More than 3,500 people, many of them not Jewish, crowded Budapest’s Madach ter Square on the first night of Hanukkah to listen to a group of young Israeli men singing modern a cappella versions of Jewish classics as well as their own compositions.
“They did one thing in the Square and it’s called Kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of G-d’s name),” says Ronen, an Israeli ophthalmologist who lives in Budapest and was instrumental in bringing the group to Hungary. He asked that his last name not be used because he works for the government in Hungary.
“There were so many goyim (non-Jews) walking through there listening to Jewish music,” he says. “It was amazing!”
An Orthodox father of eight, Ronen brought Kippalive to Budapest for his oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah. He says someone sent him a link to a Youtube clip of the group, and as soon as he heard the group he knew he had to bring them to his daughter’s celebration.
“When I clicked on the link, I was shocked to discover that they are musicians in their bodies and their souls,” says Ronen. “It was a wonderful example for my kids. These young men are the salt of the earth. They fought in the military. They have families and they are all super-educated.”
Noah Bar-Shain, 26, is the newest member of the group who recently made aliyah from Washington. He is a software engineer and professional musician.
“I have sung in a lot of a cappella groups, and Kippalive is the best in crowd engagement,” he says. “In Budapest we were on a giant sound stage with a fog machine and we felt like rock stars.”
The music is a mix of new takes on classic Hebrew songs as well as original arrangements, some of which Bar-Shain wrote. For one song written during corona, each person sings in their home while on a zoom call with family or friends.
The singers are going for a cool vibe, wearing leather jackets in one clip, hoodies in another.
Bar-Shain says that Kippalive has given him entrance into Israeli society.
“In Jerusalem, I live with Americans and work with Americans,” he says. “My main exposure to Hebrew is Kippalive.”
The group is the brainchild of three childhood friends: Rafi Sandler, Rafi Nathan and Doron Chitiz. As a teenager he enjoyed singing in synagogue especially Friday nights. After he finished the army, he would often get together with friends on Friday nights, either in the synagogue or on a street corner to sing both Jewish melodies and international music.
“After a while a crowd started coming and it became a ‘thing,’” Sandler says. “The municipality would put out plastic chairs and sometimes we would have 100 people.”
In 2011, the municipality invited his group to sing two songs at the main stage of the Independence Day celebrations in Park Ra’anana.
“We never imagined anyone would pay us to sing,” Sandler says.
The group began to take themselves more seriously, he says, rehearsing weekly and writing proper musical arrangements.
“We started getting calls to sing on Shabbat” at various places and events, he says. “It was a way of bringing energy to a more dull experience. But these were paid gigs with hotel accommodation and we were so excited.”
He says the gigs paid 500 shekels per person, which at the time was more than they had ever expected.
“We get great joy in surprising people,” Sandler says. “In Budapest we started off with the traditional “Hevenu Shalom Aleihem and Hava Nagila sung in harmonies, and then we crossed over to modern music. People would look up and smile and we see a lot of enthusiasm, especially among the younger generation.”
Sandler says that most of the group’s members were able to finance their education by singing in the group. One member has just finished medical school.
“Unlike a lot of other people who had to work in security or as a waiter, they all paid for their school and expenses just by singing with their friends,” he says. “We are all close friends, so it doesn’t even feel like work.”
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the group hard. They had concerts planned for South Africa, several in London and several in the US in 2020 and 2021.
“These were events that I had spent a long time planning and negotiating and one by one they were all canceled,” Sandler says. “It was very sad, but at some point we understood that this was much bigger than Kippalive.”
He says they bought high-quality equipment and learned to produce videos from their homes. Last year they created 12 new videos while in a regular year they only made two or three.
The Budapest trip also gave them hope that travel will pick up in 2022. After they arrived back in Israel, Sandler says, they got several calls about future concerts in Hungary and other places in Europe.
Now all they want, like everyone else, is for the pandemic to retreat so they can start giving concerts again.
To hear what they sound like, search Kippalive on YouTube or Facebook.