The Maccabeats are back!

In four short years, these a capella artists went from singing on campus to performing in The White House. Next week, they’re coming to Israel.

The Maccabeats 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Maccabeats 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Remember the Maccabeats? The famous music group from Yeshiva University is back, and will be spending three days in Israel, singing a capella for the public.
Locals and tourists will have the chance to attend the Maccabeats concert next Saturday night in Jerusalem, part of the group’s three-week worldwide tour. There’s also a private concert on Sunday in honor of the Maccabi games.
“After the Maccabeats’ successful concert at the World Bnei Akiva International Conference last winter, we received an overwhelming number of requests from organizations, municipalities and institutions to host the band,” says Yechiel Fishman, the group’s Israeli representative. “After the boys’ busy schedule freed up, we succeeded in bringing them to Israel to perform throughout the country.”
Perhaps best known for their online videos “One Day” and “Candlelight,” the Maccabeats came together in the fall of 2007, when a few students from Yeshiva University decided to create an a capella group after realizing they were one of the few college campuses with a substantial Jewish community, that were missing this extracurricular. Though the group initially sang mainly within the walls of the practice room, it quickly became a hit among friends, students at other campuses, and – within a matter of months – throughout the world.
The Jerusalem Post spoke with Maccabeats member Noey Jacobson about the band’s experience as a group and about its upcoming show.
How many members make up the Maccabeats, and where are you all from? There are 14 of us, but we rarely perform all together.
The only time all of us perform is for annual concerts that we put on, when we are brought in for an event by an organization. We have a rotation system and send out guys for shows.
We are all from the States. I’m from Houston, Texas.
There’s one other member from out of town, who is from Richmond, Virginia. The rest are from New York and New Jersey.
How many albums have you produced? We have one album, Voices from the Heights. We have enough material for another album, but haven’t gotten around to creating it. We’ve been doing tons of performances. In May, we had 25 shows, and in June, 23 shows. We had over 200 shows since December, and we are booked through next February. It’s not easy to get 14 people on the same schedule. We’ve got groups of four and five. It’s very difficult to coordinate all 14 of us.

What ages and types of audiences do you aim to reach with your music? We do shows for kids, for much older audiences, to everyone in between. We put on shows from really observant to completely non-observant. We have non- Jewish audiences all the time.
What made you famous? When we came out with an album last year, we became well-known. It was definitely the “Candlelight” video that set things off. We were the legitimate Jewish group after our “One Day” video. People knew who we were, people knew our music. But “Candlelight” definitely was the trigger behind all of this, how quickly it spread, how far it spread. The kids knew every single word. It’s amazing to see that people know it. I – we – were distinct-looking, semi-dorky.

What types of reactions have you received with regard to your performances? We were constantly surprised. The week of “Candlelight,” we finished [a TV show]. We were walking on the street when we encountered three businessmen from Atlanta. They stopped us and said, “You’re the Maccabeats!” We were shocked they knew our name, considering they are Catholic and living in Atlanta.
We always try to clarify that the “famous” thing was exciting at the outset, but when kept in perspective, the way that we see fame is not that it’s the more important thing, but that we have the ability now to use [our videos] to fight for what we believe in. What keeps us going is that after we put up the video we got comments such as “I’m so proud to be Jewish,” comments expressing Jewish pride.
One person said, “I wish I was Jewish.” We get some kids who say, “I go to a public school and I can go home and feel proud because the music gives us this pride.”
The impact we are able to have for the community... that’s really important, and that’s what the experience has meant to us.
How does it feel to be famous? We are really down-to-earth – we are good Jewish boys.
At the end of the day it helps knowing that with the shows and traveling, we can focus on what’s going on and not get carried away with the popularity and rock-star aspect of it. We are focused on trying to make a difference.
What do you believe has led to your continued success? I’m not objective, but people who watch these videos, who have a good time, who are “with it,” are not only unwilling to sacrifice what they believe in, but people are proud of their heritage, not ashamed of it. A lot of the parody videos that come out are cute and funny, but the usual spin on it is poking fun at holidays, such as “What I can’t do on Shabbat,” and the fact that “I have to eat matza on Pessah”... Our purpose is telling the history about it and giving a positive, prideful spin on it.
Even Purim... When singing “Raise Your Glass,” fans are reaffirming their commitment to Judaism and showing appreciation for their heritage. I think when people see that, things that encourage them to embrace their heritage... that resonates with people. I think that’s why it’s such a success. If you are genuine and you are not bashful about who you are... I think that’s why it’s taken off the way it has.
Tell me more about how you became a hit in regard to the “Candlelight” video.
We put out a music video called “One Day” at the beginning of last year. When we thought about that video, we thought about that range, where we got 100,000 views. We wanted to duplicate that and created the “Candlelight” video. Since [“The Hanukkah Song”] by Adam Sandler, it just took off. Each day of Hanukka was like a new day (when the video reached audiences from all over); each day it was 200,000 views, 400,000 views, then we were interviewed by CNN, CBS. We’d have friends calling on the phone saying they saw us everywhere.
It was crazy. We just came back from a safari in South Africa. A year ago, we would never have dreamed that this is where we would be.

