2008 to 2011. “Fourth-grade me found the auditions, where it was, looked it all up online.”

Jeff (Yehuda) Kranzler, 41, who sang in the choir in 1993-1994, said that in his era “it was something that everybody in the New York area knew” and so he decided to audition himself. “I just remember going into the tryouts and there being tons of people… I thought ‘Hey, let’s give this a shot.’”

‘Smile and give it your all’

For Levovitz – who today is the cofounder and clinical director of the Jewish Queer Youth nonprofit – the choir provided a safe place for him to explore being a performer and entertainer.

“I was a young performer, I had this amazing dream, I had stars in my eyes. It was, for me, as close to a manifestation of that dream as possible,” said Levovitz, who later enrolled in medical school, dropped out to appear on the first season of “American Idol,” and went on to perform in musical theater for several years before becoming a social worker.

Mordechai Levovitz during his time in the Miami Boys Choir in the 1990s (left) and today. (Screenshot/Courtesy)

“I think there were a lot of kids that were closeted… there were a lot of kids from the choir who ended up coming out later, including me,” Levovitz recalled. Begun, he said, “would want us to be as flamboyant as possible on stage, he was encouraging, he never told any of the boys to ‘man up’ on stage… If someone was fabulous and wanted to do their thing… he would be like ‘just go, just do it, as long as you smile and give it your all.’”

By the time their bar mitzvahs rolled around, the gig was up for most members, although a few stayed until they were 14 or 15. But once their voices began to change with puberty, the end was clearly in sight.

“My voice started changing, I was no longer able to reach some of those high notes in some of those solos, so those are given to other kids,” recalled Daniel Muchnick, 34, who sang in the choir in 1999-2002. “It’s depressing to see your own solos go to other people… it just made sense for me to leave.”

“It was fun while it lasted,” said Kranzler, “but at some point I was just done with it.”

Yehuda (Jeff) Kranzler (right) dances with fellow Miami Boys Choir alumni Rabbi Moshe Stavsky holding their old choir costumes at Kranzler’s wedding in 2006. (Courtesy)

Even those who did not go on to pursue a musical career said the experience in the choir provided them with invaluable skills.

“One of the things I took away – aside from a love for music – was being comfortable on stage… having confidence when it comes to public speaking,” said Herskowitz.

Muchnick noted that “the experience shapes everybody in a certain way… I think it informed an aspect of myself that enjoys performance. I’m a shy, introverted person, but there’s a part of me that really thrives in a performance space.”

Daniel Muchnick singing in the Miami Boys Choir (left) in 1999, and rapping in 2017 (right). (Courtesy)

“It was definitely formative and it definitely helped… give me the confidence to go on stage,” said Gili Houpt, 49, who sang in the choir from 1985 to 1988.

From child stardom to adult life

While most former members have day jobs unrelated to their musical pasts, singing has remained a hobby and a passion for many.

Pollack is a CFO at a nursing home, but sings at weddings on the side. Muchnick works in renewable energy but takes part in poetry festivals, composes original songs for his young daughters and even raps as Muncho Gusto. Charendoff recently graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in mechanical engineering, where he was also a member of the Rak Shalom Jewish a cappella group.

Herskowitz runs his own digital marketing firm, although he recorded two songs for his proposal and recent wedding — and has been inspired by his newfound viral fame to carve out more time for singing. Houpt, who now lives in Israel and works as a tour guide, said he incorporates music into his tours, and also serves as a chazan (cantor) during synagogue prayers, after years of being part of a band.

But don’t expect to see Houpt take a star turn on the Miami Boys Choir TikTok feed.

“I don’t know if there’s anything I did on video – we were of the generation right before video really took off,” he said of his time in the choir.

Chananya confirmed that while he has decades of video to choose from while posting on TikTok, “about 98% of it is from 1991 and on.”

The group’s TikTok stardom has been fueled in part by the often amusing nature of the choir’s dance moves, bringing a touch of boy band stardom to Orthodox Jewish music.

“They were all choreographed by Yerachmiel, and he was just practice, practice, practice,” recalled Herskovitz. “He’s a perfectionist. We practiced hours and hours, especially before the headline shows on Sukkot and Pesach.”

“I’m not really much of a dancer, which was okay because the moves were not really much of dance moves,” joked Kranzler, who today works as a therapist and has written two works of young adult fiction. “It was pretty rudimentary, which was good because Orthodox Jewish men aren’t exactly known for their dance prowess.”

Legions of fans

Several former members recalled that while they had many fans in the US, the reception they received in Israel (where they were known as Pirchei Miami) went way beyond their local celebrity status.

“I definitely remember at the Israel shows there would always be seas of people waiting when we got out, for an autograph or a picture,” said Herskowitz.

Others recalled the surreal experience of becoming a pop idol within a very niche sector.

“It was a really weird phenomenon for all of us to kind of be teen idols, to have girls scream for us,” recalled Levovitz. “We would get letters, we would go to Pesach [Passover] programs [in hotels] and the girls would stand outside your room.”

Muchnick recounted that “somehow my phone number or fax number got out and I would get messages or calls from fans, girls, from different parts of the world.”

And as they grew up, went to college, and made new friends, their past as child stars would still occasionally resurface.

“Some of my friends kind of found out through various ways along the years and were always kind of surprised and delighted to find older videos of me singing,” said Charendoff.

David Charendoff singing in the Miami Boys Choir as a child (Ieft) and in Rak Shalom at the University of Maryland (right). (Courtesy)

“Anybody who knows me knows about [my time in the choir],” said Pollack. “How they know it is a different question.”

Kranzler said that even almost 30 years after he left the choir, “it actually does come up, and it’s funny, because people my age” grew up at a time when the choir was particularly famous in the Jewish world. “So when it comes up, people are like ‘Whoa! You were in the Miami Boys Choir?!’ It has weight.”

As the choir’s online presence has exploded in recent weeks, the former members have reflected on its newfound fame. For Levovitz, the new unexpected attention on the group carries with it mixed feelings.

“I’m not sure if non-Jewish people can ever really understand what the Miami Boys Choir meant to us, what it meant to the Jewish community that wasn’t allowed to listen to non-Jewish music,” said Levovitz. “I don’t want to [see] the choir through gentiles’ eyes… they don’t get it, they will never get it, it’s just not meant for them. It’s our stuff.”

But others are all in.

“I think it’s exciting, I think it’s cool,” said Herskowitz. “I’ve seen comments of people saying ‘I’m Jewish and never connected before and this has helped me’… There are not a lot of opportunities, outside of big public wins, to get a lot of Jewish pride and people who are proud of being Jewish and Jewish culture – and I think this is such a great message.”

“It’s just funny, honestly, it’s hilarious,” said Pollack. “I love it, I love seeing a bunch of non-Jews dancing to Miami Boys Choir – something that I never thought I’d see in my life.”

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