Elchai Refoua 88 248.
(photo credit: Keshet, Courtesy)
The distance between the study hall of Jerusalem's Horev Yeshiva High School and Keshet TV studio at Neve Ilan is much greater than the 20 kilometers that separate them physically. For 18-year-old Elchai Refoua, who has spent the last six years of his life in the highly respected religious school, his visits to the Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born) studio have been like landing in another world.
At Horev - probably the most demanding yeshiva high school in the capital - the study of Talmud, Bible, Jewish history and other religious subjects fill up half of the pupils' 12-hour day, followed by secular studies in which most pupils earn high grades and are known for their ethics and self-discipline (no smoking, drinking or wild behavior).
I know the school very well, as my eldest son is a graduate, and my youngest child graduated along with Refoua a few weeks ago.
And considering that he is one of the original 22 Kochav Nolad finalists - now pared down to 18 - out of many hundreds of contestants, the fact that he was able to prepare for and do so well in his matriculation exams is amazing on its own.
While he wants to sing in front of audiences, he also has his sights set on becoming a physician - an interesting choice, as his last name means "medicine" in Hebrew. Refoua majored in biochemistry before graduating with high grades, while doing volunteer work.
"I started going to Jerusalem's Shalva center for mentally and physically disabled children last year once a week as part of Horev's volunteer program for all pupils," says Refoua, who was also a Bnei Akiva counselor for three years.
"Counselors are role models who can teach the importance of Torah and work; they look up to you," he says. "Instead of working summers as a waiter, I looked forward to the opportunity to volunteer."
He also enjoys foreign languages, including English and Spanish, and traveled alone last year to visit relatives in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York - a city that entranced him for its liveliness even though he deeply loves Jerusalem.
In the meantime, he has tossed out the idea of joining an Israel Defense Forces performing group, as "I want to serve my country doing more than that." He plans to spend a year in a pre-military yeshiva to prepare for his army service and then in a fighting unit or Military Intelligence.
At Neve Ilan, he has been mingling with teenagers sporting blood-red-dyed hair, piercings, miniskirts and tattoos. They are his competitors in a race to become the best-known ingenue singer in the country and follow in the footsteps of Ninet Tayeb, Harel Moyal, Yehuda Saado, Jacko Eisenberg, Boaz Maouda and Yisrael Bar-On, most of whom have gone on to impressive singing careers.
Refoua entered the competition last year and, to his great disappointment, was eliminated just before the finalist stage. But the judges' panel, headed by Zvika Hadar, encouraged him. They said he had a beautiful voice and impressive style, but that he was "still a boy."
"Come back next year," they urged him.
He signed up for courses in voice development and piano at the Jerusalem Music Center and "learned a lot." He then registered for this year's contest - despite being in the crucial year last year of yeshiva high school - and started from the beginning like anyone else.
"I felt I was more emotionally ready for the competition this time," he recalls. When the judges told him he would be among the finalists, tears welled up in his eyes - a scene that Keshet has overplayed in its promos for the show.
No one in Refoua's family sings professionally or even unusually well, so he has had no role models for his love of performing. But singing is one of the most important things in his life. It was for this reason that he sang the uniform audition song that every contestant had to learn - "Ratziti Lashir Ad She'ega Ba'or" (I Wanted to Sing Until I Could Touch the Light) - with such emotion.
Refoua's paternal great great-grandfather was a well-known physician in Persia, from which his father, Jan, made aliya at the beginning of the Islamic revolution. His mother, Deganit, was born here to parents of Persian origin. They own and run a gift shop, Ora, on Jerusalem's Rehov Mordechai Ben-Hillel and have four children (including Elchai) - two other sons aged 19 and 16 and a 13-year-old daughter.
As a young child, Refoua had a striking, high-pitched singing voice, and in second grade, the principal invited him to join the school choir. He quickly discovered that he enjoyed it. When the Bravo child performance TV show was held, the sixth-grader with a crocheted kippa applied and earned a spot near the top. That led to his invitation to sing the role of Simba in the Hebrew DVD of The Lion King. When his voice changed, it became lower, but retained its sweet and beautiful tone.
His favorite kinds of music include pop, soul, jazz, cantorial, rock and even classical, but he does not like opera. It was his idea to compete in last year's Kochav Nolad, and the support he received from his family gave him the strength to try a second time.
He says he is aware that show business and public exposure on TV threaten to affect him, but he insists that he "wants to be real, not to let it change me."
Exposure, he says, "is scary. People ask me for autographs and call me just to hear my voice. There are hundreds of talkbacks on the program's Web site. Fans stop me in the street. Even haredim recognize me from watching the show on the Internet."
So far, he has been able to keep up his religious routine.
"There is kosher food wherever we go, and I am careful about regular prayers and study," he says.
However, he adds, "while it has been exciting to meet different types of people who like music whom I would not ordinarily have met, I still don't feel like an insider. I come from another society."
And because he is observant, there are songs he would refuse to sing because of their content.
Before competing, Refoua asked Horev's yeshiva head, Rabbi Yitzhak Dor, and his 12th grade educator Rabbi Moshe Weiss for permission to go ahead.
"They saw what it was on the Internet. They were not enthusiastic, but they did not forbid my participation. If they had, I wouldn't have done it," he says. "They advised me not to lose my modesty, not to forget to put on tefillin. I felt it could be a glorification of God's name if a religious singer did well."
He does not think that every religious singer could enter the competition without being negatively influenced.
"It would be very easy to be swayed by secularism, as everything is unfettered. But I watch myself and feel strong in my belief and my way of life. Horev and my family have had a strong influence on me, and my parents are not worried that I would be negatively influenced," he says.
Refoua adds that he wants to "prove to world that one can integrate singing and Torah study."
"Secular people ask me questions about religion. I want to show them what I believe and explain things to them. I want to fill myself spiritually," he says.
He briefly met last year's winner, Bar-On, who was raised in a haredi family but became secular.
"But I didn't have much time to talk to him," says Refoua.
Asked what his chances of taking the crown are, Refoua says he doesn't know. Whatever happens, he says, when it ends, one goes into shock after the intensive effort. It is his last chance now, as the rules bar anyone from competing more than twice.