Jewish a cappella group balances heritage, hits

By Sam Bojarski / Staff Writer

Singing is Sam Haberman-Chopp’s first love, so when she arrived on Pitt’s campus her freshman year, she was looking to join an a capella group.

Being Jewish, she thought Vokols would be the perfect fit for her. Although the Vokols a cappella group is not formally affiliated with any religion, the vocal group has had a distinct Jewish identity since it first formed nearly eight years ago.

Although about 75 percent of Vokols’ repertoire consists of American pop songs, the group also performs a select number of older Hebrew songs.

The singers are also the only a capella group in the city to perform at synagogues and other Jewish events throughout the city, which often garners them a “Jewish a capella group” label on campus.

Haberman-Chopp, Jenna Moen and Kelsey DeAngelis, three of Vokols’ 18 members, said the label is not enough to define their dynamic vocal group.

“One thing that seriously separates us is that we try to represent a minority population in that we represent Jewish culture, but we don’t represent Judaism as a religion,” Haberman-Choppa senior Communications science and disorders major said. “The majority of our group isn’t Jewish. Even though they’re not Jewish, they still love the culture of Judaism. So we try to portray that through our music and our presence.”

Vokols began in September 2006 when four members of the Hillel Jewish University Center decided to form an a capella group. Although these four individuals were Jewish, they did not intend to start an exclusively Jewish group. They did, however, see an affiliation with Hillel as a great way to get gigs.

“Being part of Hillel really has felt like being part of a family,” Moen, a junior sociology and non-fiction writing major said. “The Jewish culture in Pittsburgh is actually huge compared to other cities. But just walking into Hillel, you see people you know, and even not being Jewish, they treat me like part of their Hillel family and everything.”

A question of religion isn’t even raised when Vokols auditions new members, although many Vokols hopefuls like to assert their Jewish identity during auditions by singing Hebrew songs or striking up a conversation about their religion — much to the amusement of Haberman-Chopp and company.

“We got four new people this year, three weren’t Jewish and one is, but we would never accept a less talented person because they are Jewish,” said Haberman-Chopp.

Nevertheless, many people on campus still perceive Vokols as associated with Judaism as a religon.

“The more we improve, the more they’ll respect us for our talent and not the fact that we’re the ‘Jewish a capella group,’” DeAngelis, a sophomore psychology major said.

While the group says there is nothing wrong with the religion, a focus on Judaism was never the intent of the group from the onset, and it is not the identity the group desires today.

“We’re trying to erase the stigma, rather than [form a] new image. Because there’s nothing wrong with our image, it’s just the way people perceive that image,” Haberman-Chopp said.

A large portion of Vokols’ identity is tied to Hillel. The 63-year-old Jewish community center serves as a cradle for the young a capella group, providing it with regular gigs and, this year, a chance to compete at the International Championship for Collegiate A Capella for the first time. The competition  will take place in January or February of this year, and Hillel funded the group’s application fee.

Vokols members see their group’s identity as a dynamic one.

“For us it’s about overcoming being pidgeonholed as a Jewish group, but also not letting go of that identity and transforming it to be about Jewish-American pop,” Moen said.

Still, Haberman-Chopp believes that at the end of the day it’s the joy of being in Vokols that matters most.“We love what we do, we love what we represent and we just want the world to love us, too, and to see how awesome we are,” Haberman-Chopp added.