Have you received inquiries from non- Jewish programs to perform? Part of what the “Candlelight” video has done for us is that it has really expanded our circles. We started out in our university, a modern Orthodox institution, where others on our campus are like us. Our music attracts not only people in our own community, but people beyond our community. The less observant community has been checking out what we’ve been doing with our music. We’ve gone to campuses where half the community is not Jewish. Beyond that, we expanded geographically.
The “Candlelight” video catapulted us, giving us the opportunity to go all over the world with our message, to the Jewish community and beyond.
How often do you practice together? This has unfortunately taken a hit. We are so busy, we usually practice once a week, on Sunday nights from 10 p.m. and go until 12 or 12:30 a.m. There’s a lot of planning that goes into [our shows], and a lot of details that go with it. It’s a huge opportunity, and we wouldn’t give it up for the world. We would love nothing more than to make a new video.
We’ve been performing the same stuff for a while, it’s definitely an issue. Next year through January, we have shows, and it’s definitely a challenge.
Do you expect this to be short-term, or are you planning to stick around as the Maccabeats? No one in the group plans on doing this long-term. We are all either in YU or graduates from there. We have guys that are in law school, working as financial planners, going into marketing. We volunteer [our shows] in Washington Heights, not like other a capella groups in other universities. Because we started this group, nobody wants to leave now. No one really gets kicked out, as long as you practice and continue to perform. Its a very intense hobby; it’s almost like two jobs.
How do you want to influence Jewish music? All of us love Jewish music and all the classic stuff that we grew up on. But I think we realized that there’s a medium in this message.
[Hip hop performer] Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” song is what gets the kids to listen. The average kid comes home from school and sings Taio Cruz, which isn’t flattering. The next day they come home and are singing about Jews.
That cool edge is what reels them in, that’s what they want to listen to.
The risk is that we choose songs that have some context that might be questionable for other audiences, and may not be so appropriate.
It’s a risk that we might be endorsing this content. We understand the risk, but we think it’s worth it. You have to relate to the youth, and that’s what this is about, relating to them at this level and what’s interesting to them.
How did you get an invitation to the White House? What was that like? We know they have an a capella Jewish music band come every year. Our video came out right before Hanukka. We thought it was too late and that we had to wait until next Hanukka to try and get in. Out of the blue, we were e-mailed about the Jewish Heritage Month in North America. We were invited to the White House even though it was May; it was a 45-minute long reception. The president was not at that reception; we then went to the Blue Room. Before he met with the Supreme Court justice, he met with us for five minutes.
He was one of the first people to pronounce our name right.

Have you performed in Israel before? Yes, in the crazy aftermath of the “Candlelight” video. For winter break, we went to Bnei Akiva to perform in the Jerusalem Theater.
That was a sold-out show. In January, there were a lot of yeshiva and seminary students who attended. We are thinking of coming again next winter break. During the summer, fewer people are around. This [upcoming performance] is more of an Israeli-oriented show.
What kinds of songs will you be performing (songs from albums, Israeli songs, etc.)? We only do a capella, that’s our whole shtick. It works out really well for the Three Weeks [the mourning period between 17 Tammuz and Tisha Be’av]. In general, we have a very eclectic repertoire, ranging from Jewish music to other songs which are more meaningful secular songs, as well as Israeli. We also typically take pop songs and put a Jewish spin on them. Because of the Three Weeks, it will be oriented toward that, with more of a serious tone to make sure it’s kept within the context of what’s going on. We really can tailor our presentation.
■ The Maccabeats will be performing at the Gerard Bechar Center, Jerusalem, on July 30 at 10 p.m.